When Bill Blanchard begin creating gardens in his yard in Alexandria about five years ago, one of his goals was to attract butterflies. Recently, his efforts have been rewarded.
In the past couple of weeks, dozens – maybe hundreds – of monarch butterflies have gathered in the gardens at his home on Fillmore Street, fluttering from one flower to the next, feeding on nectar.
“All of a sudden, it just started to happen,” Blanchard said. “This is my entertainment.”
But, it’s not just fun and games for the monarchs, it’s serious business. They’re feeding in preparation for a big trip: all the way to Mexico.
The migration occurs every fall when monarch butterflies travel about 3,000 miles south to Mexico, where they spend the winter before returning northward in the spring.
Although the monarchs that first arrive here in the spring are the first generation to be in this area, they are actually the second generation of the year according to the University of Minnesota Monarch Lab website. The first generation fly part-way north from Mexico in March and lay their eggs in the southern United States.
After the caterpillars feed on milkweed and then transform into butterflies, they fly north to lay eggs in this area. The monarch’s life cycle then includes two or three more generations here during the summer, which means it is the third or fourth generation that finally flies south to Mexico again in the fall.
However, the monarch seems to be in trouble. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, populations of monarchs have “decreased significantly” over the past 20 years. There are many possible reasons for the decline, which could include loss of habitat both in North America and Mexico, as well as pesticide use and roadside mowing practices. A recent University of Minnesota study also points to the possibility that road salt could play a part in the decline.
A helping hand
Blanchard considers his efforts in his gardens as just a small contribution toward helping a butterfly that is becoming threatened. One of his goals, he said, is to help the monarch get to Mexico by providing food for them before the trip. His gardens also contain milkweed for monarch caterpillars to eat earlier in the summer.
“These are all native perennials,” he said. “It’s a great example of flowers that are truly appropriate for their needs.”
Some of those plants include meadow blazing star (also known as the monarch magnet), prairie blazing star, swamp milkweed, giant purple hyssop and Mexican sunflower, which is native to Central America and Mexico.
“I’ve been gardening for monarchs since the mid-'90s,” Blanchard said. “To me, the butterfly and the hummingbird are two of the most fascinating creatures.”
He has also discovered that his gardens brought another visitor that he has become interested in: Bees.
“I’m gardening specifically for bees, hummingbirds and monarchs,” he said.
Blanchard's plans for the future include “more gardens.”
“It’s kind of our little oasis,” said Blanchard, speaking of himself and his wife, Jesse. The couple also had their gardens featured in the Tour of Gardens in 2018.
Up until recently this year, he was disappointed that there were not more butterflies in his yard, since he had heard that it might be a big year for monarchs. Lately, however, he has been taking it all in and enjoying the surprise.
“This might be the last time I see this,” he added.