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THROUGH THE WOODS: Our beautiful monarch butterflies

Monarch butterfly. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

IT WAS WONDERFUL YESTERDAY to finally see a monarch butterfly fluttering around in my yard. Each season has something to look forward to and I find this butterfly always makes me happy.

Milkweed, or Asclepias, is a genus of herbaceous plants that contains over 140 species. Their blossoms are one of the sweetest flowers and insects are attracted to their abundant nectar. There is quite a variety of insects, from beetles to bees to butterflies, that sip the nectar and sap, and munch on the nutritious leaves. Milkweeds are important to us too. Some types have edible leaves that can be cooked and used as greens. Milkweeds, particularly the species called butterfly weed, are used in gardens for their beautiful orange blossoms, sweet smell, and their ability to attract butterflies. Some species of milkweed may contain toxins, so it is good to identify the variety before handling or eating them.

In fall the milkweed plants form pods of seeds that dry, and open, and the seed, via its attached silky parachute, is carried off in the breeze. The silk has been used for insulation and filler for pillows. The milky sap contains latex in an amount too low to be a good source. Probably the most important value of milkweed is being the host plant for the monarch butterfly. This butterfly lays its eggs on milkweed and the resulting larvae eat the leaves. It finishes the pupa stage on the plant and emerges as an adult. No milkweed means no monarchs.

Over the past years, there have been fewer and fewer monarchs and the decrease is a mystery. The theories for their demise include the spraying of insecticides on crops, and the use of chemicals to kill the milkweed and other “weeds.” Many smaller farmlands and weedy fields have been left to grow up into forests or developed for houses, while the remaining farms are fewer and larger, and tend to spray crops much more than in the past. Mowing and bush hogging also destroys the plants and the monarch eggs and larva. I have my field bush hogged every year and make sure it is done in the fall, well after Labor Day. This protects the milkweed for next year’s butterflies.

If we want to keep a healthy population of monarchs, we need to take aggressive steps to protect them and their required habitat which includes plenty of healthy milkweeds, its exclusive food source. The monarchs have enough problems without a loss of food. These beautiful black and orange butterflies cannot overwinter in our area and must migrate. They leave us and travel in stages down to our southern Gulf States. From there they cross the Gulf waters and into Mexico for the winter. Hopefully, most will arrive safely and not be destroyed in storms and hurricanes. In the spring they will head north and return to us to complete their 3,000-mile journey.

We are learning more about this arduous life cycle each year and continue tagging the adults and tracking where they go. We need to solve how they know where to go and why they are compelled to go so far south. To help them consider not cutting milkweed and allowing it to spread. Also, keep abandoned fields open by bush hogging them in the fall. Eliminate insecticide spraying to keep a healthy environment. If we each do our part, we can protect and continue to enjoy these beautiful creatures.

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