Although the name might be deceiving, you do not have to be a professional scientist or even come from a scientific background to become a citizen scientist. Citizen scientists are vital components to understanding the decline of Monarch populations and much of what has been learned about the Monarch butterfly is the result of citizen science projects.
It's quite easy to become a citizen scientist and help the vanishing Monarch butterflies. What are you interested in learning? Are you interested in tracking the Monarch migration? monitoring overwintering sites? identifying Milkweed plants? understanding Monarch health? or simply enjoying nature while counting butterflies? There are projects just like this out there!
1. Choose a Project
Find a project that calls to you. If you are in the path of the Monarch migration or located near an overwintering site, your data is especially important.
Check this list of Monarch and butterfly conservation projects to pick one suited to your area and interests. Since you already know how to identify Milkweed, you could participate in the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper project!
Even if you aren't in the path of the migration, there are still many projects out there and eButterfly is a great place to start. Monarchs are not the only Lepidoptera in trouble and you can find other projects on
2. Don't forget to include the next generation of citizen scientists
Get the kids involved! There are lots of fun activities that the kids can enjoy while contributing to the well-being of the Monarchs.
One way to get children interested is by rearing monarchs at home or in the classroom. Learn how to rear Monarchs here. Other classroom projects include tagging monarchs, monitoring larvae, recording monarch health, and counting Milkweed plants.
3. Download a citizen science app on your phone to record results
There are free citizen science apps such as this and this available for you to easily track and reports spring and fall migrations. These apps allow you to report your sightings from the field while viewing maps, taking pictures and leaving comments. It is a great way to stay connected to your fellow conservationists and nature lovers!
Remember, there's nothing wrong with doing it the old-fashioned way and recording your results on a notebook then inputing your data when you get home.
4. Get the community involved
Host a Bioblitz or tagging event in your community! Ask around to find a place to host such as a local park, school, community center, or public library.
A bioblitz is a citizen-science collaborative effort to find and record as many species within a specific area and in a specific time period as possible. It is a fun way to engage the public while connecting with nature and also contributing to conservation efforts.
You could also host a "tag and release" event for all ages! Monarch tagging kits are available
here. Partner up with local organizations to host a fun event to help the Monarchs and don't forget to invite all your friends and neighbors!
So why would you want to be able to identify Milkweed?
You may have read in my last blog post that becoming a citizen scientist is one important way that you can help the Monarchs. There are many projects dedicated to monitoring Milkweed populations and they are in of need citizen scientists such as yourself!
Now, the first step to becoming a citizen scientist and participating in a Milkweed monitoring survey, is being able to identify the Milkweed in your area. Luckily, Milkweed is very easily identifiable by its flowers and fruits. With just a few simple hints, you will be able to find and confidently identify Milkweed. Even if you aren't positive on the species, many surveys are just looking for general Milkweed plant populations.
The patterns method
I highly recommend the "patterns method" of identifying plants that Thomas Elpel covers in his book
Botany In a Day. It is a quick and fun way to learn how to identify hundreds of plants in a short amount of time. Botanists and taxonomists have created a filing system based on these patterns. Once you can identify these key similarities in a plant family, you are able to identify the species of the plant much faster.
Image from Thomas J. Elpel's Botany in a Day
For instance, plants in the milkweed family, Asclepiadaceae, (don't let the name intimidate you), secrete a milky sap (except for Butterfly Milkweed) and opposite or sometimes whorled leaves. There are 5 separate sepals (petal-like leaves) and 5 fused petals. The corona (circle of petals around the center of the flower) contains 5 hooded forms facing inwards. Inside the corona there are 5 stamens (male parts) fused to the ovary (female part). The pods are filled with many seeds with silky tufts.
Butterfly Milkweed- Asclepias tuberosa
Stem: 20 to 60 cm tall.
Flowers: bright orange-yellow, arranged in umbels.
Leaves: alternate on the stem (not opposite each other), lance-shaped, 5 to 10 cm long, smooth on top and downy beneath.
Habitat: limestone soils, open, rocky, dry sites. Does not tolerate shade.
Unique feature: no milky sap.
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Photo by Larry Stritch.
Swamp Milkweed- Asclepias incarnata
Stem: Downy (hairy), from 60 to 200 cm tall.
Umbels: Red or purplish-pink.
Leaves: Narrow, tapered, 4 to 17 cm long, arranged in opposite pairs.
Fruits: Long, narrow and smooth follicles, changing colour from green to brownish.
Habitat: Wetlands. Also found in swamps, ditches and near streams, rivers and lakes.
Population: Often scattered – does not form dense colonies.
Swamp milkweed Photo courtesy of Jennifer Anderson, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.
Common Milkweed- Asclepias syriaca
Stem: downy, usually single, 90 to 120 cm tall. Underground stems.
Leaves: broad and thick, 10 to 20 cm long, arranged in opposite pairs on the stem and with pubescent undersides.
Flowers: pale pink or violet, arranged in almost spherical umbels.
Fruits: large spindle-shaped fruit, bumpy, rough and downy.
Habitat: poor, dry soil, disturbed, sunny sites.
Whole plant with flowers. Photo by David Taylor.
Showy Milkweed- Asclepias speciosa
Stem: 45 to 200 cm tall, velvety or pubescent (hairy).
Flowers: Pale pink, arranged in umbels. The corona hoods are long (9 to 13 mm) and lance-shaped, making the flowers look like stars.
Leaves: Opposite, 10 to 25 cm long, smooth or slightly downy.
Habitat: Well-drained soil, sunny sites, pastures, forest edges,untilled fields, roadsides, ditches.
Showy milkweed (A. speciosa). Photo: Sarina Jepsen/Xerces Society
Elpel,Thomas-Botany in a Day http://www.wildflowers-and weeds.com/Plant_Identification/Patterns_in_Plants.htm Mission Monarch- Milkweed sheet
Monarch Mission. http://www.mission-monarch.org/wpcontent/uploads/2017/07/FICHES_ASCLE%CC%81PIADE_ANG_FINAL.pdf Thomas G. Barnes, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Barnes, T.G., and S.W. Francis. 2004. Wildflowers and ferns of Kentucky. University Press of Kentucky.
USDA Forest Service. Plant of the Week. https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/asclepias_syriaca.shtml
There are many ways you can help the Monarch butterfly , even during the winter months. Although it may be too cold to get out in the garden, it is the perfect time to start brainstorming your beautiful butterfly garden, planting Milkweed seeds and collecting data! Winter is a great time to hunker down and read up on topics that interest you such as Monarch conservation so let’s make the most out of it.
1. Do your research
There are many resources out there if you want to learn about ways you can help protect Monarchs and other pollinators.
A must-read is Douglas Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home . As a professor of Entomology at the University of Delaware for over 30 years, Douglas has a strong grasp on the importance of planting native plants in order to sustain wildlife. Douglas’s style of writing makes scientific writing accessible to everyone. He explains the role of evolutionary relationships between native plants and pollinators while providing tips on how you can start your own native garden.
Another great book that discusses the relationship between native plants and pollinators is Pollinators of Native Plants a book by Heather Holm. This book focuses on plant profiles and insects of the Midwest, Great Lakes, Northeast and southern Canada regions.
Other recommended books for the pollinator conservationist are:
Attracting Native Pollinators -The Xerces Society
Native Plants of the Northeast: A Guide for Gardening and Conservation by Donald J Leopold
Your local library is a great place to start your research!
2. Start your seeds indoors
Starting seeds at home is a cost-efficient and fun way to get a head-start on the gardening season. Starting your seeds in a controlled environment allows you to make adjustments to soil, temperature, and moisture for best germination results.
The ideal time to start seeds indoors in generally 6-8 weeks before your last frost date so check The Old Farmer’s Almanac to look for your area's average last frost date.
You can also refer to our last blog post on How to start Milkweed seeds indoors to get started!
3. Start planning your pollinator garden
By starting a butterfly garden, you are providing necessary sustenance for Monarchs along their long migration route and providing them with breeding grounds so that successive generations of Monarchs are able to complete their migration route to Mexico. The need for host plants and nectar plants applies to all Monarchs as well as other butterfly populations.
Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself when planning your butterfly garden.
1. Am I in the migration route of the Monarchs? (click here for a global distribution map)
This handy graph by Monarch Watch tells you when the Monarch migration will peak in your area
2. What time of year are the Monarchs in my region?
Journey North provides Monarchs sightings and also archives past years.
3. What plant zone am I in?
The USDA’s plant hardiness zone map tells you what plants will grow in your region.
4. What are my soil conditions?
Is your soil sandy, clay-like, silty, loamy? You can find out with an at-home soil test. Research soil requirements for the plants you’d like to grow. If some of plants require an uncommon soil type, you might consider potting them.
5. Is the area I want to plant in full-sun, part-sun or shade?
Take a walk around the area that you plan on starting your butterfly garden. Observe that area throughout the day and notice how much sunlight it gets. Full sun plants require at least 6 hours of direct sunlight while part shade/part sun plants require 3-6 hours of direct sunlight.
6. Is the area windy?
Monarchs and other butterflies don't love wind so try to find a peaceful, non-windy area for them to rest.
7. What types of plants do I want to grow?
A common recipe for butterfly gardens is 3 kinds of Milkweed (common, butterfly and swamp), 5 native plants that flower in the Spring, 5 that flower in the Summer and 5 that flower in the Fall. This will ensure you have a year-round garden!
4. Become a citizen scientist
Becoming a citizen scientist is quite easy and allows you to connect with other nature enthusiasts, naturalists and conservationists. Citizen scientists from around the country log data and observations which is vital to understanding the monarch migration, biological cycles and why they are disappearing. Simply by writing down a Monarch observation and logging it into one of these sites will contribute to science and help the Monarchs.
Below are some great places to start if you would like to participate in Monarch research and much more.
Monarch Monitoring Project
All you need is a pencil and paper to get started! Some of these websites also offer tagging materials and free educational materials so you could hold a Bioblitz or tagging event in your community!
Make a donation to your favorite Monarch or other pollinator conservation program. Many programs like these are donation-based and are fighting to save our Monarchs.