Somewhere in Oklahoma or southern Kansas there is an egg on a leaf.
Soon it will hatch, and a small black, white and yellow caterpillar will start eating, keep eating and then eat some more. Once it grows to almost 20 times its original size it will form a green chrysalis.
That’s when the magic happens, hidden from our view.
Within two weeks a butterfly emerges, the beautiful and beloved Monarch. Monarchs winter by the millions in mountain forests in Mexico, and their northward migration began back in late February.
That overwintering generation has made it to the southern plains, laid their eggs and died. Those eggs will become the Monarchs that we will begin to see by mid May. By late summer the final generation of the year will begin flying to the wintering grounds.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Monarch migration is that none of the butterflies that arrive in Minnesota have ever been here before, and none of the butterflies that fly south in the fall have ever been there before, either.
How do they know where, and when to go?
It’s one of nature’s great mysteries that science still doesn’t have an answer for.
Magic can still be found in the story of the Monarch. This amazing story has been under threat over the past two decades.
Between 1997 and 2014 monarch populations dropped by 96 percent. Since then there has been an increased awareness of their plight, and efforts have begun to reverse the decline. The population has staged a modest comeback, but it remains 67 percent below the 1997 population level.
Because Minnesota is in the heart of the Monarch’s breeding range we have a vital role to play in maintaining this comeback. When those eggs hatch and the baby caterpillars start eating there is only one food that can sustain them, and that is milkweed. Protecting and encouraging milkweed is vital for monarchs, and anyone can play a part in doing this.
Common milkweed, the one most familiar to most people, can be found almost anywhere that isn’t sprayed by herbicide. Road ditches, pastures, CRP fields and even lawns can all support common milkweed.
In days gone by crop fields also supported milkweed, but since the advent of glyphosate (Round-up is one brand name) herbicide crop fields no longer contain much milkweed. That makes protecting milkweed in non-crop areas crucially important.
The easiest thing we can do for Monarchs is to just leave milkweed alone where it isn’t causing any problems for crops. If you want to go the extra mile common milkweed is fairly easy to establish by seed, and many native seed vendors now sell it. Even a few square feet planted to milkweed will produce Monarchs.
There is another milkweed that is excellent for use in flower beds and other landscaping areas. Butter-fly milkweed is a native of our area and has brilliant orange flowers on a compact plant only one to two feet tall. Unlike common milkweed it won’t spread by roots, so is easy to keep where you want it.
Butterfly milkweed is best started as potted plants, and again there are numerous native plant vendors who can provide it.
If you are interested in helping maintain Monarchs the Monarch Joint Venture, located online at monarchjointventure.org, is a one stop shop for finding plant vendors, life history information and management ideas.
– Jeff Zajac is a wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. His office is in Redwood Falls.