Monarch Butterflies and Pollinators Are Declining. Southern Illinois is Crucial to Saving Them. 

Pollinating insects—bees, butterflies, and beetles—are responsible for more than ⅓ of the foods we eat and beverages we drink. But these important creatures are experiencing drastic declines. Without pollinators, we will lose access and affordability to many fresh foods. 

The iconic Monarch butterfly is one pollinator experiencing steep declines. Its population has lost 85% in the last 25 years, and this past winter, overwintering populations declined nearly 60% from 2022 – the second worst year for monarchs ever.

Despite the drastic drop in Monarch populations, hope is not lost, and southern Illinois can be a big part of helping reverse this trend. 

In the late summer and early fall in southern Illinois, monarch butterflies travel on a 2,500-mile journey from our area and the northern U.S. and Canada to the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico, where they spend the winter. This eastern group makes up the vast majority of monarch butterflies in North America. In the spring, two to three generations of Monarchs will make their way back to and through our region for breeding.

Southern Illinois’ Role in Supporting Monarch Butterflies

Habitat loss is one of the main factors leading to the decline of Monarch Butterflies and other pollinators, like Bumble Bees. What will help them? Protecting land and restoring habitat in southern Illinois, which is one of their primary migratory routes.

Milkweed is the only plant that feeds monarch caterpillars. Without their milkweed host plant, the caterpillars (i.e., baby monarchs or larvae) would not be able to develop into butterflies. Prairies, field edges, parks, and backyards make great places for milkweed.

In adult form as a butterfly, Monarchs get their food from flower nectar, which contains sugars and other nutrients. Unlike their caterpillars, which only eat milkweed, the butterflies source nectar from many different flowers. In the fall, Monarchs start prepping for migration south to Mexico. Those butterflies need to build up fat reserves and energy to make the journey and to survive the winter.   

Meanwhile, Monarchs need places to rest at night when they aren’t flying. They rest in tree tops and shrubs where they can be protected from wind and cold temperatures.   

Monarch Caterpillar on Honeyvine Milkweed

Monarch Caterpillar on Honeyvine Milkweed

Monarch on Milkweed
Pollinator Pathway Sign at Poag Sand Prairie in Edwardsville

Poag Sand Prairie is on the City of Edwardsville’s Pollinator Pathway

Saving and creating habitat corridors in Southern Illinois is crucial to pollinator survival. 

Monarchs and bees can only fly so far before needing more food, energy, and a place to rest. A habitat corridor provides patches of nectar sources and resting areas for pollinators. These corridors are especially important within large areas of farmland and communities, and ideally, patches of high-quality native habitat should be available for pollinators every ½ mile. 

Habitat corridors are possible in many areas, including parks, nature preserves, fields, creeks, woods, prairies, pollinator gardens, and roadsides. 

Luckily, there are many efforts in our area to save Monarchs and pollinators. The Illinois Monarch Project has created a Route 66 Monarch Flyway to create a state-wide connected habitat corridor. The City of Edwardsville has established a Pollinator Pathway that encourages pollinator habitat connectivity throughout the community. The City of Carbondale has recently passed an ordinance supporting pollinator-friendly landscaping. 

If you’re interested in getting involved with pollinator and Monarch Butterfly conservation efforts, please contact Jack Aydt, Stewardship Technician at jack.aydt@heartlandsconservancy.org or call (618) 566-4451 ex 17.

Sources for this article: EcoWatch, Illinois Monarch Project, Pollinator Partnership, Project Wingspan, and Monarch Watch

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