Local monarch friendly gardens have been planted, pruned and prepared for the butterfly’s annual arrival but they’re slow to show up this year.
Waystation owners eagerly anticipate the arrival of the first monarch and often make note of the date or observe which blossoms the butterflies choose to feed on. Alison Bock, who has gardened for monarchs in Lombard for 12 years, observed they typically arrive in early June when the privet hedge is blooming. When she hadn’t seen a monarch as of July 1st, anxiety grew, fueled by reports of a devastating storm that hit the overwintering site in March, just as the butterflies were beginning their journey north. It was a great relief when a monarch showed up few days later. The late arrival could be due to weather conditions all along the migration route this past spring. The full impact of the storm on the monarch population won’t be known until they return to Mexico in the fall when the size of the roosting areas is measured.
Gardening for butterflies is deeply rooted in Bock’s family history. She learned about gardening from many hours spent in the garden with her grandmother. As they both grew older, Alison did more and more of the bending and reaching, always under the patient and knowledgeable guidance of her grandmother. “My Grandma told me,” Bock said in a halting voice, “when I die I’ll come back and visit you as a butterfly.”
Her garden is well prepared for butterflies with four varieties of milkweed and a profusion of nectar plants in highly visible shades of red, yellow and orange. She refers to one area as “caterpillar corner,” sheltered by a fence and intentionally left slightly messy to provide hiding places. Bock’s advice to beginner butterfly gardeners is to keep the birds well fed and the feeders at a good distance from where the caterpillars are. Monarch caterpillars have some protection from predators because of the toxic milkweed sap they ingest but they are still at risk.. Birds may sample a caterpillar one time, experience its toxicity and learn to avoid it. Bock wants her garden to give every caterpillar the best chance of survival.
Caterpillar corner was where Alison discovered the pay-off of monarch gardening. “I’ve seen butterflies and they’re cool, flying fairies,” she shared, “but the first time we saw a ‘cat’ on a milkweed plant we hollered, ‘We did it, it’s working!’”
Over 190 monarch waystations in DuPage have been registered with Monarch Watch, ranging in size from 100 to over 5,000 square feet and spread throughout the county at residences, businesses, schools, churches and parks. The first waystation was registered in 2005 at the Elmhurst home of Jane Foulser, a dedicated monarch conservationist and Elmhurst Garden Club member. Elmhurst Mayor Steve Morley recently continued the community’s leadership role in the conservation effort by signing the National Wildlife Federation’s Monarch Pledge.
A waystation is a garden with the amenities monarchs need, nectar and milkweed plants free of insecticides, shelter from the wind, a shallow dish of water or a damp spot for puddling, sunny places with a boulder or rock for basking and an informal gardening style that provides caterpillars a place to hide.
Man made habitat is replacing the 173 million acres of habitat lost through conversion to cropland for the growing ethanol industry, acres of milkweed eradicated from farm fields that are now being maintained with herbicides and urban development. Bock commented as she proudly looked around her garden, “This is my little piece of the planet, I’m doing what I can to make it better. It’s my little eco-system for pollinators and butterflies.”