Monarchs, Milkweeds and the Rest of the Pollinator Story

March 4, 2016

When I first started as the Greenhouse Manager at Possibility Place Nursery, I learned one lesson very quickly: produce as much milkweed as possible.  There are great reasons for this, both economic and environmental. For decades, monarch butterfly populations have been on a major decline, and educated native plant enthusiasts have realized they can help by planting milkweed. Monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweed (Asclepias spp.) not only for a food source but also because the milky, latex sap inside the milkweed is toxic to most herbivores. By eating it, the larvae build in a level of protection against their predators. Due to wide spread agriculture and pesticide use, the wild population of milkweed has seen a steep decline in the last 50 years, and the monarch population has declined with it. That decline has been especially steep on ground adjacent to agricultural fields. There are many native milkweed species in our region, including Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Swamp or Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) and Prairie Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii). By planting these in stands in our yards and gardens, we can help bring back the Monarch in numbers seen before this unfortunate decline.

Still, there is even more to this story. Monarchs are not the only pollinator on the decline. In fact, there are drastic decreases in the populations of most pollinators essential to our ecosystems and landscapes. These include other butterflies and moths as well as native bees, birds and bats. In addition to the problems this causes for the sustainability of our native, wild landscapes, it also largely affects the success of our agricultural communities. A UN study found that the decline of our pollinator populations has had a worldwide agricultural loss in the range of $235-$377 billion! This is astounding, and it is easy to conclude that the importance of our pollinators cannot be understated. The decline of all of these pollinators has many of the same causes as the loss of the beautiful monarch. Increases in Big Agriculture’s wide spread use of pesticides and mechanical farming practices have contributed to a loss of habitat as well as a loss of food sources for pollinators. This, in combination with the use of exotic or invasive species in our landscapes, has caused the dramatic decline not only across the U.S., but around the globe. Species richness is important to our pollinators' well being, and many of these exotics and invasives cannot be used as food for our little friends.

The good news is that all of us can help! By planting native species that encourage the increase of native insects and birds, we can rebuild the ecosystems that support our pollinator populations. I commend all enthusiasts who have done so already, and if you haven’t yet, it’s never too late to contribute! Just remember: when you are planting your milkweed for the monarchs, don’t forget Spicebush for the swallowtail butterfly, Wild Bergamot for the native bees and Cardinal Flower for the hummingbirds. These and so many more of our native species will keep our pollinators buzzing and busy, and our landscapes flowering and fruiting.