The Field Museum invites the Chicago Region community to join the Monarch Community Science Project. Be a part of groundbreaking science to show how YOUR milkweed is helping monarchs. If you have milkweed plants or are willing to plant them, please consider helping us measure the contribution of those plants to monarch conservation. This community science project is designed to be accessible to anyone, especially families and those new to community science.
Please consider attending the following in person workshops:
Has your garden gone quiet, the hum and buzz of busy pollinators a faint whisper? Do you remember summer nights driving through clouds of insects but now arrive home with a clean windshield? Do you miss the enchantment of watching the flash and glimmer of fireflies?
While we’ve been busy doing human stuff, pollinators and insects have been quietly disappearing. For years the decline went unnoticed. Insects are small, many live outdoors and often the everyday human insect interactions are annoying, ants in the kitchen, mosquitoes in the yard, yellow jackets threatening a picnic. Hard to miss something you want to avoid.
Though often overlooked, insects are the keystone of life, a pivotal connection between plants and animals. Our lives are being diminished by their decline.
A growing number of studies confirm insects are declining in abundance with a number of species in danger of extinction. Insects in general are declining but the ones commanding the most attention are pollinators, a group that includes bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, ants and flies. Pollinators in Peril, a report prepared by the Center for Biological Diversity in 2017 found that 24% of native bees are imperiled and population declines are occurring in 52% of native bee species. In Illinois, the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network has found a 30% decline in butterfly abundance since 2000.
The spotlight has been on honeybees for years. It’s THE bee that comes to mind when discussing pollinator decline, likely due to their strong connection with people. Honeybees perform essential pollinator services for several food crops, they make honey and their picture has been featured on a popular breakfast cereal box until it was replaced by a ghost-like silhouette to highlight honeybee decline.
The honeybee’s celebrity has eclipsed the contributions native bees make to a healthy eco-system. The honeybee is distinctive in several ways, setting it apart from other bees. It is social, while most bees are solitary. It has been managed for so long, it’s typical home is a hive box; most native bees build modest nests in the ground or hollow stems and twigs.
We’re familiar with adult bees, tiny creatures flying from flower to flower but the majority of a bee’s life is spent out of sight, in a nest undergoing the early stages of its life cycle. The bee’s developmental stages are the same as a butterfly’s, an egg hatching into a larva (grub form), then pupating before becoming the adult we recognize.
Many pollinators have unique skills equipping them to perform specialized tasks required for pollinating certain types of plants. Tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, blueberries and cranberries have tightly packed pollen that isn’t readily accessible and needs to be released with a good shaking. Bumblebees clasp the flower then engage their flights muscles, producing a vibration strong enough to unleash the pollen. Called buzz pollination, honeybees are not capable of this particular pollinating technique.
Some pollinators, like the squash or cucurbit bee specialize in the pollen of a particular plant or family of plants. Illinois grows the majority of pumpkins in the US, a plant that relies heavily on pollinators. Maintaining a supply of Halloween pumpkins and pumpkin pie depends on a healthy population of squash bees.
All pollinators, all insects are necessary, they’re essential ingredients of the wondrous diversity of life that sustains us.
Pollinators Need our Help
Human activity has created the conditions negatively impacting insects. The causes are known, primarily loss of habitat, widespread pesticide usage and changing weather patterns. Each one of us can be part of the solution.
World renown biologist Jane Goodall said, “Only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help. Only if we help shall they be saved.”
Helping begins with understanding. One of the best ways of understanding the natural world is to spend time in it, looking closely, listening carefully, being curious, noting changes, asking questions and finding answers. Eric Simons, an editor for Bay Nature, a science magazine based in San Francisco says,
“You can go for a walk outside and just pay attention to what’s around you.” It sounds simple, but Simons says that noticing your surroundings is the first step to noticing changes. “The natural world needs witnesses, now more than ever.”
Your garden and yard are the closest places for observing and helping pollinators. Which trees, shrubs and flowers are hosting a lively gathering of insects? Are there different types of visitors, butterflies and bees or an assortment of bees?
Gardening practices make a difference.
From plant selection to tidiness, what you do in the garden can make it more inviting to pollinators.
A tidy garden erases many nesting sites. Skipping much of fall clean up and delaying spring clean up until it’s warm enough for bees to leave the nest are ways a garden becomes habitat.
Support pesticide free agriculture by buying organic when possible.
Not a gardener? You can help by educating others, volunteering your time with local groups, donating to environmental organizations working on behalf of pollinators, and advocating for legislation protecting pollinators.
From lobbying to growing milkweed, Girl Scouts are learning how to help monarchs. In 2017, two sixth grade members of the Pleasant Plains troop successfully lobbied their senators to co-sponsor a bill designating milkweed as the state wildflower. In 2019, a troop of mostly second grade scouts in Westmont learned how to grow milkweed and supported the work of DuPage Monarch Project with a $100 donation.
The girls make a charitable donation each year from the money earned by selling cookies. “One of the major themes taught through the Girl Scouts’ program is helping others,” said Sarah Plotnick-Anderson, one of the troops co-leaders. “It’s part of the Girl Scout law which the girls recite at every meeting.” Past recipients have included the West Suburban Humane Society and Cosley Zoo.
Co-leaders Jenny Shirley and Sarah Plotnick-Anderson offered the girls three organizations to choose from this year, Special Olympics, DuPage Monarch Project, and World Relief DuPage.
When asked why she voted to help monarchs, Aelyn replied, “They’re pretty and I like all creatures. They deserve a life just like everyone. Also, monarchs are my favorite bug.”
Raeleigh added, “Butterflies are pretty and I don’t want them to be extinct. They help pollinate flowers and plants too so if they are gone then we might not have food from these plants to eat.”
DuPage Monarch Project (DMP) was included in the mix because the leaders were looking for a conservation project that would be easy for the girls to replicate at home combined with an educational workshop on butterfly habitats.
At a meeting in May, DMP board member Connie Schmidt talked about the monarch’s life cycle, habitat requirements and demonstrated how to plant milkweed and nectar plant seeds. Each scout took home an egg carton planted with seeds to nurture until they’re ready for transplanting outside, which will be just in time for hungry caterpillars and butterflies.
Good news – milkweed is no longer on the Illinois Noxious Weeds List!
When I started growing common milkweed five or so years ago it was still on the list and people were not nice when I offered them free milkweed seeds. True, it is a sticky mess and would not be good to ingest or get in your eyes. A few National Geographic specials on the vanishing Monarch made my quest to give away free common milkweed seed a little easier. I would say, “Would you like some free milkweed seed?” And the person would say, “No.” Then I would say, “Did you know that it is the only plant that the Monarch butterfly will lay eggs on and the only plant that the larva will eat?” Suddenly, I had takers all around.
I need to give credit to Pat Miller for getting me started. She provided me with the first seed to give away and the seeds that were first planted in our vegetable/flower garden.
The other reason I wanted to grow milkweed was so I could raise monarchs to release. I needed milkweed so I could find the eggs and newly hatched larva to raise in a controlled environment as only one in ten eggs makes it to a butterfly in nature. I also need plenty of clean, unsprayed milkweed for feeding. I take the leaf off the plant that has the egg or the larva and use a floral tube to keep the leaf from drying out too fast. This is where things can get sticky! I need to move quickly as the stem of the leaf will seal from the “milk” and the leaf will dry out before the larva emerges. And try not to let the leaf drip on your clothes.
I have learned over a few seasons that less is more when it comes to milkweed. I love the aroma of common milkweed blooms and I do let some plants go to seed so that I have more to give out the following year. However, I take out some older plants and let new ones emerge as monarchs like young tender leaves for their eggs. In addition, I don’t want the milkweed over crowded and I don’t want “wilt” on the milkweed leaves or on any of my tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.
Milkweed doesn’t always cooperate by growing where I want it to grow, but I do try to keep it as a tall background plant for other natives like coneflower. We ring our vegetable garden with natives and it works out very well with the birds preferring the natives to the fruits of the plants we eat!
Growing milkweed and raising monarchs is a labor of love, but well worth the effort.
Judith Allyn Horsleyhas been a certified Master Naturalist since 2012. She began distributing milkweed seeds in 2013 and has distributed over 2500 packets of common milkweed seed. She is a member of West Chicago’s America in Bloom committee, has taught monarch conservation at park district summer camps and is active with the Environmental Stewardship Committee at her church.