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Saving the monarchs

Native plants like milkweed help dwindling butterfly species survive

Emily Liu/The Sun
During the county’s Save the Monarch launch at the Camden County Environmental Center on Aug. 22, 100 adult butterflies were released.

Camden County has launched its first Save the Monarch campaign to help spread awareness of the butterfly species’ decline and educate the public on how to reverse it.

County officials also announced upcoming plans to install waystations – or areas with milkweed and other native plants – for monarchs at county parks and office buildings, beginning in September with Newton Lake Park and the Camden County Environmental Center, where the campaign was launched on Aug. 22.

The hope is to get the waystations certified by the Monarch Waystation Program in the future.

Throughout the evening of the campaign launch, multiple speakers stressed the importance of milkweed to the monarch population. 

“Milkweed is the only thing that monarch butterflies eat, and that’s why milkweed is so vitally important to monarch butterflies,” said Karen Hickey, a county Certified Gardener. She noted that the only plant that monarch caterpillars will eat is milkweed, and it is the only one on which the butterflies will lay eggs.

With long migratory journeys that span from 1,200 to close to 3,000 miles, it is important for the butterflies to have waystations where they can feed and rest.

“Can you imagine going somewhere far away and only being able to eat one kind of food?” Hickey asked the audience at the launch.

In recent years, the monarch population has decreased to the point that it is currently listed as an endangered species. One New York Times article from 2020 noted that an annual count of the Western monarch population west of the Rocky Mountains fell from 200,000 butterflies to around 30,000 in that area in 2018. 

“Monarch butterflies are an echo indicator, which means that when you stop seeing them, something is going wrong with the ecology of the world,” Hickey explained. “We’ve stopped seeing monarch butterflies as much as we used to see.”

Entomologist and Camden County Mosquito Commission Superintendent Lauren Bonus talked about the migratory patterns of the monarch.

“This butterfly is remarkable, because it’s the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration, flying between 1,200 and 2,800 miles or more from the northeast United States and southeast Canada to the mountain forest in Central Mexico, using environmental cues such as the earth’s magnetic pull and the position of the sun,” she said.

Once there, they overwinter in the oyamel fir forests, clustering together to stay warm,” Bonus added. “ … During this migration, they’re providing an invaluable source of pollination across the continent.”

Attendees at the launch program were able to take home seed packets for native flowers and milkweed to plant only over winter, and milkweed plants ready to plant now. Hickey encouraged the audience not to give up or be discouraged if they don’t see butterflies right away: Plant enough milkweed, and the butterflies will come.

The audience also saw what the monarch butterfly looks like at all of its stages, egg, larvae, chrysalis and adults. The program concluded with the release of 100 adult monarchs.

Bonus and Hickey attributed the monarch’s decline in recent years to loss of habitat; not enough food; and the Canadian wildfires, among other reasons like the use of pesticides and herbicide. The solution is planting milkweed and more native species that provide food for pollinators like bees and butterflies.

Hickey noted that although the names of native flowers may be off-putting or less attractive than other plants, a little research can go a long way. If someone doesn’t like the look of milkweed, there are other species to available.

“For the summer, in case you’re not a fan of milkweed, you could plant Joe Pye Weed, swamp milkweed, and wild bergamot,” she noted. “For the fall, you could plant black-eyed Susan, mountain mint, narrow leaf sunflower, spotted bee balm, New York ironweed. There are also a couple trees that help the monarch butterflies; there’s wild plum and buttonbush.”

Hickey also pointed out that the butterfly bush – while its name sounds pretty and it is helpful for butterflies – is actually an invasive species. Those who want to plant a pollinator garden for monarchs should also consider adding a rock for the butterflies to stand on and water so they can drink.

Pollinators are important because as much as 80% of our agricultural food is pollinated by pollinators such as bees and butterflies according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Certified gardeners are able to help with any planting questions. To learn more about the program, visit www.camdencounty.com.

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