Monarch Butterfly Chatbook – Milkweed

MILKWEED – SUSTANTIVO

An important way to help the monarch butterfly is to first identify the host plant. Plant Identification has two names: Common and Latin. The birth of the monarch butterfly in the Chatbook frequently refers to common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). The italicized Latin name first describes the Genus that is capitalized followed by the species in lower case. Native plants are perennial. Once planted they will start their own colony thus ensuring the future of the plant species.  

In spring, when milkweed is just emerging from the soil, the monarch returns to North America from Mexico. The butterflies will stop along the way in Texas where they will mate. Shortly after mating, the parents will die but not before the mother butterfly lays her eggs.  Butterflies with more than one host plant have a better chance of survival than a monarch with only one host plant. The female butterfly deposits her eggs on milkweed and it is the only plant that young caterpillars or larvae (LAR-VEE) eat.

Common milkweed grows in prairies, along roadsides, in agricultural areas and fields, at the edge of forests and even in one’s own backyard. Milkweed originates in the Americas meaning it is a native plant. There are approximately 100 species of milkweed in North America alone.  It is important to let milkweed grow for the monarch butterfly. Different generations of the monarch butterfly migrate to and from Mexico, North America and Canada each year, an estimated distance of 2,000 miles. Migrating north from Mexico, generations of female butterflies’ will need milkweed all along the migration trail. What is so special about milkweed?

Milkweed has several advantages. The plant has a long taproot which looks similar to a carrot taproot. Taproots can go deep into the earth to reach water; native plants do not need watering once they are established. Depth of plant roots is important in times of drought when there is little or no water. People around the world are starting to learn about Global Warming which can cause drought and severe storms.

Milkweed also contains cardiac glycoside a chemical that is toxic. Monarch caterpillars have the unique ability to eat the toxic leaves without any ill effect. Eating milkweed in its early life stage helps enable the adult butterfly to have a chemical defense against possible predators such as birds.  Often birds will throw up after eating a monarch. Captured bluejays were researched and videotaped as they ate milkweed and afterwards by Anu Uno Chellappau. On the other hand, my friend Anna Martineau Merritt has seen a bird eating a monarch without getting sick. Robert Pyle attests to this too. He watched as orioles ate monarchs at the Mexican Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in El Rosario (55).

Sadly, I saw a monarch in my own garden that was less than 24 hours old. In the late afternoon it was resting peaceably on a bright pink zinnia flower and by early evening the new born butterfly had been attacked and killed by a predator. The wings were left behind but the body was gone. At times birds will eat the body which has nutritious fats. Perhaps a bird ate the body and not the wings where most of the toxins are stored. The butterfly also has bright colors that warn predators it is not good to eat.

Update on Monarch Butterfly Tourists in Mexico

According to Wisconsin Public Radio on February 9, tourism is down at and near the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Michoacan, Mexico. The drug wars led by La Familia and beheading of opponent drug gang members is keeping tourists away. Even though the Sanctuary is some distance from the drug wars, tourists do not want to go to a country in the middle of a drug war. 

Millions of monarch butterflies are now at the Sanctuary hanging from the Oyamel fir trees. Towards March they will begin their journey back to the United States on their way to Canada.

Winter 2010 destroyed El Roserio a town near the Sanctuary.  Roads and bridges were wiped out and homes were lost to floods and mudslides. The people are dependent upon tourism who come to see the monarch butterfly at the Mexican Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. A resident interviewed said that the people could depend on working five months a year because of tourism. 13,000 people used to live there but many residents are leaving to try to find work in other parts. The population in 2011 is down to 10,000. The people were already poor and a setback from a weakened tourist trade is unraveling into further hardship on the people. 

Mexican President Calderon wants to make 2011 the Year of Tourism. Between the mudslides and floods at the Sanctuary, that killed at least 50 percent of the wintering monarchs, in 2010 and the continuing drug wars in 2011, tourists are backing off and the nearby towns, that support the tourist industry, are being impacted economically by lack of tourists.