By Tim Alexander
It’s one of nature’s top wonders: each fall, millions of monarch butterflies migrate from upper Midwest and Corn Belt states to mountains in central Mexico to wait out the winter. Along the way from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and elsewhere the insects require plenty of nutrition and habitat, which has historically been provided by milkweed plant varieties that are now threatened -- primarily by modern farming practices.
Enter Monarch Watch (www.MonarchWatch.org), a nonprofit organization that originated at Kansas University in 1992 as an educational vessel for home owners to learn more about restoring monarch habitat. Since around 2005 Monarch Watch, led by KU Emeritus Professor Orley “Chip” Taylor, Jr. has expanded its reach to provide milkweed plants and guidance to farmers who wish to convert marginal land into “Monarch Waystations,” often in lockstep with USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
“Things began to change rapidly on the farm landscape by the late 1990s and it became clear that we really had to start working on monarch conservation,” said Taylor, a monarch biology expert who previously devoted two decades of his 47 year-long career to the study of “killer” bees in the 1970s and 80s. “It started with the Bt corn issue in the late 1990s. Bt toxins ended up on the pollen of milkweed plants that were growing in and around cornfields, which had a devastating impact on larvae, destroying them within seconds. That was the first alert we had that genetic engineering could have a negative impact on a natural system.”
Taylor received an email from a Nebraska farmer in 2004 that turned Monarch Watch’s outreach focus more toward agricultural lands. The farmer wrote to Taylor expressing concern that all milkweed plants and monarch butterflies had vanished from his property. The farmer blamed his continued use of herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans along with non-selective systemic herbicides such as glyphosate on the insects’ disappearance.
Inspired by the contact, by 2005 Taylor had implemented the Monarch Waystation program with farmers -- and farmland -- specifically in mind.
“We are now adding Monarch Waystations at a rate of 3,000 to 4,000 a year, and have over 31,000 total registered waystations” he said. “Of those 31,000, we have 1,700 waystations that identify as farms including 95 in Illinois and 84 in Indiana. Of the 1,700 farm waystations, 95 are termed ‘colossal’ or over 5,000 square feet. This is the type of engagement we need, and we are actively seeking farmers who are interested in establishing Monarch Waystations on their lands.”
Establishing a waystation can be as simple as adding milkweeds and nectar sources to existing gardens and grassy areas or maintaining natural habitats with milkweeds. However, it is important to plant milkweeds that are native to your region. Monarch Watch has defined four eco-regions for milkweeds that can assist farmers who want to grow the plants. For instance, in the northeast region of the U.S., which comprises the bulk of Farm World’s readership, common milkweed, swamp milkweed, butterfly milkweed and poke milkweed are deemed acceptable varieties for growing.
Those who sign up for the program can have their monarch habitat certified by Monarch Watch and included in the International Monarch Waystation Registry. A weatherproof sign helps convey the message of monarch conservancy to all who visit their farm or habitat.
“They don’t need to do very much or buy very much. The easiest way to see the requirements is to go to the Monarch Watch website and read about us. There are a lot of ways to restore habitat,” said Taylor, adding that a large agricultural organization’s generous grant allows Monarch Watch to distribute free milkweed plugs to program participants who request them. To date, the organization has distributed around a million plugs, which are young plants that are still small enough to be shipped. The plugs can be planted directly out of the shipping package.
“We work with five different growers across the country so we can supply milkweed to most of the U.S., but certainly we are very concentrated on the upper Midwest as our primary target. We are talking about southern Michigan, Indiana and into Ohio, through Illinois and into central Iowa, and some parts of Wisconsin, Nebraska and the Dakotas,” Taylor said.
Along with the use of common herbicides that reduce habitat, frequent mowing along roadsides has converted monarch habitat into grassy areas that lack shelter and food. Unfortunately, the remaining milkweed habitats in pastures, hayfields, forest edges and prairies are insufficient to sustain the large monarch populations recorded in past decades, according to Taylor.
“It will take a massive engagement to turn things around,” he said. “31,000 waystations may seem like a lot, but what we really need are around 500,000 waystations.”
Additional information on monarch conservation can be found at www.monarchjointventure.org.