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The butterfly effect: Even small efforts can make a big difference for monarchs

A monarch butterfly on a purple coneflower in a native garden
Monarch butterfly on purple coneflower. Photo by Jim Hudgins/USFWS.

Living in such a large and complicated world, it’s easy to feel like you can’t make a difference. It’s easy to feel isolated and that your small efforts don’t add up. But they do! We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service want you to know that even small efforts can add great value for monarchs and other pollinators. Take a few moments to learn about how you can help make a future filled with more monarch butterflies.

Growing a future for monarchs

Have an apartment balcony or patch of grass in your yard? You can turn it into a waystation for monarchs and provide food and shelter throughout all stages of their life! Milkweed plays an essential role in the monarch lifecycle. In fact, milkweed leaves are the only food that monarch caterpillars eat. Did you know there are 73 different milkweed species native to the United States? Planting milkweed and other flowers native to your area is the perfect way to create easy to maintain habitat that helps a variety of pollinators.

Monarchs need more than milkweed to fuel their journey from Mexico to Canada and back. You can help by including other native flowering plants in your garden too. Raised beds and potted plants work great for small spaces. More important than the size of your garden is the timing! Include a variety of nectar-producing plants that bloom from early spring to fall. Asters, blazing stars and wild bergamot will bloom into late September, helping power monarchs for their migration south to Mexico where they spend the winter.

Keeping wild monarchs wild

Want to do even more to help monarch butterflies? Keep them wild and outside. While monarchs face several biological predators like birds and other insects, they face other dangers when you bring them into your home. Bringing wild monarchs indoors to raise them through their larval stage may seem like a helpful way to protect them, but it’s an easy way to unintentionally spread parasites like Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, known as OE. This protozoan parasite infects monarchs, causing - at best - stunted wing size and shorter lifespans and - at worst - a total failure to develop from caterpillars into butterflies. While this parasite occurs in nature, you can cause your own infestation indoors. Once OE finds its way into your home and the equipment you’re using to raise monarchs, it can be very difficult to disinfect and remove and can cause future monarchs to get sick. While it may feel as though you are saving monarchs by raising them one by one, it’s better to see the wider population that you’re benefiting when you focus on growing native plants. You can have the biggest positive impact on monarch conservation by leaving monarchs outside in the wild with the good food and shelter of your garden.

A monarch butterfly with Ophryocystis elektroscirrha resulting in underdeveloped, curled wings
A monarch butterfly with Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. Photo courtesy of Save Our Monarchs.

Helping monarchs helps the wider ecosystem too. Your small actions can have big impacts on all sorts of pollinators, like native bees, moths and even other animals like birds. Tending a few potted plants, raised beds or a bigger space like your backyard, grows your sphere of influence in the natural world and helps to knit together a patchwork of greenways and habitat islands across the built environment. You can be part of something bigger than yourself and join a conservation team that spans North America and more than two decades.

Ready to get started? Learn how to build a pollinator garden

Tiger swallowtail butterfly on purple coneflower
Tiger swallowtail butterfly on purple coneflower. Photo by Jim Hudgins/USFWS.

Pollinators are the engine that run healthy habitats. While we’ve been actively working to restore and conserve more than 1.3 million acres of land across the midwest, we need your help. Whether you have a few feet on your apartment balcony or several acres, you can make a difference. Follow this easy step by step guide to build your own pollinator garden and help ensure the future is filled with pollinators.

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