The next two weeks will offer Missourians peak opportunities to see monarch butterflies as they make their way through the state on their annual migration, even though reports indicate a shrinking population.
As temperatures cool in late summer and early fall, millions of the black and orange pollinators begin their flight from the northern parts of North America to find warmer temperatures in southern roosting locations. Monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains winter in the mountains of Mexico.
“Sightings have started already for monarchs moving south going through the Show Me State right now,” said Jason Jenkins, the monarch and pollinator coordinator for the statewide collaborative Missourians for Monarchs. “When they roost at night and take a break, they can get into groups into the thousands. You can imagine what a thousand butterflies look like in one tree, it’s quite spectacular.”
Jenkins said monarchs also may be found in smaller groups flitting “anywhere there is habitat where they can get nectar for energy.”
Unfortunately, researchers with the nonprofit conservation organization Monarch Watch report “much lower” monarch populations this year compared with last season. The ongoing decline, Jenkins said, is concerning given monarchs’ role as pollinators, which are responsible for “one out of every three bites of food you consume.”
“These creatures are so important to biodiversity and natural communities,” he said. “There’s just something about that black and orange little creature as it comes flying about, so we really want to do what we can for them.”
That’s why Jenkins said it is so important to create more monarch habitat, a key goal of his group Missourians for Monarchs – which includes state and federal agencies as well as nongovernmental organizations, conservation groups and agribusinesses like Monsanto.
He said the collaborative has a goal of trying to plant 19,000 acres of habitat annually for the next 20 years.
“Milkweed is a very key plant,” he said. “It’s the only plant on which they lay eggs, and larvae grow on. Without milkweed, that part doesn’t happen. We also need other sources of food, nectar sources for these creatures, both in spring summer and fall.”
Those conservation efforts may be paying off. Jenkins said Monarch Watch is also reporting “some late season reproduction.”
“We’ve had another generation of monarchs raised up here in Missouri, Kansas and North Carolina,” he said. “We don’t know if it will help with over-wintering, but we did have some late season production of some extra butterflies, so I think that’s a positive thing… To me at least it means we must have had some good habitat here to do another brood, have more monarchs.”
Jenkins said individual Missourians don’t need thousands of acres to help monarchs; they simply need to plant small gardens with milkweed and other blooming plants throughout the growing season. In return, their yards may become small waystations for migrating monarchs.
- The Missouri Department of Conservation offers a guide to backyard habitats.
- The Missouri Prairie Foundation can connect gardeners with native plants that help monarchs.
“Even a butterfly garden in a backyard, 100 square feet, can provide a waystation as these animals move through,” he said.
But people may also be able to observe the migration at one of the 319 gardens designed specifically for the insects planted and mapped by the city of St. Louis’ Milkweeds for Monarchs program.
Jenkins said monarchs’ “amazing” journey attracts both kids and adults.
“This little creature – you think of insects as being very fragile, especially butterflies,” he said. “Here’s this little guy who can go thousands of miles and migrate to a place it has never been and turn around and come back and live 9 months and do that – it’s incredible.”