Being able to fund hands-on conservation projects through purchases from Insect Diva is a passion of mine. I grew up during the 90s at a time when the media and local communities empowered people to assume personal responsibility for taking care of our environment. Lately however doing hands on conservation has increasingly gone out of style and has been replaced by merely “spreading awareness” about conservation or expecting politicians to protect our environment for us. Unfortunately this not only leaves us disconnected from nature, but it also leaves nature disconnected from the powerful impacts that individuals can have through practices like habitat restoration, gardening for pollinator conservation, and using consumer power to help our environment. We all have an incredible power to help the environment as consumers through practices like 1) buying locally produced or conservation conscious products, 2) purchasing reusable instead of single use items (e.g. reusable shopping bags and water bottles), 3) investing in recycled or upcycled items (e.g. shopping at thrift stores and for products made from recycled or upcycled items), and simply 4) consuming less (the easiest way to do this is through investing in quality items that will last a long time instead of trendy poorly made items prone to quickly falling apart). With so many 90s trends coming back, I think we should bring back the 90s trend of personal responsibility in conserving our world.
This idea of personal environmental stewardship inspired the The Monarch Collection from Insect Diva in which a milkweed flower is planted to support the Atlantic Coast migration of monarch butterflies through the Insect Diva monarch butterfly habitat restoration project. The collection features American made brass monarch butterflies which I hand painted and incorporated into an elegant necklace and striking pair of sunglasses. I hope you love this collection and gift yourself or someone you care about with these handmade treasures that also help conserve our environment.
This project is so close to my heart because I grew up along the Atlantic Coast migration route of these beautiful butterflies and used to delight in seeing them every summer as they migrated north from Mexico.
Over the years however the monarch butterflies became fewer and fewer, until finally, I did not see any. So this year I decided to do something about it and started clearing and planting land with milkweed, the vital monarch caterpillar host plant. I also began rearing and releasing monarch caterpillars into the wild to help revitalize the dwindling populations of these butterflies along the Atlantic Coast. Your purchases of The Monarch Collection help fund the construction of monarch gardens through clearing invasive plants and growing and maintaining milkweed flowers, as well as raising monarch butterflies for release into the wild to support the Atlantic Coast monarch populations.
DIY Monarch Conservation
Monarch Habitat Restoration
And because this collection is all about empowering the individual to practice hands-on conservation, I wanted to share information on how you can do your own monarch conservation project. 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.