Want to help monarch butterflies? Plant some milkweed

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

Monarch butterflies are tagged as a way for researchers to track their migration. One butterfly was tagged in New Jersey as a way for Kansas University to track its migration.

“It comes to New Jersey in the late spring and stays around for the summer and then heads to Mexico,” said Somerset County master gardener Cindy Hedin.

Hedin calls the monarch butterfly an iconic figure in the insect world — easily identified by its orange and black coloring.

“Coming out of the chrysalis is just magical. You see this green thing hanging there. Then, you see the wings start to show color through the chrysalis shell, and then it pops open and the first thing that comes out is this large abdomen filled with fluid that the butterfly will pump into its wings,” she said.

The female can lay up to 500 eggs, but Hedin says only 2 percent will survive to become adult butterflies. But that’s not the reason the monarch population is on the decline.

“Milkweed is the only thing that the monarch butterfly will lay her eggs on and the only thing that the monarch caterpillar will eat,” Hedin said.

And Hedin says milkweed is disappearing.

“There’s more shopping malls, housing developments, so you don’t have the milkweed growing out in nature the way it used to be,” she said.

Field Museum senior conservation ecologist Abigail Derby Lewis says the population of monarch butterflies has been dropping. Research shows there were nearly 1 billion monarchs in 1996 and only about 34 million by 2013.

“There’s a lot of drivers of that, but habitat loss is the biggest driver,” Lewis said. “And so the goal is 225 million monarchs, and that number isn’t arbitrary. It’s a number that scientists think could minimize the risk, the danger zone, if you will, of extinction.”

Lewis says there needs to be 1.8 billion more stems of milkweed on the ground to stabilize the monarch population.

“Being able to engage people widely, across the country, many different people in many different places will have to happen,” she said.

Lewis’ research asks the question: What role can cities play?

“There is already quite a bit of milkweed and pollinator habitat on the ground in our cities,” she explained. “We found over 41 million stems of milkweed on the ground in these four large metro areas with the potential to put so much more. So I think one of the surprising parts was that potential.”

Lewis says it will take all land use types to meet the goal — including urban landscapes.

“Our research shows that cities can actually have nearly 30 percent of the contribution toward that national goal. That includes all cities east of the Rocky Mountains, including along our coastal areas on the East Coast. So folks in New Jersey, no matter where you are, that is habitat that monarchs need and seek out. And in many ways, if you plant it, they will come,” Lewis said.

These New Jersey residents are already helping the Monarchs survive — one butterfly at a time.