Do you know that Illinois has a state insect? No, not the mosquito. The monarch butterfly.
Monarchs are familiar to those of us who spend time on tallgrass prairies, and probably the most familiar butterfly to people in general. Yet, at a recent class I taught, only about half of a group of 40 adults could name the monarch butterfly when I showed them a photo.
I was surprised. As a kid with a butterfly net, these frequent fliers were the first butterfly name I learned. They were fairly unmistakable, although the viceroy butterfly is very similar.
But the size (monarchs are bigger) and wing pattern (viceroy’s have black lines toward the bottom of the wing that are different) help distinguish them both. Look at the two photos. See the difference in the wing markings?
Monarchs, unlike viceroys, are known for their wanderlust. Every fall, they leave the snow and frigid temps of Chicago and head to Mexico, where they overwinter. Their offspring wing their way back to Illinois in the spring. How do they find their way home? No one knows. It’s a mystery of the best sort, a reminder that we haven’t figured out everything.
It’s no secret to prairie lovers that the monarch butterfly is losing numbers. Big numbers. So much, in fact, that butterfly aficionados recently requested that it be given endangered species protection. It appears that the monarch hasn’t got a prayer when up against pesticides, used in agriculture. Why?
Monarchs lay eggs. And not just anywhere. They look for plants in the milkweed family. When the caterpillar, or larvae emerges, it munches on milkweed leaves until it’s time for it to form a chrysalis. It eventually appears as a black and orange butterfly. But the milkweeds —which are treated by us as, well, weeds — are vanishing. And with the milkweeds go the monarchs. Imagine how we’d feel if our grocery stores vanished overnight! Monarchs are in trouble.
With this in mind, the big news in Illinois is that state authorities will plant milkweed along tollways. This should establish more habitat for the monarch butterflies. Although I wonder about the juxtaposition of butterflies with semis racing along at 80 mph, I like the good intention. Hundreds of miles of asphalt tollway could be flanked by milkweed blooms.
The plight of the monarch is a reminder of the importance of tallgrass prairies, which in Illinois, may contain up to 19 species of native milkweed. Prairies and monarchs are like peanut butter and jelly. They belong together. This spring, I’ll plant more milkweed in my garden. It adds beauty and interest, and I’ll lend a helping hand to a species in trouble at the same time. I’ll also volunteer more restoration hours on my local prairies; maintaining small life rafts of milkweed for the monarchs.
I had to update my I-Pass at the Tollway Authority offices this month. I confess, as I waited in line to straighten out my account, I grumbled a bit less. I felt a little warmer toward this state governmental agency, thinking about the monarch butterflies.
( All photos by Cindy Crosby. From top to bottom: monarch, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy on mountain mint, Big Woods Forest Preserve, Batavia, IL; butterfly milkweed, SP/MA; milkweed pod, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn,IL: monarch on aster, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; West Chicago Prairie in March, West Chicago, IL)