JOLIET – What child doesn’t want the sublime pleasure of a monarch butterfly landing on his hand or shoulder?
So said Jo Chenell of Green Garden Township, master gardener and volunteer with the University of Illinois Extension office in Joliet. But monarch numbers have dramatically dropped in the past two years, Chenell said, which could impact other insect populations.
Scientists, Chenell said, believe climate change, loss of habitat with increased urbanization and use of pesticides have contributed to the drop.
“There are some very basic and easy things everyone can do to help with the solution,” Chenell said. “I wanted to be part of the solution. Building a butterfly garden is part of the solution.”
To that end, the University of Illinois Extension has created an informational brochure to guide people through the process of creating gardens to attract and support monarchs.
Collaborating on the brochure were Chenell; Phyllis Schulte of Mokena, master gardener, master naturalist, butterfly monitor for the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network and 23-year volunteer for the Forest Preserve District of Will County; and Nancy Kuhajda, master gardener and program coordinator for the University of Illinois Extension in Joliet.
The brochure, Schulte said, also discusses tagging monarchs to track their migration. The tiny tag is placed on a particular distal cell of the monarch to avoid stress on its wings and disruption of its center of gravity in flight.
“The monarch migration is considered as one of the largest migrations of insects on the planet,” Schulte said. “To lose that is kind of sad, especially when you know it was humans that destroyed it.”
What people can do
Kuhajda said she has worked with community groups to establish monarch way stations and invites schools, civic organizations and entire municipalities to create gardens and way stations, too.
“The monarch is a very attractive insect and people seem to be drawn to it,” Kuhajda said. “People in my age group remember seeing tons of monarchs. Now we barely see them.”
A monarch way station, Kuhajda said, can be as small as a 10-by-10-foot garden plot. Chenell added the site must receive six to eight hours of sun each day.
“You can elect to amend the soil,” Chenell said. “But most of these native plants are pretty tough plants and will do well in existing soil.”
The difference between a way station and butterfly garden is that way stations are registered with Monarch Watch, Schulte said. Monarch Watch is a “cooperative network of students, teachers, volunteers and researchers dedicated to the study of the monarch butterfly,” according to its website.
Into the garden go milkweed – the plant where monarchs lay their eggs and the food source for the larvae – said Janine Catchpole of Joliet, who began converting her garden into mostly native plants in 2009.
Monarchs also need access to plenty of nectar plants, such as black-eyed Susan, purple coneflowers and asters, to give the butterflies energy during the migration as they cover many miles, Catchpole said.
Catchpole designed and planted several pollinator/monarch plantings when she worked for Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, provided technical assistance to organizations and schools regarding their own gardens, and attended – last year – the North American Monarch Institute. She feels the monarch’s disappearance represents a changing landscape that could disrupt other life cycles.
Many people, Catchpole said, have never seen a real prairie, despite Illinois’ reputation as a prairie state. People often assume the tallgrass they see is prairie grass, but it often is not, she said. Much of Illinois’ prairie grass has been “plowed, pastured or cemented.”
“We’re fresh out of prairie,” she said.
It’s not too late to start
Although the monarch season in Will County is winding down, Chenell said, people have until the end of September to prepare a plot and add a few plants to get the rooting systems started.
A small inexpensive garden might contain six milkweed plants, three to four perennials and four to five annuals, Chenell said, Watch for local sales, too, as these may offer reasonably-priced milkweed plants. Chenell has seen them for as little as $3 each.
Environmental concerns aside, butterfly gardens are fascinating to watch. Chenell said she maintains a 15-by-50-foot pollinator garden at the Manhattan Farm Bureau – with the monarch as its main focus – that attracted interest from the bureau’s visitors this summer.
“They stopped and talked and asked questions about the plants and looked at the butterflies,” Chenell said. “I’ll point out the caterpillars and – on occasion – the chrysalises hanging on the walls or under the ledge.”
Not a butterfly person? No worries. A monarch-friendly garden also attracts plenty of colorful red and black milkweed beetles.
“You get all kinds of pollinating bees,” Chenell said, “and a plethora of insects that are just fun to watch.”
Call 815-727-9296 to obtain a copy of the University of Illinois Extension’s monarch brochure