‘Butterflies love Rogers Park’: How Chicagoans are Helping the Monarchs

Courtesy of Tom ShockeyRogers Park residents and other Chicagoans have planted butterfly gardens in their yards with milkweed and other plants to strengthen monarch butterflies and combat their declining population.

Monarch butterflies in Rogers Park will soon fly more than 2,000 miles south, leaving the neighborhood’s chilly winters for a warmer climate in Mexico during their annual migration ritual. But while the monarchs are here, individuals and organizations across Rogers Park and Chicago are trying to strengthen the butterflies before their journeys and combat their declining population.

Jared Metzger, a 47-year-old private piano instructor in Rogers Park, said he and his partner planted a “butterfly garden” in their backyard this summer — a space dedicated to pollinator-friendly plants such as milkweed, butterfly weed, coneflowers and butterfly bush.

Metzger said he originally looked for plants which could tolerate direct sunlight and found information on plants that help pollinators such as butterflies. He said his partner used to have a butterfly bush, so the idea to plant a butterfly garden was inspired by that.

“[I’m] just trying to support the environment because obviously the pollinators are very important to our food supply,” Metzger said. “So if all the bees and pollinators die then we’re going to be in trouble.”

Eva Mannaberg, president of the Northtown Garden Society — a group of about 50 gardeners in Rogers Park — said she planted milkweed in her garden four years ago, but it wasn’t until this year that they “bloomed profusely.”

Courtesy of John LampingButterfly weed, a type of milkweed. Courtesy of John Lamping

“Hundreds [of monarch butterflies], they would just come to the milkweed,” said Mannaberg, a now-retired English-as-a-second-language teacher. “It was just amazing.”

She said she encourages residents to plant milkweed because “the more people in a community that have [milkweed], the more butterflies come back.”

The monarch butterfly population has decreased 80 percent over the last decade, according to Erika Hasle, a conservation ecologist at The Field Museum  in Chicago (1400 S. Lake Shore Drive). Experts don’t know exactly why, but two contributing factors are habitat loss — loss of milkweed in agricultural landscape — and climate change, Hasle said.

Milkweed is the only plant monarchs eat and lay eggs on, and it’s especially important for urban populations such as Chicago to plant as much as possible, according to Hasle, whose work centers around monarchs and studying urban milkweed habitats.

“Chicago and the surrounding area has really latched onto this issue,” Hasle said. “Not that many urban counties have the amount of protected land dedicated to natural areas that we have.”

Hasle cited the Chicago Park District’s plan to add 2,020 acres of “protected natural areas” — areas for conserving nature and biodiversity — by 2020 as an example of this, saying they are “on track to do that.”

Loyola students have also done their part to help monarchs, such as Kevin White, a 22-year-old student in the university’s Master of Public Policy program. White, who majored in environmental science and political science as an undergraduate student, said he worked on a research project on pollinators in the summer of 2017.

Between White’s sophomore and junior year, he said he created a database with information about which flowers pollinators are most attracted to. He was also responsible for monitoring five monarch “way stations” — which he said are gardens that serve as “stopping grounds” for monarchs, to eat, rest or lay eggs.

“My research was very exploratory … building the database and testing some methods and procedures,” White said. “But hopefully if a student does really love pollinators and also is interested in this, they can take what I had and kind of run with it.”

The research project was done as part of an internship with the Loyola University Retreat and Ecology Campus (2710 S. Country Club Road) in Woodstock, Illinois.

John Lamping, a former research assistant at The Field Museum, said Rogers Park is doing the right thing to help monarchs “in a non-organized way” by planting milkweed in yards and parks throughout the neighborhood. Rather than a community-wide initiative, individuals and groups have been doing their part to help, resulting in a significant amount of milkweed being planted.

“Butterflies love Rogers Park because we understand that they need milkweeds,” said Lamping, a Rogers Park resident who said he’s retired but serves as a Chicago Park District volunteer.

Milkweed flowers just before budding Courtesy of John Lamping

Metzger said he makes sure not to use pesticides on his butterfly garden, which Justin Harbison — an assistant professor of public health sciences at Loyola — cites as another reason for the decline of monarchs.

Harbison — who has a masters in entomology, or the study of insects, and a doctorate in public health —  said the application of pesticides per square foot in residential areas such as Rogers Park may be more than is applied in agricultural areas per square foot.

“When folks plant things like milkweed to try to encourage monarch butterflies, encourage growth, that’s great,” Harbison said. “But then certainly there could be a situation where their neighbor next door gets regular pesticide applications … which kind of negates some of the effects … encouraging the natural ecosystem of the monarch.”

While Rogers Park residents are making individual efforts to help the monarchs, Hasle said there’s also a research initiative at The Field Museum — the Monarch Community Science Project.

Chicago residents can register to join this experiment focused on better understanding milkweed and how successfully it grows in people’s yards, Hasle said. Participants undergo training — offered both online and in person — to learn about growing milkweed in their yards and monitor the plants from June to early September.

The Field Museum trained more than 200 people for their first project this summer, 70 of which participated, Hasle said.

Chicago Park District volunteers also look for chrysalides — the state of a caterpillar as it develops into a butterfly — which are on milkweed this time of year, according to Lamping. Volunteers collect them and freeze them over the winter to save them from predators, he said.

Fall is the appropriate time to begin preparing butterfly gardens for next year so people are ready to plant right away in the spring, Hasle said.

“If you want to help pollinators and monarchs in particular, it’s actually right now is the time of the year to start planning,” Hasle said. “It feels like it’s too late to help the monarchs. You know it feels like ‘it’s in the fall, oh it’s too late to do anything,’ but this is exactly when you should start planning and deciding what plants you’re going to order for next year.”

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