116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
For a while, entomologists have been sharing their increasing concerns that the eastern population of the monarch butterfly is decreasing and this year’s statistics so far are no different.
“The monarch butterfly has been around for 150 to 200 million years and it will continue to live on,” said Mike Martin, operations manager at Monarch Research based in Marion. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to raising awareness for the need and installation of vibrant, thriving pollinator habitat throughout Linn County and to increase the monarch butterfly population by making a difference one yard at a time.
“But it’s the monarch migration phenomenon that is at risk,” he said. “Each year in the spring (late February, early March) millions of monarch butterflies begin their migration north out of butterfly sanctuaries of Central Mexico. As they head north, their sole purpose is to mate and lay eggs, building the next generation of monarch butterflies. But finding milkweed to lay their eggs is a struggle.”
Martin noted that if there is no milkweed, a “host specific” plant, there will be no monarch butterflies. “And on the backside, in the fall (September, early October) when monarch butterflies begin their journey back to Mexico, their need for fall blooming nectar plants increases, as nectar is the fuel needed for the arduous journey south.”
Martin noted that Iowa plays a key role in this process.
“A huge concern and responsibility for us is that 38 percent of the monarch butterflies that migrate south to the overwintering sanctuaries of Mexico come from right here in Iowa,” he said.
Luckily, local homeowners can create garden spaces that can help support the life and migration of butterflies — monarchs and other pollinators — through the area.
Linn County Master Gardener Beverly Whitmore, who has been gardening since she was a young girl, has a pollinator garden in her yard and said there is a “simple recipe” to creating one in your own yard.
It’s important to have plants in the garden that not only provide the nectar for butterflies to drink, but also plants where they can lay their eggs, Whitmore said. She, like many other local environmental experts, encourages the selection of native Iowa plants, and there are a few that will attract butterflies specifically.
“Butterfly weed, common milkweed, cone flowers are perennials that butterflies like,” she said. “If you plant zinnias you're going to get butterflies, as well as cosmos, marigolds, and lantana.”
Whitmore said some butterflies are also attracted to herbs such as fennel, dill, parsley and oregano so those are good additions to the garden.
In addition to planting native trees, shrubs, and perennials, homeowners also can work to reduce the amount of turf grass, a non-native plant, in their yards, Martin said.
“Homeowners can create your own ‘HomeGrown National Park,’ by creating a pollinator zone,” he said.
First, pick a sunny spot in the yard, Whitmore said.
“Butterflies are predominantly active in warm bright sunny areas,” she said.
Having a shade tree nearby can be helpful because it offers a spot for butterflies to rest for the night and they blend into the bark, Whitmore said. Adding other elements such as water, rocks and brush also will increase life within your habitat. Spoiled fruit is another source of energy for butterflies, she said.
To keep your butterfly garden flourishing, it is really important to avoid insecticides, Whitemore said.
“Most butterflies and caterpillars are easily killed by most insecticides,” she said. “So keeping your yard natural and organic is key.” Sometimes homeowners will see little holes in the leaves of plants and think they have to spray them to get rid of the pests, she said. “But that might just be a butterfly larvae. Those baby caterpillars can eat a lot of leaves and you just want to stand back and let them eat the plant,” she said.
Even if you don’t have a large yard, there are creative ways to attract butterflies, Whitmore said.
“People living in apartments or condos can still do butterfly gardening in a window box or planter on a balcony or patio,” she said.
Martin agreed. “Having a butterfly garden is not limited to homeowners,” he said. “Something as simple as a container with flowers rich in nectar helps.”
He recommends a variety of plantings so that you have plants blooming in spring, summer and fall.
“Creating a living environment with a mix of host plants, native perennials, nectar rich annual plants and grasses brings life to those areas where you live,” he said.
Both garden experts encouraged finding time to create an environment that works for you and not the other way around.
“Begin with a space you are able to manage, you can always expand later,” Martin said. “And enjoy your work and have fun with it.”
“Having a butterfly garden is a wonderful thing,” Whitmore said. “It’s fun and peaceful and you’re doing a good thing for Mother Nature.”
“Having butterflies and bees in your yard signifies a healthy environment,” he said. “Increased use of chemicals to have the greenest yard in your neighborhood is costly, laborious and negatively impacts our overall environmental health. Use of pesticides to eliminate insects and mosquitoes in your yard, eliminates those pollinating insects that sustain our lives. Without these insects, the quality of the life we know ceases to exist.”
For more resources on creating your own butterfly garden visit https://store.extension.iastate.edu/product/Gardening-for-Butterflies-and-Pollinators and MonarchResearch.org.
Here is a partial list of flowering plants that are either native or have adapted to Iowa and are beneficial to pollinators and butterflies with those especially liked by monarchs noted:
Black-eyed Susan (Monarchs)
Blazing Star (Monarchs)
Hoary Verbena (Monarchs)
Purple Prairie Clover
Stiff Tickseed (Monarchs)
Wild Bergamont (Monarchs)