According to the Xerces Society, Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains used to number in the hundreds of millions but the population has declined by approximately 80%. Loss of habitat due to genetically modified crops, overuse of herbicides and insecticides, urban, suburban, and agricultural development, disease, and overwintering site degradation are the leading causes of monarch decline.
Growing the right flowers, shrubs, and trees with overlapping bloom times is the single most effective course of action to support pollinators from spring through fall.
These butterflies will seek out habitats along roadsides, the edges of farm fields, prairies, meadows, and city gardens. The butterflies that leave the overwintering sites soon breed and die, with successive generations moving north until they reach southern Canada, the limit of milkweed growth. Along the way, the adults feed on nectar-rich flowers and lay eggs on milkweed.
To help offset the loss of monarch breeding habitat, the North American Monarch Conservation Plan (published in 2008 by the tri-national Commission for Environmental Cooperation) recommends the planting of regionally appropriate native milkweed species. However, a scarcity of milkweed seed in many regions of the United States has limited opportunities to include the plants in regional restoration efforts.
A simple and beautiful way to help all pollinators is to create a rich, pollinator friendly yard and garden:
- Use a wide variety of plants that bloom from early spring into late fall.
Help pollinators find and use them by planting in clumps, rather than single plants. Include plants native to your region. Natives are adapted to your local climate, soil and native pollinators. Do not forget that night-blooming flowers will support moths and bats.
- Avoid modern hybrid flowers, especially those with “doubled” flowers.
Often plant breeders have unwittingly left the pollen, nectar, and fragrance out of these blossoms while creating the “perfect” blooms for us.
- Eliminate pesticides whenever possible.
If you must use a pesticide, use the least-toxic material possible. Read labels carefully before purchasing, as many pesticides are especially dangerous for bees. Use the product properly. Spray at night when bees and other pollinators are not active.
- Include larval host plants in your landscape.
If you want colorful butterflies, grow plants for their caterpillars. They WILL eat them, so place them where unsightly leaf damage can be tolerated. Accept that some host plants are less than ornamental if not outright weeds. A butterfly guide will help you determine the plants you need to include. Plant a butterfly garden!
- Create a damp salt lick for butterflies and bees.
Use a dripping hose, drip irrigation line, or place your bird bath on bare soil to create a damp area. Mix a small bit of table salt (sea salt is better!) or wood ashes into the mud.
- Spare that limb!
By leaving dead trees, or at least an occasional dead limb, you provide essential nesting sites for native bees. Make sure these are not a safety hazard for people walking below. You can also build a bee condo by drilling holes of varying diameter about 3 to 5 inches deep in a piece of scrap lumber mounted to a post or under eaves.
- You can add to nectar resources by providing a hummingbird feeder.
To make artificial nectar, use four parts water to one part table sugar. Never use artificial sweeteners, honey, or fruit juices. Place something red on the feeder. Clean your feeder with hot soapy water at least twice a week to keep it free of mold.
- Butterflies need resources other than nectar.
They are attracted to unsavory foodstuffs, such as moist animal droppings, urine and rotting fruits. Try putting out slices of overripe bananas, oranges and other fruits, or a sponge in a dish of lightly salted water to see which butterflies come to investigate. Sea salt provides a broader range of micronutrients than regular table salt.
- Learn more about pollinators
Get some guidebooks and learn to recognize the pollinators in your neighborhood. Experiment with a pair of close-focusing binoculars for butterflies, bees and hummingbirds.
For More Information
- Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden Using Native Plants (Eastern United States) (PDF, 3.5 MB) – developed and published by the USDA Forest Service providing a guide to providing habitats for pollinators in the eastern United States.
- Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden Using Native Plants (PDF, 3.2 MB) – developed and published by the Lolo National Forest, Missoula, Montana, providing a guide to providing habitats for pollinators primarily in the western United States.
- Gardening for Native Bees in Utah and Beyond (PDF, 3,9 MB) – a Utah Pests Fact Sheet published in January 2013 by Utah State University Extension and Utah Plant Pest Diagnostic Laboratory. This fact sheet provides guidance for plant selection to garden for pollinators, including some 200 garden plant genera nationwide and a table of their flowering phenologies (in northern Utah).
- Honeybee Conservancy – Plant a Bee Garden – By planting a bee garden, you can do your part to help the bees by adding to the shrinking inventory of flower-rich habitat in your area. In return, the bees will pollinate your flowers, providing a bountiful harvest of fruits, seeds and vegetables as well as the joy of watching them up close.
- Plants for Pollinators in the Inland Northwest (PDF, 3.1 MB) – a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Technical Note, TN Plant Materials No. 2B, October 2011. This technical note provides guidance for the design and implementation of conservation plantings to enhance habitat for pollinators including bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds. Plant species included in this document are adapted to the Inland Northwest, which encompasses northern Idaho, northeastern Oregon and eastern Washington.
This comprehensive publication covers milkweed seed production methods, offers guidance on incorporating milkweeds into restoration and revegetation efforts, and highlights milkweeds’ unique characteristics and value to wildlife.