Because monarch butterflies’ migratory range covers such a large distance a multiple life cycles, they need to have the right plants at the right time along their migration route. Caterpillars need to feed on milkweed to complete their life cycle, and adult butterflies need the right nectar producing plants in bloom for needed energy.
Agricultural producers in the Midwest and southern Great Plains are key stewards to help combat the decline of monarch butterflies by planting milkweed and other nectar-rich plants on their land. Milkweed not only provides food for monarchs, it also supports other pollinators such as honey bees that are vital to agriculture.
Increasing the abundance, quality and distribution of habitat across its summer range is considered paramount to recover the species. There are many conservation practices that can benefit monarch butterflies as well as other insects.
Monarch butterflies prefer a mid-successional plant community, rich and abundant in nectar- rich forbs. These conditions are seldom static, but rather require regular monitoring to identify the need to implement periodic disturbance (e.g. mowing, burning, disking, grazing or application of herbicides).
A limiting factor for monarchs in the Midwest is the availability of quality breeding habitat (i.e., grassland containing a significant milkweed component). Additionally, others suggest the lack of nectaring habitat, particularly during the fall migration, may be a population stressor.
Milkweed not only provides food for monarchs, it also supports other pollinators such as honey bees that are vital to agriculture. Milkweed also provides homes for beneficial insects that control the spread of destructive insects. Milkweed is a challenging plant to eat. It is covered with hairs, contains a sticky, gummy latex, and is highly toxic. Yet there are a variety of insects that are specialists on feeding on milkweed. The caterpillar of the monarch butterfly is the most famous.
Financial and Technical Assistance Programs
The USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) provides technical and financial assistance to help landowners manage for monarch habitat on farms, ranches and forests (learn more here »). This assistance helps producers plan and implement a variety of conservation activities, or practices, that benefit the monarch, pollinators and many other wildlife species.
Help from the NRCS is designed for producers and conservation partners to plant milkweed and nectar-rich plants along field borders, in buffers along waterways or around wetlands, in pastures and other suitable locations.
Technical and financial assistance is provided by the NRCS through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and Conservation Stewardship Program, three programs funded through the Farm Bill, the largest funding source for wildlife habitat conservation on private lands.
From a small pot on your front steps to a backyard pollinator garden, there are many ways individuals can provide essential Monarch Habitat.
- Choose your location: Butterflies enjoy basking in the sun. Gardens should be planted in sunny spots, with some protection from the wind.
- Take a look at your soil: Break ground to see the consistency of the soil in your yard. Soil may influence the kinds of plants you can grow, or may require special considerations. If you find that your soil type doesn’t match the plants you’d like to plant, you might consider building a raised bed or using flower pots.
- Prep your soil: If you’re planting in your yard, remove the lawn and current plant cover and rake the soil. Additional dirt can be helpful no matter the location and is necessary for raised beds and flower pots - add your soil to the bed or pot.
- Choose your plants: Find a nursery near you that sells native and local plants and milkweed for your area. Native plants are the ideal choice because they require less maintenance and tend to be heartier.
- Choose plants that have not been treated with pesticides, insecticides or neonicotinoids.
- Plant perennials to ensure your plants come back each year and don’t require a lot of maintenance.
- Choose a diversity of plants that bloom throughout the seasons to ensure pollinators benefit in the spring, summer and fall. This will also ensure that your garden is bright and colorful for months!
- Choosing seeds or small plants: Small plants that have already started growing in a nursery are simple and show instant return on pollinator visits, especially if you are planting in a small space. Seeds are best if you have more time. If you’d like to use seeds, plan ahead to plant in spring or fall, giving the seeds time to germinate. Seeds can also be best if you are doing a very large garden as they tend to cost less. Remember to water your seeds even before you see plants.
- Plant your flowers and milkweed: For small plants, dig holes just big enough for the root system. Cover the roots with dirt and reinforce with dirt or straw mulch to reduce weed growth. For seeding, spread seeds across your freshly prepared garden and cover them with dirt. Consider adding some flat rocks so butterflies can bask in the sun!
- Wait, watch, water and weed your garden: It may take some time, but you will eventually see butterflies and other pollinators enjoying your garden. Make sure to weed and water your garden to keep it healthy.
Creating pollinator habitats can be a rewarding activity, and just about anyone can do it. Community gardens, school yards, and even the court yard of a business all have the potential to be habitat with the right landscaping.
The National Wildlife Federation’s Community Wildlife Habitat Program partners with cities, towns, counties, neighborhoods, and communities of all kinds to become healthier, greener, and more wildlife-friendly. Community Wildlife Habitats garden and landscape with wildlife in mind, promote the use of native trees and plants, work to reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides and chemicals, and integrate wildlife-friendly practices into sustainability plans and park master plans. Through this program your communities can enhance and restore islands and corridors of wildlife habitat in urban and suburban areas nationwide, while at the same time connecting to existing work around climate resiliency, community resiliency, urban forestry, water conservation, beautification, and more.