SFNC’s Milkweek Project gets Boost for Monarch Conservation

Marc C. Hirrel

The recently held Arkansas Monarch Conservation – Training/Information Session in Conway could not have been scheduled better. It was a resource opportunity for SFNC having made it through the first growing season of our milkweed project. The information and network of agencies both public and NGO will give us time to reflect and plan for next year.

Milkweed flowers - Brent Baker

The November 9th meeting at the Faulkner County Natural Resource Center had six presenters. The experts were split evenly between the butterfly and its plant hosts, specially its brood host, milkweed. Topics ranged from milkweed decline and their species distribution across Arkansas to the natural history and migration patterns of the Monarch.

The Monarch migration miracle lies not in the distance traveled from the volcanic mountain range west of Mexico City to Arkansas and the upper mid-west, but the generational memory embedded in germ cells that pass the route back to a specific fir species in Mexico. The linage of where, when, and how is passed to the 3rd or 4th generation of milkweed feeding caterpillars – the great grand children who never knew their north bound forebears!

Monarch Butterflies at South Fork in Clinton AR

If the migration message is not etched in the species’ DNA, then this cross generation communication must lie with the milkweed. Only here are parent and offspring connected. The good news is that neither species is endangered from the loss of the other. The bad news is that if the secret of The Return is not conserved, then the migration of the butterfly will vanish.

Conserving milkweeds conserves Monarch migrations. Aldo Leopold wrote,

“For one species to mourn another is something new under the sun.”

He was mourning the loss of the passenger pigeon also known for its migration patterns. Land management practices are to blame. One corridor of concern is along I-35 according to Dr. Jim Edson, monarchwatch.org and UA-Monticello (retired). In Arkansas, Monarch Watch projects are identifying prime monarch/milkweed habitat.

For us at SFNC and our milkweed project, there were two presentations of interest. A milkweed preference study by entomologist, Dr. Donald Steinkraus, UA-Fayetteville. This preliminary work showed that in NW Arkansas, swamp milkweed was best followed by butterfly weed. Avoid planting non-natives like Tropical milkweed, which can vector a protozoan pathogen to Monarchs.

The other presentation by Theo Witsell, Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, on milkweed species of Arkansas and fall nectar sources. Interestingly, there are about 20 species considered as milkweeds all in the Dogbane family. Most are species of Asclepias (14 spp.); the others are vines and uncommon in the state. Red Ring or white milkweed is one of the more common along with butterfly weed, but it is not a good Monarch host. Whitsell reminds us that fall nectar species are needed for returning butterflies. Tick seed sunflower (Bidens spp.) and late bonset are good fall nectar plants.

Looking for more information? Thanks to The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, Anne Stein shared some valuable resource material on Monarchs and milkweeds at www.xerces.org.

Photos by Brent Baker.