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Natural Awakenings SW PA, Greater Pittsburgh

The Beautiful Monarch Butterfly

Aug 02, 2021 04:13PM ● By Michelle Dalnoky

One of my hobbies for many years has been to attract and nurture monarch butterflies. Their numbers in North America have declined by 80 percent over the last 20 years. This is a serious loss and they are now considered endangered. The causes are many and include loss of habitat, pesticide exposure and climate change. Monarch butterflies are not only beautiful and magical, they are even spiritual to some. Most human cultures and even religions assigned meaningful symbolism to butterflies. For me, they are an amazing wonder of nature. I just love them.

When I returned here in 2017 after living in Florida for 22 years, there were no monarch butterflies on our 6.5 acres, but there was also no milkweed, so I started growing it and they have slowly come. Last year I had four milkweed plants and this year I have 13. It is more difficult for me to raise them than the tropical cultivars, but I’m getting the hang of it.

Although I have been planting milkweed for years to attract monarchs, there is more to it than that. The caterpillars have predators like various kinds of wasps and other insects. In Florida I would put the babies into an upside-down mesh hamper to keep them away, but that was fairly easy because tropical milkweed is much smaller. The predators can be very slick and find their way in so you have to outsmart them. Florida has more aggressive insect species and the predators here don’t seem to be as efficient.

When I first arrived, I grew tropical milkweed because I had a bunch of seeds, but the butterflies here were completely uninterested in it. Northern milkweed is much bigger and the leave are really tough compared to the soft tropical varieties, but they grow to six feet tall or more. I got my original starter seeds in the usual way, suddenly veering off of the road and wading through weeds to reach the plants and seed pods. My sister is usually with me and I scare the heck out of her until she realizes it’s an emergency seed stop! Caring for them can go deep. I used to have an emergency kit in case a butterfly had a disabled wing. You can actually do a little transplant surgery and glue another wing on for them. All of that information is on YouTube.

So, I’m so excited now because I have lots of baby cats, (caterpillars). I have to keep an eye on them for predators, make sure there is enough milkweed for them to mature and monitor where the chrysalises are hanging—then wait for them to hatch! Of course I have nectar flowers for them to feed on, too. They’ll flutter around for a while and then head south for their winter migration.

The study and care of butterflies can be very involved or you can just grow some milkweed and they will come and you can let nature take its course. Either way, you are supporting a lovely species that needs our help to survive. You can even get free milkweed seeds at
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