The Northeast region of the United States is home to many beautiful and unique butterfly species, including the quintessential black-and-orange Monarchs. These colorful butterflies are known for their extensively long seasonal migrations and for being an important part of our ecosystem. Unfortunately, Monarch populations are declining throughout North America and one of the main reasons is that their primary food source, milkweed is disappearing.
Native milkweed species in the Northeast (as elsewhere across the country) are declining. Herbicides and pesticides used in big agriculture are reducing these once flourishing plants, along with the destruction of natural habitats as development pushes into natural areas where milkweed has traditionally grown. In addition, fluctuating climates and more intensive weather patterns have affected the availability of milkweed; without milkweed, Monarch butterflies cannot survive.
Milkweed is the only plant that Monarchs lay their eggs on. This is because milkweed leaves contain chemicals called cardenolides that are toxic to most other animals but not Monarch butterfly larvae. Therefore, these cardenolides are protective to the delicate butterfly eggs. Once hatched, by consuming milkweed, Monarch larvae accumulate these toxic compounds in their bodies, making them inedible to most predators. The larvae develop a process known as aposematism, meaning they adopt bright coloration to warn predators of their toxicity.
The Northeast supports several varieties of important milkweed species that are the fundamental food source for Monarch butterflies. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the most abundant throughout the region. It thrives along roadsides and in fields. Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is found in wetlands and other moist habitats. Another variety is butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) which can be found in open fields and grassy meadows.
Efforts are being made to protect native milkweed and to restore its population throughout the Northeast. Many conservation organizations are working to create habitats for Monarch butterflies by planting regionally appropriate milkweed and other indigenous plants. These efforts are critical for the survival of these beautiful pollinators and for maintaining healthy ecosystems.
In addition to conservation efforts, there are several things that Northeast gardeners can do to help protect milkweed and support pollinator populations. Most importantly, avoid using pesticides and herbicides in your gardens and yards. These chemicals kill not only milkweed but also other vital plants and insects. Instead, use organic or natural methods to control pests and weeds.
Plant native milkweed in your gardens and other community areas. Bentley Seeds now carries a range of native varieties for you to grow in your own garden and yards. Planting milkweed and creating dynamic habitats for Monarch butterflies is a critical step in preserving this beautiful species and in ensuring the health of our fragile ecosystem. By taking action to support milkweed and Monarchs, we can make a difference in their conservation and continue to contribute to the biodiversity of the region.