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This post is sponsored by Greenwood Nursery. All thoughts and words are my own. In fact, recent studies show that it takes up to four generations for monarchs to make it north out of Mexico and into Southern Canada!
Along the way, the butterflies feed on a variety of nectar-rich flowers but breed on only type of plant: milkweed. There are species of milkweed, but only a quarter of them are known to be important host plants for monarchs and even less are available commercially for planting. She then proceeds to lay her egg on a leaf — and only on the leaf of a milkweed.
This is because monarch caterpillars depend on the plant for food, eating every leaf in their path until they complete their metamorphosis a cycle that takes about four weeks. Unlike adult monarchs butterflies , caterpillars cannot simply feed on any plant they please.
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And that might lead you to wonder: why milkweed? The compounds, however, have no adverse effect on the caterpillars themselves. They spend up to two weeks eating, growing, and molting on the same milkweed plant before they pupate. The striking appearance of the butterflies and caterpillars also serves as a warning to predators that they are toxic. Predators learn to associate the colors and patterns with a bad taste and generally avoid preying on monarchs altogether.
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- jill_dolsen, Author at Greenwood Nursery.
Unfortunately for the monarchs, milkweed populations have dwindled due to the use of herbicides in crop fields, where milkweed pops up abundantly between rows of corn and soybeans in the Midwest. But loss of habitat is only one part of the problem — also to blame are climate change, drought, and disease, the culprits responsible for not only the decimation of milkweed, but also nectar sources for adult monarchs. One important step is to plant a variety of nectar-rich flowers in the garden that bloom at different times.
Showy annuals like zinnias and phlox are attractive to butterflies as well as other pollinators like bees and hummingbirds. Growing a good variety of flowers helps sustain all the beneficial insects, adds beauty to your yard, and contributes to the overall health of the local ecosystem.
Equally important are perennials, especially native perennials like echinacea coneflowers and coreopsis , that can provide a constant and reliable source of food. For perennials that do double duty as food for butterflies and food for you, consider planting flowering herbs like sage and oregano. The next step, of course, is to plant milkweed in your garden. More importantly, try to plant native milkweed for the monarchs.
By hatching and feeding on tropical milkweed, caterpillars have an increased chance of being infected with a protozoan parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha OE , which weakens them as adults.
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Once the plant goes dormant in winter and loses its leaves, OE is no longer a threat. But with tropical milkweed, the leaves stay viable all winter long and make it more likely that a caterpillar will become infected. A report by the Monarch Joint Venture found that 49 percent of winter-breeding monarchs had OE infections, compared to only 9 percent of migratory monarchs sampled in Mexico and 15 percent of migratory monarchs sampled in the northern U.
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