Monarch butterflies stop in Missouri during southerly migration
JEFFERSON CITY - At Moreau Heights Elementary School in Jefferson City, a small native plant garden is attracting monarch butterflies. The butterflies are flying through Missouri as they migrate south to their winter home in the mountains of Mexico, stopping along the way to feed on nectar and lay eggs.
Monarch butterflies are facing habitat loss all over North America. The World Wildlife Fund ranks their extinction risk at "near threatened," and a 2013 WWF report found the monarch population was at its lowest in 20 years. Conservationists in Missouri are hoping to help by conserving original prairies and encouraging Missouri residents to plant milkweed plants, the only plant monarch caterpillars are known to eat.
"The more milkweeds there are along their way, the more their population can be sustained," said Carol Davit, executive director of the Missouri Prairie Foundation. Davit helped plant the Moreau Heights Butterfly Garden, where her son attends school.
(Photo: Carol Davit, executive director of the Missouri Prairie Foundation, checks out a plant at the Moreau Heights Elementary School Butterfly Garden in Jefferson City. Davit helped plant the native plant garden at her son's school.)
Monarch butterflies migrate north from Mexico in the spring, sometimes settling as far north as Canada. As the weather cools, the butterflies head south to Mexico. They can be found in Missouri during the last few weeks of September and the beginning of October.
When monarchs migrate, they don't fly straight from Mexico to the northern United States and Canada, Davit said. Instead, their migration is more like a conveyer belt, stopping along the way to lay eggs and feed on nectar from flowers.
By the time the butterflies fly south, they are actually several generations younger than their ancestors who migrated north just a few months before.
Because the lifespan of the butterfly is so short, habitats that support monarchs are important to sustaining the population. In Missouri, that means places with milkweed.
(Photo: A monarch caterpillar feeds on a milkweed plant at the Moreau Heights Elementary School Butterfly Garden in Jefferson City.)
Besides their need to feed on milkweed, monarchs are pretty low-maintenance insects.
"They are sun-loving, open-country butterflies," Missouri conservation contractor Mike Arduser said. "That can be from somebody's backyard. They're in urban habitats and wild habitats, and everything in between."
Arduser advocates planting milkweeds. They're diverse and easy to care for, and they thrive in many different environments.
"If people plant milkweed in their yard, there's a very good chance that you're going to have monarchs show up," he said.
Missourians hoping to catch a glimpse of a monarch might be in luck. Monarch Watch, a monarch butterfly research program based at the University of Kansas, reported an increase in monarchs during the spring. The organization is predicting a much larger population will be heading south over the next few weeks compared with 2013.
Missouri Prairie Foundation projects like prairie restoration and maintenance, which the Missouri Prairie Foundation works to do, can continue to help bolster the monarch population.
The organization also has a program called "Grow Native," which encourages Missourians to plant native plants, including milkweed.
Missouri has 18 species of native milkweed, about 12 of which occur on prairies. Davit said restoring and maintaining prairies is a great way to help the monarch butterfly.
Arduser said he thinks the monarch helps connect people to nature, because most people can recognize and identify one when they see it.
"They're a great ambassador for the little things on the planet," he said.
(Photo: A monarch butterfly samples some nectar from a flower Moreau Heights Elementary School Butterfly Garden in Jefferson City. The butterflies can be found around mid-Missouri until the beginning of October as they migrate south to Mexico for the winter.)