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Drop in numbers a call to arms to help monarch butterflies

Drop in numbers a call to arms to help monarch butterflies

Fluttering swarms of monarch butterflies returned to the warm weather of Mexico in their annual journey, but this year the international tourists that typically accompany the insects' arrival are not making the trip amid a worsening coronavirus pandemic. This report produced by Yahaira Jacquez.

Nancy Crews says it’s a call to action.

Monarch butterfly numbers dropped precipitously again this year and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the beloved insects are threatened enough to warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act. Because of that, they’re considered a “candidate species.”

“We have our work cut out for us,” Crews said. “We can make a difference, but we have to educate people.”

Crews, who lives in Pacific Junction, Iowa, is doing her part through Milkweed Matters, an all-volunteer nonprofit whose mission is to help restore habitat for monarch butterflies and other pollinators.

Crews says destruction of habitat and pesticide and herbicide use are the greatest threats to monarchs.

Her group has one novel way of accomplishing its mission. It makes seed balls that cyclists on RAGBRAI drop across Iowa each summer.

Since 2013, the small band of volunteers has helped organize the making of 170,000 seed balls. They’ve been rolled by hand by Boy Scouts, gardeners and senior citizens. To sign up, email

“Whoever we can get to help us,” Crews said. “It’s very empowering for kids. Just by rolling a seed ball, you can help an endangered species. The kids especially get it. They want to roll up their sleeves.”

Crews said monarchs and other pollinators need help more than ever.

In the west, according to the Xerces Society, the monarch migration is on the verge of disappearing — the migratory population has plummeted by 99.9% to fewer than 2,000 butterflies.

The monarch population east of the Rocky Mountains numbered in the hundreds of millions in the 1990s but has declined by more than 80%. Studies at overwintering sites in Mexico this year showed a continued decline.

Even though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says adding monarchs to the list of threatened and endangered species is warranted, other actions will take precedence. The butterfly’s status will be reviewed each year.

Despite the grim news for the flagship species, Crews hasn’t lost hope.

“There are a lot of groups, and the government, that are working to protect the pollinators because they are essential for our existence for pollinating food,” she said. “If they disappear, we are in trouble, too. It’s not just the pretty butterfly. It’s the foundation of the food chain.”

Monarchs have started their journey north. You can keep track by going to

If you want to help monarch butterflies and others species, here are tips from Monarch Joint Venture.


Monarch habitat contains both milkweed host plants and a diversity of other blooming plants. Choose native nectar and milkweed plants that are best-suited for your location and for the pollinators and monarchs in your area. In Nebraska, opt for joe pye weed, ironweed, goldenrod, sunflower, rattlesnake master and aster. An annual that is good is marigold.

Plant a variety of native nectar plants so you have blooming flowers all growing season. Monarchs need nectar to migrate both in the spring and fall, and to breed in the summer.

Avoid buying pollinator plants treated with insecticides; systemic insecticides like neonicotinoids will harm monarchs and other beneficial pollinators long after they’ve been treated.

Minimize application of harmful chemicals in and surrounding your monarch habitat to avoid unintended consequences to the beneficial insects or plants in the area.

For small spaces, consider a container garden on a balcony or in a shared outdoor space like a patio or front walk.

If you have a community garden in your neighborhood, encourage the organizers to plant pollinator friendly plants, or start your own pollinator plot in the garden.

In addition or instead of creating habitat, there are many ways to volunteer to help the monarchs, such as becoming a citizen scientist or public advocate.


Support the creation of habitat at your business campus, headquarters and in your community.

Select native plants. Milkweed, native grasses and nectar sources have much deeper root systems than conventional landscaping plants. This means fewer costs in upkeep while providing environmental services such as improving stormwater management and water quality and soil health. Something as simple as a rain garden reduces maintenance and creates habitat.

Reduce your land care costs and minimize threats to pollinators by avoiding pesticides and fertilizers and switching to Integrated Vegetative Management or Integrated Pest Management.

Trying to connect with millennials? Your commitment to sustainability, conservation and care for the environment will go miles. This is true not only in sustaining and building your customer base but in attracting and retaining new talent as well.

Get out in your community. As a leader, people take cues from your actions. Spearhead or sponsor a monarch habitat project or educational experience. Contributing to the community engages employees and reminds customers that you care about the health and well-being of where you live, work and play. Expand your customer base working with area nonprofits, school groups or other businesses.

Reduce your carbon footprint and help alleviate pressure on monarch populations from climate change. Shop organic whenever possible, especially when purchasing plants. Local greenhouses will normally have a native plant section with pesticide-free options. Consider allowing your employees to telecommute one day per week. Use energy-efficient appliances. Investigate using more renewable energy sources, including solar and wind power. Get creative to minimize waste by reducing, reusing and recycling.


Incorporate monarch conservation into your community work. Participate in outdoor activities, build local sponsorship opportunities and bring together diverse community groups or sectors in a unified effort to protect an iconic species.

Create pollinator habitats in parks and on common ground in neighborhoods or subdivisions.

Be an entry point for increasing conservation action in your community. By getting your community involved in monarch conservation, you become part of the international effort to protect the monarch migration for future generations.

Visit for more information, including sourcing native seeds and plants and selecting what is right for your area.


Spread awareness about monarchs and pollinators. Teachers have the power not only to foster a love for conservation and the natural world in youth and the community, but to be the driving force behind getting people across the nation involved.

Identify potential areas to install pollinator habitat. Look for an area that is sunny, easily accessible and in plain sight of passers-by, and involve students in the design and installation. Use Monarch Joint Venture’s Monarch Habitat Assessment Tool and Schoolyard Butterfly Gardens handout to get started. The National Wildlife Federation offers schoolyard habitat planning tools and resources as well.

Explore funding opportunities for monarch and pollinator habitats in schoolyards. Education Outside lists several for school gardens. In addition, the Monarch Joint Venture website lists garden grant opportunities and information on how to apply for milkweed from Monarch Watch for large restoration projects (greater than 2 acres). Planting milkweed native to your eco region is important.

Explore and utilize available curriculum lessons, or create your own, to engage students in outdoor learning. Many certification programs are available to register or certify your habitat for increased exposure. Use these to share your story and display signage to draw attention to the site and its value for monarchs and pollinators. Create your own signage to inform others about the purpose of the habitat, how it came to be, and what they can do in their own yards.

Learn about pollinator habitat and how to teach habitat restoration to K-12 students in the Earth Partnership’s new Pollinator Habitat Guide. Monarch Joint Venture and the National Wildlife Federation also are sources for monarch curricula.


Increasing pollinator habitat in agricultural areas is key to restoring monarch populations. With the help of agricultural producers, the national goal of 1.8 billion additional milkweed plants and other wildflowers on the landscape can be reached.

Agricultural lands are rich with opportunities to provide monarch habitat, from fallow fields, hedgerows, marginal cropland, field margins, and the yards and gardens around homes. Native prairie or grassland plantings for monarchs can also be incorporated into farm buffer systems (such as filter strips, grassed waterways, roadside embankments and septic drainage fields). Even identifying and protecting existing habitat areas from mowing or potential pesticide drift helps.

Conservation actions taken on a farm, ranch or backyard, no matter what size, can provide additional economic gain as well as ecological benefits. Monarch habitat benefits honeybees and native pollinators, which are critical in the pollination of many agricultural crops. Setting aside small areas of habitat near or within crops that require pollination can provide food and shelter to support a healthy local pollinator population and improve yields.

Omaha World-Herald: Inspired Living

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Marjie is a writer for The World-Herald’s special sections and specialty publications, including Inspired Living Omaha, Wedding Essentials and Momaha Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @mduceyOWH. Phone: 402-444-1034.

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