At Gaia Herbs, we are always striving to do more to help people, plants - and the planet - as a way to uphold our core values. While our organic and sustainable farming methods do encourage pollinators, we consistently seek out new ways to promote the health of these unsung heroes, one of these being the monarch butterfly. Monarch butterflies are one of the most important pollinators, but their annual journey and their future survival are threatened by habitat loss and the widespread use of herbicides and insecticides. In an effort to deepen our approach to ecological regeneration, we are proud to announce that as of this summer, we are an official Monarch Waystation! Our Certified Organic farm has always encouraged butterflies of all species, but this latest effort honed in specifically on what monarch butterflies need in order to thrive in nature.
According to the program creators, these Monarch Waystations "provide resources necessary for monarchs to produce successive generations and sustain their migration." We're honored to participate in this program, and it's part of our concerted efforts to help the survival of monarchs. The waystations are registered, so you can see if there are any in your area - or register your own!
It's important for Gaia to do this because we can reach a large group of people who are interested in the connection between plants and people, and it's a good way to introduce people to other, intangible aspects of what our farm offers, You see the beautiful Echinacea fields, but did you also know that those are a huge stopping ground and source of food for monarch butterflies?
Monarch butterflies need a certain type of plant, milkweed, to lay eggs,and in their caterpillar stage, they eat only the young leaves of this plant. (Adult butterflies consume the nectar from other flowers, like Echinacea, too.) While we already had a few varieties of wild milkweed growing across our 350-acre farm in Western North Carolina, in late spring we planted 50 swamp (or pink) milkweed plants (Asclepias incarnata) along the banks of Cathey's Creek.
Some of the herbs we cultivate (and some that grow wild) are also favored by monarchs, including Vervain, Verbena, Sunflowers, Boneset, Goldenrod and Echinacea. However, it's the native milkweed plants that really matter, and planting them helps offset the loss of monarch habitat.
Milkweed and Monarchs
In addition to having a lengthy migration each year, monarchs need to have access to native milkweed plants across North America during spring and summer to successfully breed future generations. Without the nectar from those flowers, the monarchs wouldn't be able to make it to Mexico. These host plants both provide nesting spots for eggs to be laid as well as energy for adults. Each egg is laid one at a time on the underside of young milkweed leaves, and as the eggs hatch, they begin to feed on the milkweed. Approximately 2.2 million acres of monarch habitat is lost to development each year, so each waystation - and every milkweed plant -- counts tremendously.
Why We Created a Monarch Waystation on the Gaia Farm
Like honeybees, monarch butterflies are a very recognizable pollinator. These beauties are a magnificent sight to behold on the Gaia Farm in summer, their orange and black bodies a remarkable contrast to the Carolina blue skies and fields of green.
Monarchs, like so many pollinators, face an uncertain future. Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), migrate more than 3,000 miles annually, from the U.S. and southern Canada to central Mexico. In 2004, 550 million of the butterflies completed that journey, but by 2013, just 33 million successfully made the trek. Loss of habitat due to deforestation and extreme weather (due to climate change) are to blame, as is the widespread use of toxic pesticides in industrial agriculture throughout the US.
Each year on November 1, the return of the monarchs is celebrated in Mexico, but in 2013 - for the first time - the butterflies weren't there. They arrived starting the next week, in smaller numbers. The monarchs have since made a modest comeback, but they definitely aren't out of danger.
With more than 250,000 species, butterflies (and their brethren, moths) have been on the Earth since at least 50 million years ago, and they likely evolved 150 million years ago, according to the Butterfly Conservation. However, in the last 150 years, four butterflies and dozens of moths have gone extinct.
We hope that our efforts spur other organic farms (and individuals) to take steps to protect monarchs - and it is relatively simple to source and plant the milkweed compared with the potential benefits to the butterflies who rely on it. Make sure you plant native milkweed, and not milkweed bred for ornamental purposes. Becoming an official Monarch Waystation - ours is called the Gaia Herbs Farm: An Organic haven for pollinators and monarchs - illustrates that each and every one of us can make a difference in helping offset the effects of climate change and the decline of pollinators. After all, since so many of our favorite foods rely on pollinators like monarchs, we owe it to these valued creatures to help them as they help us.
A Special Connection of Plants and People
Monarchs hold a special place in our hearts here at Gaia, and we relish seeing kaleidoscopes (yes, that's the name for a group of butterflies) of them each summer during our farm tours. In addition to being an invaluable pollinator for our herbs and vegetables, the monarchs have a particular connection to our farm crew. Our farm crew manager, Servando, was born in the same region of Mexico where the monarchs spend their winters. He remembers playing as a kid amid countless monarchs, the sky a vibrant orange. He was really happy to see us planting flowers here that would encourage them. It's interesting that monarchs make the same kind of journey that many of our farm team have, and both help make our farm more fertile - there's a really special connection there. We love encountering such serendipitous examples of how we can foster connections between plants and people.
What You Can Do to Help Monarchs
We can all help the monarchs. Here are few simple ways to get started: - Use organic and sustainable gardening methods to keep pollinators healthy. - Support farms and farmers who employ organic and sustainable methods. - Plant milkweed that's native to your area. - Order a Monarch Waystation seed kit. - If you live in a place where you can't plant flowers, consider reaching out to schools, businesses, nature centers and even governmental agencies around you to help them become aware of how we can support the longevity of monarchs. - Read up on monarchs, their importance and their decline - then spread the word.