FACTS FOR FAMILIES: Monarchs, milkweed and mowing | Health, Medicine and Fitness

CHERI BURCHAM Family Life Educator

Most people who know me know that I am very passionate about protecting monarch butterflies. I do my best to encourage people to plant milkweed seeds, and I hunt monarch caterpillars and move them around my indoor nurseries until they transform and are ready to be released as butterflies .

Their numbers are declining rapidly each year, mainly due to habitat loss. Many landowners mow their ditches and I shudder to watch them mow down all the milkweed – the one plant that monarch butterflies lay their eggs on and their caterpillars eat.

So when I saw this article by Horticulture Extension Educator Chris Enroth, I knew I had to share it with my readers.

Chris says, there’s something about mowing that brings satisfaction to many of us. What do we love about mowing? The smell of cut grass? Taming an unruly landscape? For me, this is measurable progress. It so often seems that modern jobs yield few tangible results. Much of our work these days is in the digital ether. After a full day of work, I leave the office by turning off my computer and all my work vanishes with the click of a mouse.

Arrived at home, I look for tasks of visual permanence by working with my hands, cleaning, and of course mowing. This desire to mow often extends beyond the yard, as many landowners also mow embankments and ditches.

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Unfortunately, the constant shearing routine is detrimental to the monarch butterfly, due to the loss of milkweed. August and September are critical months for the monarch butterfly. This period corresponds to when the last generation of the year is developing and preparing to take flight to its wintering site in Mexico.

I don’t mean to burst your mowing bubble, we can all jump on the zero turn and get our fix, but there are times when we should avoid mowing areas like ditches, road banks, natural areas or anywhere with milkweed, the only plant eaten by monarch caterpillars.

For those living south of the 40 degree latitude line (including Quincy and in southern Illinois), mow before April 1 and mow after October 15. If necessary, you can also mow in midsummer from July 1 to July 20.

For those living north of the 40 degree latitude line (including those north of Quincy and northern Illinois), mow before May 1 and mow after October 1. A mid-summer mowing can take place from June 30 to July 10.

These dates are based on monarch breeding and migration activities. Mid-summer mowing will still cause some monarch mortality.

Other tips for mowing habitat or roadsides:

• Do not mow the entire area. Leave strips unmown to recolonize cut areas.

• Avoid mowing at night when insects are inactive and cannot escape.

• Use a minimum cutting height of 8 to 12 inches. This height suppresses seed production for many invasive plants while minimizing the impact on native plants.

• Use a rinse bar and mow slowly to allow wildlife to escape before the mower passes.

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Milkweed is a troublesome species, and mowing can promote its growth, but can be damaging if done during peak monarch breeding and migration periods. Following the mowing guidelines listed above can help preserve vital monarch habitat.

See the Monarch Joint Venture brochure “Mowing and Management: Best Practices for Monarchs”. at monarchjointventure.org.

Christopher Enroth’s Good Growing blog is available at extension.illinois.edu/blogs/good-growing

For more information about University of Illinois Unit 19 programming and to read more helpful articles, visit our website at https://extension.illinois.edu/ccdms, call us at 217-345-7034 or contact Cheri Burcham at cburcham@illinois. edu Also visit the Family Files blog at https://extension.illinois.edu/blogs/family-files

Cheri Burcham is the Family Life Educator at U of I Extension.

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