Milkweeds and Monarchs

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Soaring from Mexico into the United States and Canada, monarch butterflies are searching for one thing--milkweed plants. Monarch butterflies are beautiful, charismatic insects known for their long-distance migration and their reliance on milkweeds (Asclepias species). Milkweeds are the only plants on which monarchs lay their eggs. After the eggs hatch, the caterpillars, also called larvae, eat milkweed leaves to grow. Unfortunately, this relationship is in danger. Over the last 20 years, the number of monarch butterflies in North America has dropped, and one possible cause is a lack of milkweed plants. As efforts to plant more milkweeds are growing, researchers are studying the relationship between milkweeds and monarchs more closely. Some scientists have found that monarchs prefer to lay eggs on young milkweeds that have not yet started to flower. You can help us answer this question!

Do monarch butterflies prefer to lay eggs on flowering or non-flowering milkweed stems?

If monarchs prefer younger, non-flowering plants, scientists can do further experiments to determine why. Perhaps younger plants are easier for the developing caterpillars to eat, or maybe flowering plants attract predators of monarch eggs and caterpillars? Indeed, a number of different insects like ants and beetles, as well as spiders are known to eat eggs and small caterpillars. If data shows that monarchs lay more eggs on non-flowering plants, managing milkweed patches, though mowing or cutting back the plants, may help support monarchs and lessen the declines….so let’s find out!

Become a pollinator observer!

It's easy to participate!

  1. Create your Budburst account or login to add observations to the Milkweed and Monarch Project

  2. Choose a milkweed patch to observe, ideally a patch that has plants of different stages or phenophases. If all plants are flowering (and you have permission from the landowner) you can clip some of them back, removing flowers to create both flowering and non-flowering stems.

  3. Monitor the patch at least once a week during the growing season, looking for monarch eggs and caterpillars

  4. Record your observations on the Milkweeds and Monarchs datasheet

  5. Submit your data!

Where?

Anywhere that milkweeds grow and monarchs are present. You can observe any of the 12 species of milkweed listed here for this project.

How?

Find a milkweed patch to monitor. You can start monitoring when at least one plant is flowering. If you have landowner permission, cut back some of the milkweed plants to prevent them from flowering. Have about half flowering and half non-flowering phenophases in your patch.

Learn what monarch eggs and caterpillars look like.  Monarch caterpillars, also called larvae, go through 5 stages or “instars” before they cocoon and become a butterfly.  Here is a guide to the eggs and instars.

Gather your materials (datasheets, milkweed and monarch identification materials, and if possible a magnifying glass or hand lens).

Each time you monitor, you will record the following data

  • How many plants are flowering and how many are non-flowering

  • How many open flower clusters are on each plant

  • How many eggs you see on each plant

  • How many first instar larvae you see on each plant

  • How many later instar larvae you see in each plant

  • Whether or not any other insects or spiders are present on each plant (things like ants, beetles, aphids, spiders)

Lastly, submit your data. And stay tuned for results! We will let you know what we all find out and how the data you gather will help researchers protect monarch butterflies.