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How to create a monarch habitat

A monarch in a garden, feeding on an aster.
Credit: Sonya Charest
Un monarque dans un jardin, s'alimentant sur une aster.
How to create a monarch habitat

These days a lot of us are searching through nurseries and garden centers to prepare a piece of green paradise for the months ahead. Some gardens are food-oriented, with plants intended to produce various fruits and vegetables, while others will be radiant with their host of flowers and majestic ornamental plants. Whatever the type of green space you want to lay out, here’s an excellent opportunity to create an attractive and interesting habitat for monarchs. To succeed, all that’s needed are a few types of plants.

A pantry for the whole family

It’s essential to integrate milkweed into our gardens if we want to help the monarchs, since they can’t complete their life cycle without that plant. As it happens, the caterpillars feed only on milkweed before pupating and then turning into wonderful monarch butterflies. Among milkweeds native to Québec, the choice should be for common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) or swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), these being the species that females prefer to lay their eggs on.

Now that we know what to offer the caterpillars, it’s also time to be thinking about the adults. These feed on a great variety of flowers, but prefer plants with flowers that are rich in nectar (“nectar-producing plants”). Moreover, adding nectar-producing plants will be extremely useful in promoting pollination of your fruits and vegetables, because they’ll also attract a wealth of other pollinating insects.

A little tip to help monarchs find milkweed plants: try to put them on the periphery of your garden (around the nectar-producing plants), and clear space near the milkweeds. You’ll have a better chance of seeing the females lay eggs than if your milkweed plants are densely surrounded by vegetation. In any event, it’s crucial to always have a diversity of plants nearby, because monarchs more often lay eggs on milkweed surrounded by nectar-producing plants than in a stretch of land consisting exclusively of milkweed (Nestle et al., 2020).

Helping out the monarchs

Creating a habitat that monarchs will use for breeding is an excellent way of coming to their help. You have to keep in mind, however, that there’s no guarantee the butterflies will lay their eggs there or feed on the flowers, and that’s for a number of reasons. One the one hand, the size of the monarch population in North America varies considerably from year to year. For example, the population dropped by 26 percent between the winter of 2019-20 and the winter of 2020-21. On the other hand, certain phenomena (like the weather and habitat loss) may be responsible for the fact that the butterflies don’t always stop at the same spots year after year. But if you don’t see any monarchs one year, don’t let that be a reason for giving up!

That’s why your observations are so valuable. In creating a monarch-friendly habitat and in reporting to Mission Monarch the observations you make of milkweed plants during the season, you help provide scientists with a better understanding of monarch distribution and abundance in its breeding area.

And do you know why? Even if no monarchs visit your garden, you can share your data all the same at Mission Monarch. In science, a zero is extremely valuable information. And on that note, happy gardening!

References:

Nestle, R., Daniels, J.C. & Dale, A.G. (2020) Mixed-Species Gardens Increase Monarch Oviposition without Increasing Top-Down Predation. Insects, 11, 648.

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