In the summer of 2015 I decided to designate a portion of my yard for the construction of a butterfly garden. I wanted to create a large habitat attractive to all pollinators, but in particular the Monarch Butterfly. After doing some research and following the guidelines laid out by Monarch Watch and their Monarch Waystation Program, I decided on the plants I wanted and came up with a size and shape for my garden. My existing garden already consisted of several of the plants required for a Monarch Waystation, but I wanted to increase the size of my garden and the variety of the plants within it. In particular I wanted to add more milkweed in hopes of eventually having Monarch Butterflies reproduce in my garden. I spent the first few weekends that September constructing the garden in anticipation of the fall native plant sale that takes place each year at the St. Williams Nursery. For those of you not familiar with this nursery, they specialize in native plants found in our area, and I knew I would be able to find everything I needed to complete my garden at this annual event.
As expected, I was able to find everything I wanted at the plant sale and was especially impressed by both the quality of the plants and the prices. I ended up coming home with a wide variety of native wildflowers including four varieties of milkweed. My garden already contained Common Milkweed that I had grown from seed, but I purchased several more plants as I wanted to have a more substantial patch in one particular section of my garden. The other varieties of milkweed I purchased were Butterfly Weed, Swamp Milkweed, and Sullivant’s Milkweed.
When I returned from the sale I quickly got to work getting everything planted. As part of the planning and construction of my garden, I had already marked out where I wanted everything based on plant height and light requirements. Many of the plants I purchased were still in bloom, and it wasn’t long after getting them in the ground when I observed several bees moving from flower to flower.
Meeting the criteria set out by Monarch Watch for their Monarch Waystation Program, I submitted an application form and registered my garden as an official Monarch Waystation. A few weeks later, I received my certificate and metal sign, which I proudly display on my fence overlooking my waystation.
Despite their recent drop in numbers, I had always observed a few Monarch Butterflies in my yard each year, typically during their fall migration as they would stop briefly to feed on my goldenrod and other late blooming wildflowers. To my knowledge, I had never had a Monarch Butterfly reproduce in my yard as I would often check the milkweed for eggs, caterpillars, or any signs of caterpillars including leaves that had been chewed or even droppings, also known as frass. I was optimistic that with my new larger garden and wider variety of milkweed this would eventually change.
As we entered spring of 2016, I was excited to see all of the plants I had added the previous fall emerge form the soil. I found myself out in the garden almost daily pulling weeds and watching as each plant grew. By summer, my garden had filled in nicely and everything was in bloom. Watching bees and other butterfly species move from flower to flower was quite rewarding, but unfortunately still no signs of Monarch Butterflies reproducing.
Even without any signs of Monarch Butterflies reproducing in my waystation, I was still very happy with my creation. I spent many hours that first year watching and photographing bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds as they all benefited from the habitat I provided. In September of 2016, I observed a tagged Monarch Butterfly as it nectared on one of my New England Asters. I was able to photograph the butterfly and read the number on the tag, which I submitted to Monarch Watch, as well as other online sites for sharing tagged Monarch sightings including various Facebook groups. Unfortunately, I never found out where the Monarch originated, but was still happy to see that my waystation was providing a food source for this particular butterfly as it made its long journey south to its wintering grounds in Mexico.
Spring of 2017 was virtually a carbon copy of 2016, I was out in the garden almost daily pulling weeds and watching plants emerge for another season. What was more challenging this year was that many of the plants had spread, so I had to be extra careful making sure that I was in fact pulling weeds and not any of the beneficial native plants that were now showing up in areas where I had not planted them. With the spread of these plants I am now planning to transplant many of them this fall and have already started designing another butterfly garden for my front yard.
By the end of May, I had observed several Monarch Butterflies in our area, but none in my yard. I began searching my milkweed plants for eggs and caterpillars, but still no sign of them. Eventually in mid-June despite having not seen a Monarch Butterfly in my yard, I discovered the first egg on the underside of a Common Milkweed leaf in my garden. Finally, a sign that Monarch Butterflies were reproducing in my waystation. As weeks passed, I continued to find more eggs throughout my waystation and even a few small caterpillars.
One day in early July, I noticed a Monarch Butterfly as it flew in circles over top of my Common Milkweed patch. I watched as it moved form leaf to leaf depositing several eggs on the underside of the leaves. What was unique about this Monarch was that she was missing the top portion of her left forewing, which made identifying her quite easy. As the month progressed, I noticed an increase in the number of Monarch Butterflies frequenting my waystation and consequently discovered more eggs. About a week had passed from the time I first observed the female Monarch Butterfly with the torn wing when she captured my eye once again moving about my Common Milkweed. I grabbed my camera and watched and photographed as she deposited more eggs on the underside of each leaf. In total, I saw her lay 31 eggs throughout my waystation. A few days passed, and once again the same female with the torn wing appeared in my waystation, again laying eggs. This time I witnessed 36 eggs laid bringing the total that I have seen laid from this one butterfly to 67 eggs.
So far this year, I have observed multiple Monarch Butterflies in my waystation including several females laying eggs. I have enjoyed watching them as they nectar on the various flowers that are now in bloom including many of the milkweed plants. In fact, I have observed more Monarch Butterflies this year than I have by mid-July in previous years, which makes me optimistic that maybe their numbers might be on the rise.
Those of you that have followed my blog for while now will know that I have particular soft spot when it comes to species at risk, so observing Monarch Butterflies reproducing in my waystation is incredibly rewarding for me. In fact, words cannot describe exactly how this makes me feel. What started out as an idea and a hope nearly two years ago has finally come to be, and I could not be happier.
Creating a Monarch Waystation or a similar habitat for Monarch Butterflies in your yard is easier and less expensive than you may think. Suitable plants can be found at many area garden centres and you do not need a large area to designate, simply start with a few plants. If you don’t have a yard of your own, ask a friend if they would be interested in creating a butterfly garden together in their yard. Other options would be at your child’s school, your church, or perhaps convincing your condominium corporation to add one on the property. With habitat loss being one of the biggest threats facing the Monarch Butterfly creating habitat is something anyone can do to make a difference.
Several varieties of milkweed can be purchased at local garden centres with each one having unique characteristics. Some varieties grow tall, some short, while others prefer moist areas. Regardless of your landscape, there is a type of milkweed perfectly suited to it. One thing all milkweed shares in common is that it is the only plant consumed by Monarch caterpillars and therefore the only plant Monarch Butterflies lay their eggs on. Without milkweed there would be no Monarch Butterfly.
I hope this post will inspire you to create your own Monarch Waystation or similar habitat. With a little work and some patience I think you too will see that if you plant it, they will come.