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Steps to Help Monarch Butterflies

Monarch Butterfly sipping Swamp Milkweed nectar

Steps to Help Monarch Butterflies

In order to help Monarch Butterflies, we can all take four basic steps to work toward the goal of providing for these gorgeous butterflies along their migration route.

Step 1 – Milkweed

Monarch Caterpillar on Asclepias syriaca
A Monarch Caterpillar is on Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed) which is one of its host plants.

The most important step is to plant milkweed.  Milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.) are the host plants for the monarch caterpillars.  Without milkweed, there can be no babies!  By getting to know the varieties that are native in your region, you are halfway there.  Native plants are the best in your garden since they are suited for your seasons and rainfall levels.  In most of the South, Swamp Milkweed is a great option, while Showy milkweed and Narrowleaf milkweed are some of the best in the West.  These native plants grow quickly and can feed many hungry caterpillars.

Some native milkweeds grow slowly and start out small, like Antelope Horn milkweed.  While these will be wonderful additions to your garden, you will need to have patience and keep your eyes on the long-term benefit.  Many butterfly gardeners use a mix of milkweeds – slow growers and fast growers – to make sure milkweed is available for years to come.

Step 2 – Nectar Plants

Monarchs on Goldenrod
Monarch Butterflies feed on Goldenrod flowers during Fall migration

The second step is to plant nectar plants.  As most milkweeds provide nectar, you may be able to use one type of plant to feed both caterpillars and adult butterflies.  You will need many plants if you go that route.  Your milkweed may not flower the first year or the caterpillars may eat most of the plant before it has a chance to flower. For this reason, the best option is to provide a variety of nectar plants that attract butterflies.

Like that provided by goldenrod, the adult Monarch needs quality nectar.  Imagine how happy the beautiful female Monarch will be to find flowers for nectar as well as host milkweed plants for her eggs!

Monarch butterfly on coneflower
A monarch butterfly lands on an echinacea plant.

In choosing nectar plants, find native plants that have the attraction factors: color, smell, nectar power, and proper access to the nectar.  Be careful if choosing cultivars, as many have been bred to look good at the expense of nectar value.  It’s important to consider the needs of the butterflies, not just our own aesthetic preferences.  Luckily, native nectar flowers can be as stunning as ornamentals, so there’s no need to sacrifice beauty!

Step 3 – No Pesticides

The third step is to eliminate pesticides and herbicides in your garden.  Bugs on your plants is a sign that it is thriving!  Healthy plants will attract a wide variety of insects, as well as other wildlife like birds and even (adorable) troublesome rabbits.  While we are tempted to save every butterfly, some caterpillars will not make it to adulthood but will still be an important part of the overall cycle of life in the garden.  If you use pesticides in your garden to eliminate “pesky bugs” like aphids, you will end up killing many insects, including Monarch caterpillars. Systemic pesticides lurk inside the leaves for weeks or even months, leaving caterpillars to unwittingly munch away on the poison.

Monarch caterpillar eating milkweed
Monarch caterpillar nibbling on a milkweed leaf.

Say No to the Spray

As much as a mosquito bite is irritating, spraying for mosquitoes usually kills all the beneficial insects, while the mosquitoes come right back.  In addition to avoiding pesticides for the insects, avoid herbicides!  Even if the plant survives the herbicide, it is harmful to the insects that will use it for food. Think of all the pollinators that need healthy plants and flowers to survive! (Also, think of the birds, pets, and children being exposed)

To have a safe and healthy garden for butterflies, you will have to put in some manual labor.  Pull the weeds by hand, cut off any leaves that may be diseased, brush off aphids if they start to be uncontrollable, etc.  There are some non-systemic pesticides like insecticidal soap that can be used carefully in the case of severe infestations, though these are rare in a diverse garden.  If you have a variety of plants, you will have a variety of insects.  In nature, they all live in balance.

Step 4 – Education

The fourth and final step is to educate yourself and your neighbors. Research the plants that are native to your area so that you are planting the best options for your garden.  On our site, you can search plants by state.  To narrow the range down to the county, the USDA plants database has detailed information on many plants. Even though natives plants are best suited to the land, a few non-natives can be useful in butterfly gardens.  The key is to research the growing requirements to ensure you can care for the plants without causing issues. Compare your environmental conditions to the needs of the plants.

You may know that you shouldn’t spray for mosquitoes, but does your neighbor?  Depending on the distance between your garden and your neighbor’s land, sprays can be blown by the wind to your garden, and chemicals can leach into the soil and be taken in by your plants.  Reaching out to them may be enough. If not, you may need to install barriers to prevent chemicals from spreading.

Life stages of Monarch
A monarch butterfly, caterpillar, and chrysalis on a milkweed plant.

Education is key in saving Monarchs and other butterflies.  Most areas now have gardening groups that specialize in native plants, and many have pollinator-focused groups as well.  Find a group and they will be happy to share their knowledge!

It is also helpful to understand the migration path of the Monarch.  To find out when to expect the butterflies in your area, go to “https://journeynorth.org/monarchs”.   In addition to Monarch information, people input current sightings.  You must know when to expect the Monarchs to make sure you have plants available for them when they arrive.

Working Together to Help Monarch Butterflies

While jumping in head-first is always tempting, sometimes it’s not possible. But you can start small and still make an impact.  Plant a few milkweed and nectar plants and keep an eye out for the orange and black beauties visiting your garden.  Each year, you can expand your garden and create more natural areas.  Taking these few steps will go a long way in helping the Monarch butterflies. Working together, we can all make a big change.