Monarch butterflies

Monarch butterflies aren’t just beautiful — they’re essential pollinators. We can’t afford to let them go extinct. But in the past 25 years, two-thirds of the monarch butterfly population has disappeared. Monarch populations have declined by as much as 90% since the 1980s. Extinction can feel like too big a problem for individuals to fix. But individual action is critical to protect endangered species. What can you do to help monarch butterflies and keep them around for the next generation? Actually, quite a lot.

1. Engage in Citizen Science

In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was petitioned to protect the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act. They are now conducting a species assessment to determine whether to list the monarch as endangered. Their decision is due in June 2019. The assessment depends on data provided by citizen scientists. Several citizen science programs track monarch migration, breeding and habitat throughout the United States’ portion of the monarch’s range. Anyone can participate, and scientific training is not required — even children can successfully contribute to some programs.

If you don’t want to get involved in the science, you can still be a good citizen. Local governments don’t have to wait for a federal listing to improve butterfly habitat. Find out if your mayor or city manager has taken the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge. If they haven’t signed on yet, let them know that you think they should.

2. Plant Native Milkweed

Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants, which are the only food their caterpillars can eat. If you live in the monarch’s breeding range (which is most of the United States), the Fish and Wildlife Service already encourages you to plant milkweed, but it has to be the right kind. Distinct breeding populations of monarch feed on the species of milkweed native to their area. Although there are more than 140 species of the milkweed genus Asclepias, only the ones that are native to your region will benefit your local monarch population.

Despite the name, milkweed is pretty enough to include in a home garden. As a native, it is also hardy enough to survive neglect, so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also encourages the use of milkweed in rights-of-way and other semi-managed areas. Whether you’re working in your yard or out of it, remember that milkweed sap is a skin irritant. Always wear gloves when handling milkweed.

3. Help at Home

Even if you live outside the monarch butterfly’s range, your gardening habits can make a difference. Avoiding pesticides may be more important for monarch survival than planting milkweed. Bee-killing neonicotinoids and glyphosate (which is often thought of as safer) are both dangerous to monarch caterpillars. Pesticides can drift and contaminate butterfly habitat beyond the area of application.

After eliminating pesticides from your home garden, there are more steps you can take to make your landscape monarch-friendly. Adult monarch butterflies feed on nectar from a variety of flowers. Join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge and plant a butterfly-friendly garden. It isn’t hard — a more natural landscape can be easier to maintain than a formal garden — and benefits more than just the monarchs. Butterfly gardens are pollinator paradises.

4. Avoid Avocados?

Growing demand for avocados in the U.S. has driven agricultural practices in the Mexican state of Michoacán, which is also the monarch’s winter habitat. This creates a dilemma for eco-conscious consumers. Avocados are healthy and delicious; buying them supports independent farmers. But each year, Michoacán loses 15,000 to 20,000 acres of forest land to avocado plantations — sometimes planted illegally inside the monarch’s forest reserve. There is no way — yet — for consumers to know which avocados are sustainably sourced. It may be time to rethink your relationship with avocado.

By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.