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Monarchs and milkweed; understanding the plant, pollinator partnership

Monarch butterfly populations have declined at an alarming rate. Researchers are citing a 90-percent drop over the past 20 years

Monarch on milkweed via commons.wikimedia.org
This year I set out to examine interactions between milkweed plants and the pollinators and caterpillars that depend on them for breeding and food. What I found is astounding and quite contradictory of a lot of the mainstream "for profit" messages that are being conveyed.

I add the caveat that my research was conducted in Ontario Canada and is possibly most relative to the Canadian Monarch crisis, but I do believe that much of it applies to the whole migration corridor.

Firstly, I will state that there is NO shortage of milkweed plants in Canada; what there is is a shortage of seedling and regrowth milkweed.  While it is generally accepted that the preferred milkweed for egg laying  is young growth, from what I see no one has asked the question why?   Fact is that milkweed, like most other vegetative plants, loses nutrition very quickly post-flowering, and by early seed set protein has already dropped by close to 50%, digestibility and relative feed value has dropped almost the same while fiber has increased. Post-flowering of established milkweed stands in Canada is precisely when Monarch caterpillars begin to hatch.  While I have no evidence specific to Monarch butterflies and the caterpillars re their survival rate on low nutrition milkweeds, I (and you) do have evidence in droves of low survival rates of many other  species on low nutrition diets, up to and including humans. IMO it would be insane not to presume that Monarchs would not also suffer from low survival rates given a diet lacking nutrition.  Let's not be so naive as to believe that the reason Monarchs "prefer" seedling and regrowth milkweed is "cosmetic"; millions of years of evolution has taught them what is important - that is NUTRITION!

image via Canadian Soybean Council
Where have all the milkweed seedlings gone?
Fact is that milkweed seed will not (or minimally) germinate on untilled soil but rather prefers tilled soil ie; cropland.  Seedling milkweed did in fact grow abundantly in cropped land up until chemical ag came along.  It is important that we not put all the blame on GM Roundup tolerant crops although it is these that have allowed the elimination of established milkweed in crop land.  It is true that most all newer pre-emergent herbicides (non Roundup) also kill or prevent germination of milkweed seedlings in crops.  While many studies indicate that up to 50% of milkweed has been eliminated they fail to mention (or look at) the fact that seedling milkweed has suffered almost complete elimination in most of Canada's Monarch breeding range.  With Monarchs being given little choice they will lay eggs on mature milkweed plants, but what is the survival rate of the Monarch?  I suspect it is very low.   Further, in years of drought and heat such as 2013 existing milkweed stands will be even more mature earlier resulting in even lower survival rates. While I may be alone (but not wrong) in pointing this out, this is what we saw last year through the entire Monarch migration corridor - "the smoking gun" NUTRITION! or better said, lack of it.  Plenty of milkweed! - just not vegetative or nutritious.

Where has all the "regrowth" milkweed gone?  Twenty five years ago 2 crop haying was standard, hay fields were cut mid to late June and then again early fall allowing established milkweed to regrow post first cut and be in perfect vegetative state for Monarch egg laying, and caterpillar feeding.  That has all changed now with the current standard 3 to 4 cuts per year, never allowing substantial milkweed plant growth.  At the same time the hay acreage has decreased dramatically while grain crops have increased.  Pasture fields were good sites for Monarch egg laying on regrowth milkweed that had been trampled by the grazing animals (and/or mowed by farmers late June) and regrown but pasturing animals in most of Canada is no longer practiced.  These fields have been converted to cash grain cropping.  Also disturbing is the current campaign to discourage roadway mowing.  Road allowance mowing should instead be encouraged but at times that will assure not only regrowth milkweed but also nectar flower bloom timed with Monarch arrival (mowing typically mid to late June).

A bit about Wallace Springs and our findings this year

Established patch of milkweed at Wallace Springs
Wallace Springs is an operating ecologically based mixed farming operation in the heart of CAFO farming country (Perth County Ontario) consisting of approx. 100 acres of  conventional non GMO cropland and 50 acres of nature preserve (original hardwood bush, reforested coniferous, meadow, and riparian).  While we discourage crop spraying, conventional herbicides are allowed to control weeds, in crop, excluding Roundup which is not used in crop as no GMO crops are allowed. Sadly, this said the result is virtually no seedling milkweed in the cropland while we do have a good population of established milkweed in all the cropland (over 5000 plants in the 100 acres of cropland and another 5000 + plants in the reserve and field margins).

This year in addition to distributing free milkweed seed across Canada and encouraging people to "Plant a Patch" we decided to plant our own patch even though we thought we had lots of milkweed.  We planted a patch in May approx. 10' X 18' with approx 2000 seeds adjacent to the cropland..
seedling milkweed patch at Wallace Springs
What happened is best described as absolutely astounding.  While I was unable to find any Monarch eggs or caterpillars on the farm's established unmowed milkweed our seedling patch had over 300 healthy thriving caterpillars in it. Equally good results were achieved on a small patch of regrowth milkweed in the garden. Interestingly this garden patch was right adjacent to an established patch beside the garden (in fact it most likely grew from the adjacent patch rhizomes) and there were absolutely no cats on the adjacent unmowed patch.  One has to conclude that the issue is frankly a shortage of vegetative milkweed leading to the Monarch population crisis.

Cats in the patch at Wallace Springs
 So, where to from here?

It is highly unlikely that chemical farming methods are going to change any time soon, but even accepting that much can be done without a signifigent cost impact:

1) Mow roadway and utility rights of ways and other uncropped open land in a timely fashion (mid to late June)

2) Encourage every farm to "Plant a Patch".  Every farm has a 10' X 18' piece of lawn that could be planted to milkweed.  What needs to be done is to somehow incentive this planting (maybe a seed/chemical co.).  It costs so little, children (and a lot of adults) love it, it will not spread by rhizome if mowed around, it will not go to seed and spread if mowed in mid to late June after the first year and it is not ugly. I repeat, it is not ugly! Ontario farms alone could add 50 - 60 million Monarchs to the migration.  Obviously adding farms across Canada and if 10% of town and city folk would plant a patch hundreds of millions of Monarchs could be added to the fall migration.  Habitat it and they will come

3)While milkweed "fluffing" parties, seed bombing and scattering milkweed seed on vacant unworked (undisturbed soil) are all noble concepts, the results, in reality, are much less than what the participants imagine. These efforts could be redirected to "Adopting a Patch" of wild milkweed  if your space does not permit "Planting a Patch".  Mow it in mid to late June (whipper snippers; aka string/brush trimmers are great), enjoy the show and most importantly share it!  Encourage your friends/associates to also help the Monarch where they can.  One citizen "armed" with a whipper snipper for one morning could add 10's of thousands of Monarchs to the migration - IMAGINE what a small army of volunteers (or paid contractors) could do!  We need a "National Mow the Milkweed Day" mid to late June!  Remember - Do not mow all the milkweed, leave some to go to seed as mowed milkweed will not set seed in most of Canada.

4) As a Canadian who believes that the Monarch solution is jointly and equally shared by Mexico,
Spring and summer breeding areas in the
milkweed/monarch corridor
- Monarch watch.org
the US, and Canada I find it distressing that on many published Monarch migratory and breeding  area images that Canada and Mexico are totally missing.  Organizations advocating must be more inclusive if we in Canada and those in Mexico are to convince our friends and neighbours that their efforts are important. Misinformation and "drawing borders" that the Monarchs know nothing of helps no one and certainly not the Monarch.  Our respective leaders "the three amigos" agreed back in February that the Monarch population issue was a tri lateral issue, now let's get the rest of us on board and start acting that way.

5) I know that my findings are correct but to convince others it will most likely be required that peer reviewed side by side studies be done.  It will  be necessary to study not only the nutritional requirements of Monarch caterpillars but also the survivability of malnourished cats  through the life cycle of the resulting adult Monarch.   The nutritional content of milkweed will need to be studied from full vegetative to full plant maturity.  We are prepared to offer our space and milkweed population for those efforts.

Remember, the generation of Monarchs raised in Canada is the migrating generation, what they need to fuel their journey and survive the winter in Mexico is the best most highly nutritious diet Canada can muster - it's sad that we have reduced their diet to basically scraps.  We can and must do better! 


  1. Ivan , having personally seen your " milkweed patch " , "cats " on the plants crysalli hanging on the overhang on your house , I can see you have done due diligence in your study of of our beloved Monarch butterfly . I was so impressed that i have prepared to duplicate your " patch" next year and hopefully help restore the populations of Monarch that i observed not that many years ago and be able to encourage others to do the same . Together " we can and must do better " The pods are collected , the area is worked up and the seed planted . Thank you Ivan for inspiring that initiative Simon de Boer

    1. I hate to show my ignorance, but could you please tell me what "whipper snippers" are. I live in Texas, and am not familiar with this item or method. Thanks.

    2. lol, guess it's just a Canadian thing like "eh" Sorry for not making that clearer, it's a "weed eater" or "string trimmer" Some Stihl examples http://www.stihlusa.com/products/trimmers-and-brushcutters/

  2. You just sound like another alarmist profit motivated organic farmer with all your BS about monarch "crisis". A 60% reduction in monarch numbers due to changes in agricultural and roadside management practices is not hardly a "crisis" because monarchs are still common despite those changes. Tell the truth!

    1. I suppose your definition of common may be at issue. Yes, if you look about in August, you can find monarchs, but certainly not in the numbers of the past. I live along lake Erie and prior to 6 years ago monarchs migrated through our property by 10s of thousands through the month of September. And 10 years ago we could find overnight roosting trees literally covered with monarchs. Now we see very few passing through and finding a tree loaded with monarchs is rare and last year there were none. Why should we care if a butterfly disappears? Look around over the next couple of weeks and you will see the iconic picture of the monarch everywhere. It is likely the most recognizable insect that Canadians can identify. Humans have watched the extinction of many an animal that was once common only to be regretful once they were gone. It would be wise to sound the alarm and look for solutions, while they are still "common".

  3. Firstly, I assure you that we and few organically principles organic farmers are "profit motivated", you must be thinking of corporate "organic ag", or factory farmers. I did not invent the label "Monarch crisis", that was done by those that have far more weight than I. Monarchs are in trouble, what you call it is your choice but in the meantime I will use their words "Monarch crisis". We will also continue to advocate for them. It would be great if you could point out, after a little research about Wallace Springs just how we are as you call it "Profiting" from anything to do with Monarchs? Join us please, think of the money you could make lol

  4. As far as I know, I am the inventor of the milkweed fluffing party. (If someone had one before mine last year, I'd live to hear about it). I'm wondering how you know what my objectives are, and that the results are less than the participants imagine. What do you think they imagine?

    1. Monarch Crusader, you may be the "inventor" of the milkweed fluffing party, and you may not, it is not a matter that concerns me. Fact is that there are several of these "parties" being held this year and that is what I speak to. The truth is that few milkweed seed that are spread on untilled soil will germinate and as such my statement stands that IMO more productive results could be obtained by utilizing volunteer hrs in other efforts to help the Monarch. And that is what it is, my opinion! All that said, if the objective of the fluffing party is to advocate for the Monarch and the participants know that milkweed will not likely germinate on untilled soil then great for the advocacy!

    2. I too have accidently noticed that the milkweed grew back after being cutback in my flower garden, because there was too much in June and July, is the preferred plant and was completely eaten. I was wondering why this happened and your explaination makes sense. Now I won't feel guilty about cutting it back ,so my June flowers look better, knowing that the regrowth will be food for the late caterpillars.