Recently two folks from Cornell Cooperative Extension wrote to ask about rearing monarchs and planting milkweeds. Their questions and my answers are given below.
Is educational rearing of monarchs still allowed?
I am an Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension – Steuben. I have been trying to find out more information on monarch conservation status and how this affects educational rearing of caterpillars? I reached out to the CCE contact for classroom monarch raising and education programs but have not heard back so I am hoping you may know or may be able to direct me to someone who can help inform me. We are planning to have a monarch educational display at our County Fair with a mesh rearing habitat for caterpillars and chrysalis (we never keep butterflies, as soon as they emerge and are ready to fly, they are immediately released so I watch the development carefully). However, now that monarchs are officially on the endangered species list, can we continue to do this for educational purposes? Any other cautions or recommendations? I really appreciate your guidance. The USDA did not know and recommended I contact US Fish and Wildlife Services. I did contact them but have not gotten a response. Thank you for your time.
Susan M. Walker
Agriculture & Natural Resources Educator
Cornell Cooperative Extension | Steuben County
Greetings from newfoundland (where there are monarchs, but no milkweed)! Monarchs are not on the United States endangered species list. They were given the designation of “endangered” by the IUCN, an international conservation body. So, the short answer is that nothing has changed in terms of regulations and rearing. The IUCN simply makes designations. In fact, the monarch has been on the IUCN’s “threatened” red list since the mid-1980s.
In the scientific literature there continues to be debate as to the value of listing monarchs as endangered under the United States Endangered Species Act. On the one hand, the declining overwintering population is certainly cause for concern. Nonetheless, there are hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies that exist not only in the USA, but also in introduced areas such as Spain and Australia. Furthermore, no one is arguing that the monarch itself is likely to go extinct. However, low numbers threaten the sustainability of the migration from Canada to Mexico each year.
In any case, my general recommendation is to rear very few caterpillars, and as you have suggested, to release them as soon as they mature. The most profound benefit of this rearing is watching the magic and sharing it with others, as it seems you do at the fair. I am not a proponent of mass rearing of any kind. Not only does this not “help” the population, it can be detrimental because of disease and other issues.
All my best, -Anurag
How to encourage milkweed in our fields?
Dear Dr. Agrawal,
We are a group of Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners in Otsego County beginning a Monarch Support Initiative. We are planning to work with several municipalities in our county to create monarch habitats in our local parks. We find an abundance of native nectar plants, but little or no milkweed. We’d like to plant milkweed, but could your project offers us some guidance/direction on the best way to initiate this process in a meaningful way?
Thank you for your time,
Education and Outreach Chair
Otsego County Master Gardeners
Thanks for writing and sorry for my slow reply. It’s wonderful that you’re working towards habitat conservation. The fact that your lands have many native wildflowers is perhaps the most important thing. This provides important nectar sources for the monarch as well as many other native insects. As you may know, nectar sources other than milkweed are critical from the monarchs migration in the fall. In fact, by then milkweed does not produce flowers, and it is many native goldenrods and asters that fuel the southern migration.
If your meadows are already established, it can be a slow process to add milkweed, and this may not be necessary. My suggestion would be to collect seeds this fall from locally occurring seed pods of milkweed and to scatter thousands of them in your fields. This will result in a few plants that take hold, although they may not be noticeable for a couple of years. They start small and develop root systems and eventually show themselves. It can be easier to establish milkweed in newly plowed areas or disturbed areas that have bare soil. Here too, I would suggest scattering seeds in the fall, expecting to see some emergence in the spring, with real establishment one or two years later. I hope this helps.
All my best, -Anurag