Monarchs With a Vengeance

I remember the day distinctly. July 15 of this year — also my birthday, also my parent’s wedding anniversary. One of my dozen or so Liatris ligulistylis had opened its first bloom and I thought nothing of it. Summer was progressing at warp speed, more warpier with each passing year. In 2013 I raised 5 monarchs from egg to wing, the year before 25, in 2011 I had 150, in 2010 it was nearly 200. To put it simply, I’d forgotten the power of Liatris. I had seen only one monarch so far this summer, and that was out in a prairie filled with milkweed. My garden had been decimated for a second year in a row by the black stem weevil, and I had far fewer milkweed than I’d intended.

July 15. I think it was late afternoon — hot and bright. But there it was, that almost hazy memory streaking orange in the distance. I rushed for the camera. Oh, you glorious poster child of pollinators, you found the Liatris. You found me.

Liatris ligulistylis welcomes a monarch.

Liatris ligulistylis welcomes a monarch.

As they are for many folks, monarchs brought me deeper into the garden. In 2007 it was my first year gardening with total madness, and I’d picked up a milkweed at a nursery. I don’t remember why. When caterpillars appeared weeks later defoliating the tiny plant, I almost reached for the spray. But instead I went online. The monarchs found me and made me aware of so much more in my garden — what a garden means, that selfless act of love and passion, giving  for others you know nothing about and may never see again. Strangers. Everything in nature is a stranger to us until we sit down on knees or rumps, shut up, and listen to the silence (that great cacophony of inspiration). I am as much a part of nature as a soil microbe, a blue whale, or a butterfly, and we are all equal.

But I’d given up hope. I had, and in many ways still have, written off the monarch. And the bees, the topsoil, the clean water — I just read too much. Kids growing up today will see 35% fewer butterflies and moths than their parents did 40 years ago. Add to that number 28% for birds, amphibians, and fish. Whenever I’ve raised a monarch I’ve known what the stakes are, how small my actions seem and perhaps will always be, but this is the only tactile act of defiance I’ve ever known.

40 monarch caterpillars are noisy.

40 monarch caterpillars are noisy.

Today I’m crawling with caterpillars. 47 in the ten gallon aquarium, another 20 in eggs, 7 about to come out of a chrysalis. There are so many I can hear them eating from across the room, so I just sit down and listen to them for a while like some collective heartbeat. But I see the glass as half empty. Maybe it was just dumb luck to have monarchs again. Maybe it was the milkweed seeds I’d sown last fall in big nursery pots, fresh seedlings up off the ground away from weevils and mobile so I can place them near the Liatris. There is a part of me that wants the monarch migration in the eastern U.S. to vanish because maybe that will fully waken us to the new silent spring — the overuse of chemicals in monoculture row crops, the loss of topsoil, the poisoning of soil and water, vanishing bees and birds, the erasure of Northern Plains prairie where most wintering monarchs come from.

Monarch & milkweed soup.

Monarch & milkweed soup.

After cleaning frass out of the aquarium/ terrarium, I move the monarchs back in after holding them in a large soup bowl on the table. Hours later my wife gasps — one caterpillar was crawling up the dining room wall. Sometimes I think freedom is ignorance, the illusion that everything is fine and that my modern life holds no repercussions for others in the world around me. But more and more I know freedom is learning — facts, science, and history, as well as learning to let go of privileging myself over other lives. It’s likely that raising monarchs isn’t as selfless or grandiose as I imagine or want it to be, but watching them transform is the surest metaphor of hope and empowerment we have for our own species in a time when we need to be asking more questions… and in a time when we need to be listening to monarchs eat milkweed.

© 2014, Benjamin Vogt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Marilyn says

    I love what you said:

    “Sometimes I think freedom is ignorance, the illusion that everything is fine and that my modern life holds no repercussions for others in the world around me. But more and more I know freedom is learning — facts, science, and history, as well as learning to let go of privileging myself over other lives.”


  2. says

    They did find you and your wonderful natives. Congrats. No caterpillars here in the garden but as I get the liatris and milkweed to finally grow up in the meadow, I think they will like that tranquil area. Hard to have many butterflies visiting when the very close neighbors spray, spray spray.
    Donna@GardensEyeView recently posted..Lichen My Maple

  3. says

    Lots of milkweed here (all over my yard and in nearby areas) but no monarchs so far this year. Last year I saw exactly one. Glad someone has them. Now bees, those we have in droves: many kinds of bumblebee, honeybees, and other pollinators like wasps and flies. And glad to have them.
    Molly recently posted..From the Plant’s Point of View

  4. Marian Jordan says

    After seeing so few monarchs in the last two years, I was fooled by the similar looking Queen Butterfly, both the adult and the caterpillar here in Sebring, FL. Something didn’t seem quite right about each one and it took a bit of research to realize the difference. Now, I have seen a few actual monarch adults and some caterpillars. I am not in a position to be able to raise them both because I am only temporarily in this area and because I cannot find any common milkweed in the area that I could feed to them. I’ve seen only one swamp milkweed and we have some yellow and red tropical milkweed in the yard from previous years but it is very small and the queens have been eating it. Lowe’s has been selling yellow tropical milkweed. I purchased several plants from the sad bin a few weeks ago when I noticed a half a dozen caterpillars on them. If anyone in this area knows where to get common milkweed, I’d appreciate the info.

    • Marian Jordan says

      By the way, I really liked and understand your feelings about being brought deeper into the garden and the process of nature by interacting with the small creatures of the garden. Well said. Sometimes I find it difficult to relate this communion with others, often hearing comments similar to “Why does it matter to save that one tiny bug?” or “They will survive somehow.” I am convinced that each tiny home pocket of nature is as important as the vast tracts of land that are fortunate enough to be preserved. Great article, I will pass it on.

      • says

        Unfortunately, more and more it looks like “preservation” means intensive management. Everything is a garden with human-caused climate change. Where will the money come from for that?

    • DeAnna B says

      Marion, I ordered trays of 32 plants of 5 inch plugs from Monarch Watch. They will ship Milkweed native to your area. I paid for overnight shipping, because I didn’t want to wait to have to shipped in the fall. Here is the email address to place an order:

  5. Cora Howlett says

    I totally understand how you feel, and I completely agree with you. Whenever we go by the endless acres of GMO crops it is so disheartening …and we live in the country!!! My husband and I are in our seventies and really are not able to do very much gardening. But I am determined to keep planting native trees, shrubs, and flowers. And I talk to ANYONE who will listen (but most forget or just don’t care) about us needing to protect what we have. I can’t imagine not having them. Thank you and others who do care!

    • says

      So many people share “beautiful” pics of farm fields online, but those images just make me sick. I know that the soil is dead, that there’s no wildlife there, that water is poisoned, that people are poisoned, and so much of those crops go to ethanol which decreases fuel efficiency. Argh.

  6. DeAnna B says

    Benjamin, that was so beautifully written! You said it all, and so eloquently! I always look forward to your articles!
    My butterfly garden is still a work in progress. I rearranged & added 32 more Tuberosa Milkweed plants, with another 32 Tuberosa & Swamp on the way. The Tuberosa is crawling with Monarch cats & last weekend we saw 3 Monarchs born. A few weeks ago I found my first ever Monarch cat on the Swamp (Incarnata) Milkweed, he was big & looked ready to go into a chrysalis. Most days there are several Monarchs in the garden, I’m in the southwest Chicago suburbs, a few miles from the city border.
    Can you answer this question? I ordered 30 Monarch cats from a very reputable place, & they all died. One was accidentally squished after it died, & all of this green liquid came out. It also appeared they were vomiting this substance. They are sending me a replacement order, but I don’t know if they came that way, or did I do something wrong? I brought 2 into work to raise, my co-workers named them & were so disappointed when they too died. I cleaned the cage everyday. Do you have any idea what happened or what this is? Can it be a disease?
    I have one more question, do you put the cats on a plant when they get bigger? Or do they eat the leaves until they’re ready to make a chrysalis? I’m trying to learn all that I can so I can successfully raise them indoors, I hope you are able to help me with this, thanks!!

    • says

      Oh my, I have no idea. Personally though, I’d never order them online. Maybe some of the other writers here think it’s fine, and maybe it is. Better to raise them yourself, or go in with a neighbor. Even to have a huge milkweed growing bed surrounded by their favorite nectar plants. The cats leave milkweed when they are ready to turn, sometimes wondering off a very long ways. Before I brought the eggs inside to avoid predation, I saw them form a chrysalis on the fence, on my siding, in a cardboard box, under my deck, on all kinds of plants, on planters, in trees……

  7. Jarod Thompson says

    Thanks for the great article. I don’t think I’ll have any grass left in my front or backyard after building my bee and butterfly gardens but I’m trying to do my part to help!

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