Resting along a walking trail at the John Hargrove Environmental Complex in Pearland is a tiny sliver of restored prairie habitat that is expected to draw monarch butterflies during their fall migratory journey to Mexico.
The city of Pearland Parks and Recreation Department created the pollinator habitat with roughly 80 plants from about 20 species. The habitat was certified as a monarch butterfly waystation this summer, and a sign was erected at the site in early August. The habitat was created to support the species, which is on the decline.
“The city is aware of a pollinator problem,” said Abbey Stripling, an outdoor recreation programmer for the city of Pearland. “A lot of insects are called indicator species, and that is something that tells us something is going on in your habitat good or bad. If we don’t have things to sustain butterflies, what are they going to affect next?”
Monarch butterflies begin their 3,000-mile migration from Canada and the northern U.S. in the fall and journey south to the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico, for winter hibernation. Along the way, the butterflies pass through the Texas Gulf Coast in October and November. The butterflies then make the trip back north in the spring, which will take four generations to complete.
But Monarch butterfly populations have suffered significant declines over the past 20 years.
“Without us here in Texas, monarchs would not exist because they come down off the mountains in Mexico, they come through Texas, and this is their first breeding ground. They’re a multigenerational species,” Monarch Gateway Executive Director Barbara Keller-Willy said. Monarch Gateway is a Fort Bend County nonprofit that encourages pollinator habitats around the Gulf Coast by distributing milkweed plants, hosting workshops and consulting on projects.
An estimated 1 billion monarch butterflies made the overwintering migration to Mexico in 1996-97. During the 2016-17 winter, only 109 million monarch butterflies made the trip to Mexico, according to the U.S. National Wildlife Federation. The species hit an all-time low in 2013 when only 33 million monarch butterflies were reported to have completed the migration.
The plight of the migratory insect is reflective of the significant declines in prairies—its native habitat—across the country. Prairieland is the most endangered ecological system in the U.S. and Canada.
“As we try to manipulate all of this land … we leave less and less for the pollinators,” Keller-Willy said. “If we just keep these little slivers of otherwise unused lands and we begin sprinkling milkweeds, we can have an impact.”
Prairies stretched for 170 miles through the heartland of the U.S. with chest-high grass stretching from the Texas coast to Saskatchewan, Canada, and from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River, serving as the largest continuous ecosystem on the continent. The prairie supported a diversity of grasses, flora, insects and animals. Today, only 1 percent of prairie habitat exists, according to the National Park Service.
The loss of prairie and widespread use of herbicides has destroyed the monarch butterflies only source of food. Milkweed is the only host plant that monarch butterflies lay their eggs on, and it is the only source of food for monarch caterpillars. Adult butterflies require nectar flowers, so habitats typically require more than milkweed.Zinnia is a popular nectar flower for adult monarch butterflies.
“This is the perfect example of a literal butterfly effect,” Stripling said. “If we lose the monarch species, what is going to happen to all of the other species that use the same plants? People may not realize the connections that are made.”Zinnia is a popular nectar flower for adult monarch butterflies.
The city of Pearland’s pollinator habitat was prompted by the Girl Scout Troop 27119, who planted an initial habitat of about 20 plants last summer. Most of the habitat died over the winter, and the city replanted and expanded the habitat through this spring and summer in anticipation of the fall migration. The city will add low fencing to provide a convenient place for monarch chrysalis.
Pearland’s habitat includes Mexican milkweed, orange milkweed, purple coneflower, Turk’s cap, bronze fennel, lantana and zinnia. Herbicides and pesticides are strictly prohibited.
3 flowers for a backyard habitat
Gardening tip: Flowers used in pollinator habitats must not be chemically treated. A sign that a plant has not been chemically treated is the presence of aphids. Ladybugs are a natural way to control aphid colonies.