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Butterfly Mysteries

By Heide Ludwig  R.G.E.

MNLA Certified Nursery & Landscape Professional

One of the many sights I love to see in my garden are beautiful butterflies flitting about from bloom to bloom.  Butterflies add a lot of interest to the garden. They provide color as well as movement. The most favorite butterfly is the brightly colored Monarch. In recent years, I have been noticing fewer and fewer Monarchs in my garden, and I have begun to wonder what is happening and how I can help. I did some research into this issue and found many interesting and startling facts about the Monarch butterfly.

I used to teach a simple class each year at Ney Park, in Maple Lake.  Fifth-graders from Wright County area schools came together, one day in spring, to learn about nature and how it affects each one of us. My favorite topic was teaching about butterflies. Monarchs are members of the Lepidoptera family, which is one of the largest insect families, with the exception of the beetle family.  They are cold-blooded creatures and love the warm sun. This particular butterfly is unique because it migrates long distances to overwinter.  It travels over 2,500 miles from either the United States or Canada to places in southern Mexico.  Scientists are still trying to discover the secret of how they navigate that great distance. I have heard how trees are literally covered by moving masses of orange, yellow and black living flowers!

Storms do occur down in their overwintering grounds, and the Monarchs have been able to recover sufficient numbers to return to our home gardens. Unfortunately, serious climate changes occurred in Mexico that killed off a large percentage of the Monarchs going back as far as 2001. There were unusual storm outbreaks, with gale-force winds, that caused many of the overwintering Monarchs to fall and die.  In 2002, southern Mexico was hit by atypical freezing that again decimated the butterfly population. The Monarchs are struggling to overcome these weather events.

Another thing that has added to their decline is the cutting down of their native habitat leaving them less and less space each year to winter over. I understand there is less than about three acres to support the overwintering Monarchs in one of the overwintering sites.  Each year the Monarch population continues to decline.

Migration starts in early spring. They migrate north through the states following food sources and plants necessary for egg laying and food for the larvae. Butterflies need plants for each stage of their life from egg to adult. True butterflies like Monarchs, Swallowtails, Mourning Cloaks and Painted Ladies grow through five stages of development and each stage is unique.  They begin life as an egg laid on a particular host plant. The egg hatches and the minute caterpillars, known as larvae, begin feeding immediately.  They continue to eat until they reach the size for pupating. The caterpillar will attach themselves to a branch or stem and form a chrysalis or hard casing. They will remain in this form for about 2 weeks. You can look through the opaque casing, at the very end  of this cycle, to see the mature colors of the adult butterfly. It breaks chrysalis and emerges as a very wet butterfly. It pumps its wings to get the blood flowing to the whole body and to dry off to set flight. Male and female come together and mate and the process begins anew as the females seek out the perfect plant to lay eggs on.

Another reason for the decline is less and less of the plants that they love and need to survive are available. The favorite host plant of the Monarch is the Milkweed, also known as Asclepias. This plant does very well on wet soil.  They also need other plants for nectar, resting, sunning and swooping.  I used to tell the students that if you see two butterflies twisting and turning around each other, they are usually two males fighting. Males need tall plants like Echinacea and Rudbeckia to set on while they search for females. They do not possess good eyesight and will swoop down from their perch as another butterfly happens by.

Other perennials that are necessary produce nectar like Monarda and Liatris, and in October, as the migration south begins, the Sedums.  In addition to nectar, these tall perennials are excellent places to soak up the sunshine as butterflies are cold blooded creatures and love the sun.

Very few Monarchs winter over in our area,, although they can stay healthy in chrysalis form through the winter if conditions are right. I have successfully raised and kept Monarchs through the winter indoors, releasing them when the conditions are ideal in the spring. I always knew when they were ready to hatch because my house cats would keep a watchful eye on the jars as the Monarchs began to shift about in the chrysalis as the warm weather approached.

Monarchs are in danger of becoming extinct. The Monarch habitat is disappearing more and more each year. An increase of herbicides, such as glyphosate, are slowly reducing the number of available host plants. In addition, the active ingredient in some GMO’s, that help control certain insects, do not know the difference between a desirable caterpillar and the larvae that damages the plant. Certain GMO-enhanced plant pollen can be carried by wind action to the plants that are favorable to the desired caterpillars. In other words, they will kill caterpillars that are bad as well as those larvae of the Monarch. More and more is being used for farming and housing. The wildlife areas the Monarchs depend on for survival is slowly being eliminated, acre by acre.

What can a person do to help protect this regal butterfly? The solution is very simple. Start planting the  plants that are so necessary for good butterfly numbers. I have a small amount of acreage that is left wild and natural.  There are a vast number of milkweed growing in that small parcel. I have additional varieties planted that are necessary for all those stages of a butterfly’s life. Try to plant masses of these host plants as butterflies have that poor eyesight and will not see just a single plant.

There are a few websites devoted to saving the Monarchs. You may want to try www.extension.umn.edu or SaveOurMonarchs.org to find a wealth of information on other plants for the Monarchs, as well as plants for other butterfly species.

The one thing I did learn in all of my research was that butterflies do not kick you in the head. Which is something my father used to tease us with growing up. I am glad that I learned to appreciate what butterflies bring to my garden and will continue to plant for them with that in mind.


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