Monarch butterflies could soon be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Monarch populations have plummeted in the last two decades, dropping an estimated 90 percent from numbers in the 1990s. Scientists agree that the leading culprit in the monarch butterfly decline is genetically modified foods (GMOs).
Designed to resist applications of the popular glyphosate-based herbicide, best known as Monsanto’s Roundup, many of the GMO crops grown in the U.S. thrive in regions alongside milkweed—the monarch butterfly’s sole food source. Roundup targets milkweed, which farmers of GMO crops including corn and soy, now consider a pest plant. Its numbers have declined by 80 percent in the past 20 years. GMO crops are now being grown on more than 150 million acres of land in the U.S. and the spread of those crops over the last several decades parallel the monarch’s decline.
Monarchs eat in the U.S. as they make their way down to Mexico for the winter. But the number of monarchs completing the journey is now staggeringly low. Last year, the World Wildlife Fund reported that butterflies were only found in 1.7 acres across 11 sanctuaries in Mexico, “down from a high of 45 acres in 1996.”
One of the most important steps consumers can take to help monarchs is to avoid genetically modified foods. Look for Non-GMO Project verified foods and certified organic foods, and avoid overly processed foods.
You can also do monarchs and other butterflies some good with a strategically planted garden designed to attract these important pollinators. Every little bit helps!
How to Attract Butterflies to Your Garden
- Ditch the pesticides. This doesn’t mean you can’t do pest control in your garden, but certain pesticides, particularly malathion, Sevin, and diazinon, will kill butterflies. If you’re active with a neighborhood council or community garden, mention this to the members as well. And why not take it a step further to help educate your community on safe pest control methods? Here’s a great resource.
- Grow native plants. Growing native plants in your garden is akin to supporting your local farmers markets. It’s better for the planet, provides you with the easiest to care for crops, and it will support pollinators like butterflies and other local fauna that have evolved with the local flora.
- Keep the sun in mind. Even if you have just a small patch of land or a balcony, if it gets good sun, you could help support butterflies. There’s a reason we often associate butterflies with gorgeous sunny days; they typically only feed in full sun.
- Plant the right colors. Butterflies like bright colors. Think red, yellow, orange, pink and purple. And make sure the blossoms are flat-topped or have short flowering tubes.
- Plant the right milkweed. Monarchs only eat from the milkweed plant. But did you know that there are many types of milkweed? If you plant the wrong one for your region, it might not do monarchs any good. Check out this handy guide for finding the right milkweed for your local butterflies.
- Create butterfly spas. Okay, so you don’t need to invest in a hot tub or sauna (but if you want me to visit, you should), but butterflies do require a little R&R, so why not invite them to do it in your yard? They prefer to rest in full sun, so nice flat rocks, tables or chairs for them to sun in will bring these gorgeous creatures to your yard. They also love puddling, which is basically hanging out in damp sand or mud where they drink a little water and mineralize. You can create specific puddling spots for the butterflies by filling shallow dishes or pans with sand and a bit of water and placing them in sunny spots in your yard.
- The National Wildlife Federation recommends the following plants for common butterflies:
- Acmon Blue – buckwheat, lupines, milkvetch
- American Painted Lady – cudweed, everlast
- Baird’s Swallowtail – dragon sagebrush
- Black Swallowtail – parsley, dill, fennel, common rue
- Coral Hairstreak – wild black cherry, American and chickasaw plum, black chokeberry
- Dun Skipper – sedges, grasses including purpletop
- Eastern Tiger Swallowtail – wild black cherry, ash, tulip tree, willow, sweetbay, basswood
- Giant Swallowtail – prickly ash, citrus, common rue, hoptree, gas plant, torchwood
- Gray Comma – gooseberry, azalea, elm
- Great Purple Hairstreak – mistletoe
- Gulf Fritillary – maypops, other passion vines
- Henry’s Elfin – redbud, dahoon and yaupon hollies, maple-leaved viburnum, blueberries
- Monarch – milkweeds
- Painted Lady (Cosmopolite) – thistles, mallows, nievitas, yellow fiddleneck
- Pygmy Blue – saltbush, lamb’s quarters, pigweed
- Red Admiral/White Admiral – wild cherries, black oaks, aspens, yellow and black birch
- Silver-Spotted Skipper – locusts, wisteria, other legumes
- Spicebush Swallowtail – sassafras, spicebush
- Sulphurs – clover, peas, vetch, alfalfa, asters
- Variegated Fritillary – passion flower, maypop, violets, stonecrop, purslane
- Viceroy – willows, cottonwood, aspen
- Western Tailed Blue – vetches, milkvetches
- Western Tiger Swallowtail – willow, plum, alder, sycamore, hoptree, ash
- Woodland Skipper – grasses
- Zebra Swallowtail – pawpaw
Lead image source: Me in ME