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The Insect Diva Monarch Conservation Project

Insect Diva was created by Dr. Diana, a PhD in Entomology and artist with one simple goal, to make conservation beautiful and accessible. to achieve this goal we started The Insect Diva Monarch Conservation Project to help bolster dwindling populations of the scientifically and culturally important monarch butterfly. Under the direction of Dr. Diana the project focuses on clearing land of invasive plant species and replanting it with flowers, and milkweed species native to Eastern North America to support the Atlantic Coast migration of monarch butterflies. This work is funded by your purchases from The Monarch Collection by Insect Diva, and allows the consumer to take an active role in conservation by using consumerism for environmental betterment. We also want to Educate and empower individuals to take on conservation projects of their own, and hope you will find the information below inspires you to do so. 

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Monarch butterfly snacking on milkweed leaves, the only plant their caterpillars can eat, and thus need to survive. Photo credit: Dr. Diana Carle

Monarch butterflies are fascinating organisms, their migratory nature connects North and South America in a shared conservation goal.  While small Monarch populations exist in Southeast Asia, Australia, and some isolated areas, the populations in North and South American exhibit surprising ingenuity, vacationing during the cold winter months in the warm forests of Mexico, and then summering in the cooler climate of North America.

The migratory strategy of Monarch butterflies is an ingenious adaptation to no only save monarchs from the lethal cold, and also helping to protect them from a dangerous pathogen, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or OE for short. How exactly does this work? The only plant that monarch caterpillars eat and even need to survive is milkweed, because they use the cardiac glycoside toxins from the leaves to make themselves poisonous to predators. In fact, the bright and striking warm colors on monarch caterpillars and butterflies are actually warning signals to predators of their poisonous nature. This defense mechanism is called, aposematic coloring, which means “warning sign” coloration, because it acts as a caution signal of an organism’s toxicity. This idea of bright reds, orange, and yellows mixed with a strongly contrasting white or black as being toxic and attention grabbing is so ingrained in nature that even road signs are designed from this principle. The bright red and white of a stop sign or the striking orange and black of construction signs take advantage of an innate evolved predisposition to pay attention to these colors as warnings.

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An adult monarch butterfly displays it’s orange, black, and white markings to possible predators as it feeds, advertising its poisonous nature. Photo credit: Dr. Diana Carle

The OE pathogen takes advantage of this connection between monarchs and milkweed because the disease is usually transmitted from the mother to her eggs and the milkweed leaves on which she lays them. As the summer progresses, more and more of this pathogen builds up on milkweed plants, increasing and intensifying the infection in monarch caterpillars. Though this disease is found in many monarch populations, the pathogen does not usually occur in high enough numbers to cause detrimental effects to the monarchs. This is because  the milkweed plants and the OE pathogens die off every winter, while the monarch butterflies fly off to their vacation destination in the Mexico forests where they spend the winter drinking tropical nectar from flowers and enjoying the warm South American sun. They do not begin to reproduce and raise new caterpillars again until the following summer as they travel north to raise their young in the safe and nutritious North American fields of milkweed. And the newly blooming milkweed is free from last season’s OE infection, providing a healthy home for the caterpillars to develop. 

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Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is not native to North America and can become a breeding ground for the dangerous OE pathogen that threatens monarch butterfly survival. Photo credit: Dr. Diana Carle

This is why planting milkweed is such a fantastic contribution to monarch butterfly conservation. However, in people’s enthusiasm to help the butterflies, many have actually created a hazard for the monarchs by planting the non-native tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, which naturally occurs only as far north as Mexico where there are never monarch caterpillars. Tropical milkweed when planted in the USA continues blooming year-round in USDA hardiness zones 8-11, and farther north where tropical milkweed cannot overwinter, many people bring the plant inside and keep it alive to replant in the spring. In both cases the result is milkweed plants that do not die off in the winter and create a serious health risk to monarch caterpillars, accomplishing the exact opposite goal of helping the monarch butterflies. You can find more information about the negative effects of tropical milkweed and which milkweed species to plant for monarch conservation in this publication from the Monarch Joint Venture.

Thus, monarch’s transient lifestyle naturally separates their caterpillars from dangerous levels of the OE pathogen and teaches us that we must be mindful of respecting the native biodiversity of each region. Laws do not always reflect the science, and if people are allowed to bring this plant that can be harmful to the already dwindling monarch butterfly populations, then it’s up to scientist like myself and others to share the information and empower the general public so that we can take action to save our environment together. It’s important to remember that all of us as individuals have an amazing ability to make positive environmental change through small actions in a way that lawmakers never could.  Because a well informed citizen with a peaceful heart to truly make the world better can do incredible things. Remember the lesson from these migratory butterflies who teach us how local environmental action can have far-reaching affects.

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Swamp milkweed, a North American native species of the plant and a favorite host plant of  monarch caterpillars. Photo credit: Dr. Diana Carle

DIY Monarch Conservation

You have the power to take monarch butterfly conservation into your own hands through two simple and educationally fascinating projects. First, you can start by planting milkweed plants for the monarch caterpillars to feed upon, and watch as your garden becomes a monarch caterpillar nursery. Second, you can collect monarch butterfly eggs from nature and rear them indoors to later release the adults, this helps bolster monarch butterfly populations by protecting the growing caterpillars from predation. For information on how to get started with both of these conservation projects keep reading.

Monarch Habitat Restoration

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Monarch caterpillar feasting on a swamp milkweed leaf in the Insect Diva Monarch Conservation Garden. Photo credit: Dr. Diana Carle

 Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed plants because these butterflies need the cardiac glycoside toxins of the milkweed plant. This is because monarchs truly are what they eat, having evolved the ingenious mechanism of sequestering the milkweed toxins they ingest permanently into their body tissues, even into adulthood. Ultimately, this makes monarch butterflies poisonous and unpalatable to predators. The decrease in monarch populations has even been linked to habitat destruction and loss of the vital monarch host plant, which means that planting milkweed flowers is one of the most important steps in monarch conservation.

Choosing the Right Variety of Milkweed is Important

Butterfly weed milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a great variety for a small gardens, because it does not usually grow more than 24″ tall, and only spreads by seeds, and not by runner roots underground making it easier to  contain in a small garden. This flower is perennial is USDA hardiness zones 3-9, needs full sun, and is very drought resistant because it has a long root that grows several feet down into the ground. This species can look somewhat similar to Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) because of similar flower color and similar leaf shape, but in butterfly weed the leaves are more pointed and the stems and underside of leaves are quite hairy.

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Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incaranata)has beautiful dark and light pink flowers that have a softly sweet aroma. Photo Credit: Dr. Diana Carle

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incaranata) is another fantastic variety for a smaller garden, it is taller than butterfly weed milkweed growing over 36″ tall, and also only spreads by seeds. This flower is perennial is USDA hardiness zones 3-9, prefers full sun, and is unlike butterfly weed milkweed is not drought resistant and as its name suggests is actually somewhat tolerant of overly moist environments.

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A milkweed bug dining on the large seed pods of a Common milkweed plant. Photo credit: Dr. Diana Carle

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is not the best choice for a small garden as it grows well over 36″ tall and can rather aggressively spread by both seed and runner roots under the ground. Instead, this variety is excellent in large sunny fields and can be a great tool to outcompete unwanted invasive plants. This flower is perennial is USDA hardiness zones 3-9, needs full sun, and is relatively drought resistant.

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Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is not native to North America and can become a breeding ground for a dangerous pathogen that threatens monarch butterfly survival. Photo credit: Dr. Diana Carle

DO NOT Plant Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) in the USA or Canada. The variety of milkweed is native as far north as Mexico, and planting it north of Mexico has been linked to causing harm to monarch populations by spreading the parasite Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE). Native milkweed varieties die back every fall along with the OE parasites that buildup on these plants all summer long. Tropical milkweed however remains evergreen up to USDA hardiness zone 8 in the southern USA, and further north where the plant is only an annual gardeners will often bring it in to survive the winter. This allows the OE parasite to multiply and spread over the milkweed plant, effectively turning the food that monarch butterflies need to survive into a health hazard. This is why planting native varieties of milkweed is so important for monarch butterfly conservation.

Monarch Rear and Release

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After you have planted the essential food source and host plant for monarch butterflies you can rear and release monarch butterflies into the wild to amplify their populations. Though you can buy monarch caterpillars from a breeder, there are a few problems with this including: decreased genetic diversity and possibly adding even more pathogens into the environment from year-round breeding of the butterflies. As an alternative, you can collect monarch butterfly eggs from the underside of milkweed leaves in the wild. Monarch eggs and 1st instar caterpillars can fall victim to predators, so bringing these eggs and caterpillars indoors for later release as adults can increase the numbers of monarch butterflies in the wild.

Step 1. Find monarch eggs by looking usually on the underside of milkweed leaves. The eggs are shaped like tiny footballs standing upright on the leaf and look pure white just after they are laid, but they soon turn to a warm off-white color.  The eggs are attached with a glue-like substance that the mother butterfly secretes so it is best to remove the entire leaf when collecting the eggs. Remember that milkweed plants contain cardiac glycoside toxins and some secrete a milky latex sap when cut so be sure to wash you hands after cutting these leafs.

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Three freshly laid monarch butterfly eggs attached to the undersides of swamp milkweed leaves. Photo credit: Dr. Diana Carle

Step 2. Place the leaves inside of a mesh insect cage with plenty of milkweed leaves to eat. A small potted milkweed plant is a great choice because it provides a fresh continuous supply of food for your caterpillars. Also be sure to choose a safe place to position the cage away from cats and other disturbances.

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A monarch nursery made of a breathable insect cage with room enough for a potted milkweed plant. I ended up placing this near a window in my house, if you have a screened in porch that is also a great place to set your monarch nursery. Photo credit: Dr. Diana Carle

Step 3. Enjoy watching the eggs hatch and caterpillars grow! Make sure to keep the cage very still while the butterflies pupate so that they emerge as well formed healthy adults.

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Monarch butterfly adult and chrysalises in various stages of metamorphosis. Photo credit: Dr. Diana Carle

Step 4. As the butterflies emerge from their chrysalises place a nectar source in the cage for the butterflies to have a meal and build their strength before releasing into the wild.

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Monarch butterfly feeding on a Dahlia before releasing into the wild. Photo credit: Dr. Diana Carle

Step 5. Release the adults into the wild near milkweed plants and good floral nectar sources. Sometimes the butterflies are very docile and will perch on your hand before they fly away so be sure to have your camera ready and enjoy this beautiful experience. Note if you want to repeat the process with another batch of eggs, make sure to thoroughly clean the cage and everything in it to sterilize any pathogens that may have accumulated.

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A docile monarch butterfly perched on my hand just seconds before it flew high up into the trees. Photo credit: Dr. Diana Carle

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