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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Local conservationists say monarch butterflies have begun their fall migrations from Canada to Mexico, with many seen drifting through Missouri and Kansas City in fragments of orange and black. 

Monarch butterflies are not considered a federally protected species in the United States, however, they are considered an internationally endangered species due to habitat loss and decreasing populations, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Local experts urge Kansas City residents to assist monarch butterflies during their migrations, primarily by planting native plant species that monarchs depend on for energy – a food source that conservationists say is fleeting, especially in Kansas.

What do monarch caterpillars eat?

Cydney Ross, native landscape specialist at the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center, said many of the plants monarchs thrive off of are being eradicated by invasive species and an agricultural industry that seeks to eliminate such shrubbery.

“They are in decline and part of that is because agriculture folks have eradicated milkweed because they pop up within your fields,” she said.

Alix Daniel, another native landscape specialist at the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center, said milkweed is toxic to cattle, one of the main reasons many farmers seek to wipe it from our ecosystems.

“Cattle farmers spray them (milkweed), eradicate them, any way that they can, so here in Kansas and Missouri – especially Kansas – Kansas used to be tallgrass prairie and now there’s (nearly) less than 1% of that left, so with all of that land that the cattle are on, there’s no more milkweed and there’s no more food for them (monarch butterflies) for the rest of the year either,” Daniel said.

According to the National Park Service, tallgrass prairie ecosystems, where milkweed often grows, used to cover 170 million acres of North America. But much of that has been turned to farmland, with less than 4% remaining intact, mostly in the Flint Hills of south Kansas.

Monarch caterpillars host solely on milkweed, a common plant found dispersed throughout North and South America, containing toxins unsafe for many animals to eat. Experts say the plants are essential to sustaining monarchs during breeding and migration seasons, as well as equipping them with defense mechanisms capable of deterring predators.

“We (Missouri) have a really healthy bird population and one of the interesting things about monarchs is that they are actually toxic to birds due to the milkweed that they feed on, so they’re toxic as caterpillars to birds, and toxic as adults too,” Daniel said. 

She said butterfly species look to monarchs for tips on how to strengthen their defenses from predators, an evolutionary lesson that could be threatened with declining monarch populations. She said other species of butterflies have begun evolving to mimic monarch butterflies’ color, as to deceive birds of their edibility. 

Without milkweed, not only do monarch caterpillars struggle to eat enough to reach metamorphosis, but their defense mechanisms are greatly threatened – thus, threatening the defenses of other butterfly species that look to monarchs for evolutionary guidance.

“It’s about the big picture,” Ross said. “It’s about caring, in general, about conserving and caring for our natural wildlife, our natural areas.”

What do monarch butterflies eat?

While monarch caterpillars feed on milkweed, monarch butterflies’ diets differ entirely.

“Some of those plants that are great in the fall are goldenrods and asters,” Ross said. “So, they bloom starting in September – well, we’re starting to see blooms now – but they have high nutritional values, compared to nonnative plants.”

She said monarchs seek out native plants, opposed to non-native plants, because they tend to have higher calorie counts and more protein, nectar that will fatten the monarchs up for migration. 

Daniel said planting native flowers, such as liatris’ (commonly referred to as blazingstars), is a foolproof way of attracting monarchs to our backyards. She said prioritizing native plants in our gardens feeds the butterflies and lots of pollinators that struggle to locate habitats fit to nourish them. 

“There’s an invasive species that we have called bush honeysuckle,” Daniel said. “It’s everywhere.”

“It’s a species that’s taking up so much space, everywhere, and crowding out native species and to the detriment of our wildlife because they can’t eat it, ingest it very well and so it crowds out their native food sources.”

Aside from planting native milkweed and flowers, Daniel said the best thing residents can do is make space for habitats that allow monarchs to thrive, which oftentimes means eliminating invasive species that take up space and actually hurt other plant and insect species’ abilities to thrive.

“The best thing you can do is to plant native because you also develop a more intimate connection with nature in your own backyard,” Ross said. “You’d be amazed at how nature will show up if you just provide the right habitat for it.

Daniel said she is hosting a honeysuckle trade-in event in early September at the Discovery Center, in which individuals that bring in a before-and-after photo of a honeysuckle removal will be awarded a healthy, native plant to put in their yard.

“It’s found in every unmanaged area in the greater KC area and it is quickly spreading out in every direction,” Daniel said in an email.

She said the plants are a pest and can only be eradicated by completely digging out the roots or by cutting it down and applying a stump treatment capable of preventing re-sprouting – a tedious task for some, but one Ross says is worth the hassle.

“A healthy ecosystem supports healthy people and if we don’t take care of what we have, then we won’t be able to exist as people,” Ross said.