Milkweed for the Monarchs and Many More

Honey bee on milkweed flower

Here in Vermont the milkweed is in full bloom, and you might notice that your butterflies and bees have a little more pep in their step! The milkweed plant produces large, gorgeously geometric flowers that attract many butterflies, bees, and other pollinating insects due to the flower's wealth of sweet nectar. What is very unique to the milkweed plant is that it is the host plant for monarch butterflies, meaning that monarchs exclusively lay their eggs on these plants. Monarch caterpillars rely solely on the milkweed plant for food, making this plant essential for their survival.

Now is the time you will begin seeing monarchs in your fields, as the third successive generation of monarchs will be finishing the last leg of their trip up to the Northeast. Here they will lay hundreds of eggs each, many in our Northeast fields and yards containing milkweed, and these eggs will hatch into the fourth and final generation in the monarch migrational cycle. The fourth generation will fill up on food from the milkweed plants here in the Northeast between September and October, then migrate to Mexico to hibernate for five months, prolonging their life until February of the next year, as they cannot survive the harsh Winters up North, and their life span outside hibernation is 2-6 weeks. In February they will begin journeying Northward again, stopping in several Southern states to lay thousands of eggs before they die. These eggs will hatch in the South and produce the new first generation in March and April. The first generation will birth the second generation further North in May and June, and the second generation will birth the third generation further North in July and August, beginning the cycle again when the third generation migrates into our yards this time next year.

Monarch numbers are in great decline, data from 2004-2020 collected by the WWF in coordination with personnel of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) shows a near 75% decline in forest area in Mexico occupied by monarch colonies, where monarchs breed during North American Winters. Insecticides, as well as increasingly severe weather changes have been significant factors in their extinction.

How can you help? Keep your milkweed plants in abundance and keep these plants growing in your yard. Planting milkweed might not seem like a grand gesture in combatting the extinction of monarchs, but the more sanctuaries of milkweed that can be woven up through parks, yards, and public gardens in North America and especially in the Northeast, the more safe and nourishing passageways for migrating monarchs will exist to keep the cycle going strong.

Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on milkweed flower

Clouded Yellow (colias croceus) butterfly on milkweed flower

Monarch laying eggs on milkweed plant

Monarch chrysalis on a milkweed plant

Monarch caterpillar feeding on milkweed plant