Kansas City steps up to help save dwindling monarch butterfly population

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The monarch butterfly is in trouble, and Kansas City is working to do something about it.

"They are so iconic," said Patrick Martin with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We all grew up with them. Every little kid knows what a monarch is, and to think that that might suddenly disappear, that ought to give us a wakeup call."
The population is down 90 percent. One fix, said Martin, is to make the environment friendlier for not just caterpillars and butterflies, but also all pollinators.

"The alteration of landscape over time to a human dominated landscape - it feeds us all, we appreciate it - but those changes come with consequences," he explained. "The concern is that milkweed is less prevalent now, consequently monarchs are less prevalent now."

The entire migration from Canada to Mexico spans about 5,000 miles.

Milkweed is a lifeline for monarch caterpillars serving as their sole food sources during the insect's early life cycle. But because the plant serves little purpose to Midwest farmers, they often rip the plants out of the ground or blast them with herbicides, and that leaves the insects to starve.

"A big part of the goal is education and awareness for people to understand what the plight of the monarch butterfly and other pollinators is," said Kristin Riott with Bridging the Gap. "That plight is a substantial decline in their numbers. They are down 90 percent. It's not quite an endangered species, but it's seriously threatened."
That's why Bridging the Gap alongside other ecological societies will grow 175 milkweed and pollinator-friendly plant gardens on both a large and small scale. The majority, 125 worth, will go to private residences. The remaining 50 will go into municipalities like Kansas City, Belton and Olathe.

Monarchs can travel between 50-100 miles a day; it can take up to two months to complete their journey.

In addition to this, Kansas City Mayor Sly James declared June 1 "Milkweed for Monarchs" Day. Monarchs on the Move gave away several dozen milkweed plants for attendees to plant at home.
"Monarch butterflies breed in Kansas City, and we’re in the critical path on their long migration from Mexico to Canada," James said. "This is our butterfly, and its numbers are down more than 90 percent because we’ve destroyed its habitat. We need every Kansas Citian to help monarchs survive by planting milkweed every year on June 1. Even if you live in an apartment, a pot of milkweed on the deck provides the only food monarch caterpillars can eat.” 
Grown butterflies eat a variety of plants, including aster, fennel, butterfly bush, marigold and sage.

"Even an individual can make a real difference," said Riott. "For the sake of monarch butterflies, plant milkweed in your garden."

Another way to help is to reduce your use of herbicides and pesticides.

"Every little site counts from the large prairies in Missouri to urban backyards and parks where just a few milkweeds gives that stopover and connects those dots," Martin said.

The Midwest tends to have the highest numbers of monarchs; an, these are the areas where the most milkweeds grow.

After all, experts say monarchs aren't just beautiful, they also play an important role in agriculture and the environment.

"The ecosystem is very delicate and we must keep it in balance and hopefully that will extend not just to the monarch but to all aspects of our environment so that we understand the impact of pollution, so we understand why weather may be changing and all of those things," said James. 
  1. Do monarchs live everywhere in North America?

    Monarchs live everywhere milkweed grows. There are a few monarchs high in the mountains in the Rocky Mountain range because there is not much milkweed growing there, and it is cooler than is ideal for monarchs. In northern Canada, the climate is too cool for milkweed to grow, so the current northernmost distribution of monarchs is southern Ontario.
  2. Are monarchs in western North America the same species as those in eastern North America?

    Yes. Is there a location in North America with the most number of monarch butterflies? The Midwest tends to have the highest numbers of monarchs; an, these are the areas where the most milkweeds grow. In North America, 40 to 45 degrees latitude and 90 to 100 degrees longitude have the most monarchs.
  3. Do monarchs eat the same thing everywhere they live in North America?

    Yes and no: larva require milkweed as food but the adults will nectar on many different flowering plants. There are many species of milkweed, and monarch larvae eat most of them. Because different milkweed species grow in different regions, there are regional differences in what they eat.
  4. How can you tell a male monarch from a female?

    Males have a dot on the vein on their hindwing. The dot is not coloration; it is made of specialized scales. In related species, the male produces a scent called a pheromone that attracts females. The male and female also have differently shaped abdomen, and the female’s wing veins look slightly wider than the males.
  5. How long do monarchs live?

    Monarch butterflies typically live from 2 to 6 weeks except for the last generation of the year, which can live up to 8 to 9 months.
  6. How can I get monarchs to come to my flower garden?

    Any flowering plants will attract monarchs, which will nectar on the flowers. Planting milkweed in your garden will assure that monarchs will be present and will give you a close-up look at their eggs and larvae.

Terra Hall can be reached at terra.hall@kshb.com.

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