Jackie Goetz poked through various species of milkweed as husband Dale dug aggressive “thug” plants out of the ground nearby.
They were among volunteers planting a couple of hundred milkweed plugs on the Pollinator Prairie last week in Olathe. The prairie — 1.5 acres that once housed a chemical recycling plant, now green space and gardens — has offered temporary lodging and meals to birds, bees and butterflies since it opened in 2012.
“The monarchs could be here anytime,” Goetz said. “When they return is kind of serendipity.”
In the past 20 years, the orange and black butterflies have become a rarer sight.
And the volunteers in Olathe aren’t the only groups working to save North American monarchs, for which extinction has become a real possibility. This year, many other groups are planting gardens, distributing milkweed seeds and protecting the milkweed that’s already growing.
Major reasons for milkweed loss are herbicide use and development on agricultural land.
Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed, named after its white sap. They hatch from eggs laid on the underside of milkweed leaves, eat voraciously and then duck inside chrysalises before hatching as butterflies.
The monarch population in North America has plummeted as the insects’ quest for milkweed has become tougher. Their migratory route is from Mexico, where they spend the winter, to northern states and Canada in the summer. They need milkweed along the way.
If the monarchs were to vanish, it would be a bad indicator for other pollinating insects vital to crop reproduction, such as bees, beetles, bats and birds that rely on the same environmental conditions.
Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, said 1.4 billion milkweed stems need to be planted in 20 million acres of landscape. That area would be almost half the size of Missouri.
This would be the biggest restoration project since 220 million Osage orange trees were planted to slow down winds in the Dust Bowl, he said.
“Everything’s moving in the right direction,” he said. “What we need to do is keep moving.”
There have been several pushes for pollinator prosperity, including increased emphasis on planting milkweed, raising public awareness of the insects’ importance and restoring land in the monarchs’ migration path:
▪ Mayor Sly James of Kansas City proclaimed June 1 to be Milkweed for Monarchs Day as part of an effort to increase milkweed planting in the city.
▪ The Missouri Department of Conservation has encouraged milkweed growth on its prairie land.
▪ Six state transportation agencies have pledged to make Interstate 35 — which runs in the butterflies’ travel corridor — more suitable for migrating monarchs.
▪ Last month, Powell Gardens, Kansas City parks and the Westport Garden Club planted a 600-square-foot native plant monarch garden in Loose Park.
Also, local environmental groups such as the Burroughs Audubon Society have encouraged home gardeners to cultivate plants that provide meals for migrating monarchs. Monarchs need nectar from plants such as goldenrod and coneflowers.
Mary Nemecek, conservation chair of the Burroughs Audubon Society, said monarchs serve as the canary in the coal mine for other pollinators.
“We can lose the migratory monarch population, and it would be sad,” she said. “But they’re an important part of an ecosystem that other pollinators use.”
Last week, volunteers in Olathe spent a couple of hours tilling garden patches and removing some plants to make room for several varieties of milkweed. They drilled or dug small holes and buried the plugs before soaking the garden beds to settle the soil.
Goetz and other volunteers wanted to reclaim some garden space and to introduce new species of milkweed into the Pollinator Prairie’s milkweed garden. Besides common milkweed, there are swamp, butterfly, whorled, showy and spider milkweeds.
Goetz, with decades of experience as a Johnson County Extension master gardener, can tell you the Latin name of each milkweed species. She recalled getting goosebumps a few years ago after seeing some particularly plump monarchs that had feasted on a lot of nectar during their migration.
On Thursday, beetles, bugs and one small yellow butterfly enjoyed the existing plants, including some milkweed that was just beginning to bloom. But there were no monarchs present.
Last week, transportation officials in Missouri and Kansas also formally joined with Iowa, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas and the Federal Highway Administration to rebrand I-35 as the “Monarch Highway” and to work together to promote pollinator health. The decision follows the White House’s announcement of plans to boost the populations of monarchs and honey bees last year.
MoDOT spokesman Bob Brendel said efforts to protect pollinators were in the beginning stages. Steps that could be taken, include planting milkweed and nectar producers along I-35, timing when to mow grass to avoid destroying plants that pollinators eat and reconsidering if and when to use herbicides and pesticides.
Last year a Kansas City area partnership that includes Burroughs Audubon received a $230,000, two-year grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for several monarch-related projects.
The new Loose Park Garden was one of those projects. Other highlights:
▪ The Johnson County Park and Recreation District this fall will seed 100 acres of new habitat along the Mill Creek Streamway Trail in Shawnee Mission Park.
▪ More than 40 acres of habitat will be restored along Kansas City highways.
▪ Kansas City Power & Light will create five acres of native monarch habitat on its properties.
▪ Bridging the Gap will run workshops with homeowners and engage with municipalities to create a minimum of 50 city gardens and 125 homeowner gardens across the metropolitan area.
▪ Burroughs Audubon, through its partnerships, will give away 4,000 native milkweed and nectar plants and fund up to 2,000 square feet of habitat plantings at schools.
Other members of the partnership include Johnson County Park and Recreation District, Grow Native and the Kansas City Native Plant Initiative.
But anyone can take part in helping the monarchs, Nemecek said.
“It just is planting a milkweed and few native nectar plants in your yard,” Nemecek said. “Everybody can contribute to the conservation effort.”