Monarchs are by far the most recognized butterflies in DuPage County if not the world.
Like other insects, monarchs develop in stages. The female lays her eggs one at a time on the leaves of milkweed plants. In six or seven days, each egg hatches into a larva, or caterpillar, which starts eating the milkweed. When the larval stage ends after about two weeks, the caterpillar is 2,000 larger than it was when it hatched.
The caterpillar then readies for the pupal stage of development. After finding a suitable spot, it grabs on with its hind legs, producing a small spot of silk that acts like an adhesive. Over the next couple of weeks, it sheds its striped skin and grows a new green one called a "chrysalis." (Unlike some butterflies, monarchs do not encase themselves in silk cocoons.) Beneath this skin, the caterpillar morphs into a winged adult. As the insect readies to leave the chrysalis, the skin thins and becomes transparent. Once it emerges, the butterfly latches onto a nearby surface, where it waits while its wings dry and harden.
Once it's ready to fly, the monarch starts its search for nectar-producing plants. Adult monarchs have mouthparts called "proboscuses," long needlelike appendages they use to reach their meals.
Adult monarchs that emerge in DuPage in spring and summer live just two to five weeks, but those that hatch in late summer or early fall can live seven to nine months. This gives them enough time to make one of the most impressive journeys of the insect world. Unlike any other North American butterfly, monarchs fly south for winter — up to 1,500 miles south into Mexico. Most that make the trip will return north in spring.
Unlike other insects, monarchs cannot survive without one particular plant: milkweed. It's the only plant their caterpillars will eat. As a result, the plants are the only places adults will lay their eggs. (The upside to evolving into such picky eaters is that milkweeds are poisonous to birds and other hungry animals, which makes monarchs poisonous as well, and unappetizing to predators.)
But in addition to illegal logging in high-altitude forests monarchs use in winter, improper pesticide and herbicide use in summertime breeding areas in the States are knocking back monarchs and milkweeds alike.
That's why the Forest Preserve District has stepped up its long-standing support of monarchs and other pollinators. Milkweed grows on about 30 percent of forest preserve land, and since 2010 habitat restoration projects at 11 different sites have bumped up that number by using over 50 seed mixes that include the five milkweeds native to DuPage: common, Sullivant’s, butterfly, swamp and whorled. Volunteers collected some of the seeds by hand from the forest preserves themselves.
As a regional leader in the conservation and protection of imperiled species, the Forest Preserve District is working with several partner agencies build better habitat for monarchs and other pollinators.
In 2015 the Forest Preserve District joined The Conservation Foundation, the River Prairie Group of the Sierra Club, the Greater DuPage Wild Ones and other organizations to become a partner in the DuPage Monarch Project. Committed to increasing populations of these beautiful insects, the group works to spread the word about the plight of the monarch, distribute milkweed seeds to local gardens, and encourage municipalities to increase appropriate habitat.
The Forest Preserve District is also a member of the 12-agency Fox Valley Monarch Corridor Project, which is creating or restoring habitat on 972 acres and helping homeowners and business parks to create hundreds of "stepping stone" sites to connect breeding and migration habitats for monarchs and other pollinators.
The group is led by The Conservation Foundation, which received a $250,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to create and improve monarch habitat. The Forest Preserve District is using a $40,000 matching grant from the funds and $10,000 from Openlands through the ComEd Green Region Grant Program to create and improve monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat at Night Heron Marsh in Aurora. It will control nonnative, aggressive and invasive plants on 64 acres and convert 23 acres of former agricultural land to prairie at the preserve. The entire area will then be seeded with native plants, including milkweeds and other nectar producers.
Interested in welcoming monarchs in your own backyard? Find out how at Habitat at Home.
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