Can you name this masticating character from literature? Hint: It was so hungry that it ate through a boat load of fruit before it started carbo-loading on cake, ice cream, and pie. If you guessed the very hungry caterpillar, then give yourself a gold star! Spoiler alert: That hungry caterpillar turned into a beautiful butterfly. And now that butterfly has very important work to do as a pollinator, and Monarch butterflies especially need your help to be able to do that work.
What are pollinators and what, exactly, do they do?
When most people think of pollinators they think of bees. True, bees are pollinators, but so are other types of bugs, bats, birds, and butterflies. The wind is also a pollinator.
A pollinator causes plants to make fruit or seeds. They do this by moving pollen from one part of the flower or a plant to another part. This pollen then fertilizes the plant. Only fertilized plants can make fruit and/or seeds, and without them, the plants cannot reproduce.
So why are Monarch butterflies so important?
Monarch butterflies are important pollinators for wildflowers. According to the National Park Service, "The flowers they choose are varieties that are brightly colored, grow in clusters, stay open during the day, and have flat surfaces that serve as landing pads for their tiny guests. Monarch butterflies are also an important food source for birds, small animals, and other insects."
They're in trouble
Undoubtedly, you've heard of the troubles that bees are facing. Sadly, they are not alone. Monarch butterflies are also facing perilous conditions.
They are in trouble because of a variety of factors. According to The New York Times, "Dwindling amounts of milkweed — on which the butterflies depend for food and to lay their eggs — as well as erratic weather patterns and illegal logging in Mexico have led to a decline in their population and fears that the migration may end."
Cross your fingers (and your toes) because there may be hope on the horizon. National Public Radio reported on the cause for optimism: "Tens of millions of butterflies returned to the forest this season, according to Mexico's annual census. That counts acres inhabited by butterflies, not individuals. The insects are resting in 70 percent more forest. And that's good news since the 2013 census was the lowest on record."
5 things you can do to help:
1. Plant native seeds that attract Monarch butterflies. In my region (the Northeast), Monarch butterflies like field thistle, cardinal flower, and bee balm. Check out this guide to learn which native plants you can grow in your region to help Monarchs.
2. Don't mow milkweed. If you're lucky enough to have milkweed growing on your property, then leave it alone. Allow the milkweed to grow naturally to provide food and habitat to the Monarchs.
3. Don't use pesticides. Chances are you already know this. But, just in case you need a refresher on why they are so nasty, check out this link.
4. Support the Highway Habitat Corridor. The National Wildlife Foundation is working to create a coalition of agriculture leaders and highway transportation organizations to plant milkweed and nectar plants along monarch migratory flyways and in other important monarch breeding grounds along key Midwest and Texas corridors.
5. Educate others--especially children. Spread the word about the plight of the Monarch. Arm like-minded folks with things they can do to help. Children are especially receptive to this message. So.....
Get kiddos involved!
My love of the Monarch butterfly began in third grade. My teacher, Mr. Jobin, kept mesh enclosures that contained caterpillar eggs on milkweed all around our classroom. Day after day, and week after week, my classmates and I watched the eggs turn into caterpillars and the caterpillars munch through milkweed.
As if by magic, one morning we came to school to see the chrysalides hanging from the tops of the enclosures. And then, one day, the beautiful Monarch butterflies emerged. Decades later, I still remember the explosion of fiery orange as the butterflies were released to fly south.
Children are sponges, and the environmental lessons that we share with them now will bear fruit in years to come. And, of course, these environmental lessons should be hands-on and fun!
So either buy a butterfly enclosure or make your own. Hang it in a place that is safe from small hands but easily visible to small eyes. Go on a hike to collect Monarch caterpillar eggs as well as milkweed and put in the enclosure.
Read "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" by Eric Carle a million times while you eagerly wait to see the butterflies emerge. (You'll probably only have to read it a thousand times; at that point you'll have it memorized.)
Related on Organic Authority
Cascadian Farm to Plant 100,000 Acres of Pollinator Habitat by 2020
To Stop Pollinator Decline, National Wildlife Refuges Phasing Out Pesticides and GMOs
Protecting Native Pollinators: Understanding Their Important Roles in Your Garden
photo of Monarch butterfly on flower via Shutterstock