Milkweed and Monarchs – Oh My!

Ben Leffew, Preserve Manager
Laura Baird, Assistant Preserve Manager

Monarch butterfly in the Shaker Village Preserve

Entering the summer months marks not only a transition in the seasons on the calendar, but also a transition in the species of blooming plants which act as sources of nectar, pollen, and sites for insects to lay eggs.

Spring forest wildflowers offer a food source for pollinators as early as February, when they can take advantage of sunlight hitting the forest floor before the trees start to shade the understory. As spring ends, most forest plants have finished blooming and the show picks up out in the prairies, where wildflowers can thrive throughout the warm months without having to compete for light with large trees.

Of the many diverse, vibrant wildflowers of summer, milkweed stands out from the rest as both an excellent nectar source, providing liquid energy for wide variety of insect species, as well as being the only plants monarch butterflies lay their eggs on.

Five species of milkweed have been confirmed in The Preserve at Shaker Village: common (Asclepias syriaca), butterfly (Asclepias tuberosa), green (Asclepias viridis), swamp (Asclepias incarnate), and four-leafed (Asclepias quadrifolia). Not surprisingly, common milkweed is the most abundant on the property as it is large, extremely tough, spreads itself easily and responds well to our prescribed fire regime.

Pipevine swallowtail on butterfly milkweed

The relationship between monarchs and milkweeds is one of the most famous examples of specialization in the insect world, and dates back millennia. Milkweeds produce a thick, sticky, toxic sap reminiscent of white latex, and have small hairs on the leaves to deter insects from taking a bite. Despite these physical and chemical defenses, several insects have evolved the ability to not only consume milkweed, but consume it exclusively. Monarchs are the most famous of these, requiring milkweed to lay their eggs.

Swamp milkweed

If it seems like monarch butterflies are getting a lot of attention these days, it’s for good reason. Monarchs have become an ambassador species for both large-scale prairie habitat restoration and small, backyard pollinator gardens and waystations. Providing good, milkweed-rich habitat for monarchs also benefits hundreds of other insect species that thrive in the prairie and in turn feed our many birds.

The Preserve at Shaker Village has miles of trails crossing through native prairies for you to explore! If you would like to learn more about monarch butterflies first-hand, you might enjoy our Monarch Butterfly Tagging workshop in September!

Hello, November

burn

We set The Preserve on fire! Every year, Shaker Village fields are managed on a 2-year fire rotation to maximize conditions for habitat. Controlled burns are an integral part of the restoration and maintenance of the more than 1,200 acres of native warm season grasses and wildflowers found throughout the 3,000-acre property. Burns, such as this one, are carried out as part of our property management plan. Funded through grants from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) and the Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS), our projects have returned the land to the prairie appearance that existed prior to the Shakers’ settlement of the area.

During the last 10 years, we have successfully converted 1,200 acres of unproductive pasture land into native prairie grasses and wildflowers. The results have been extraordinary—60+ coveys of wild Northern Bobwhite quail (the highest density of this declining species in Kentucky) and thriving insect, songbird and mammal populations.

You can see more about Shaker Village and quail restoration on This American Land airing on PBS later this year.

We take a “bottom up” ecosystem approach to quail management. We start at the bottom by providing high quality habitat consisting of native warm season grasses and wildflowers. Through late-winter prescribed fire and field specific management, we hold succession in check and provide premium nesting and brood rearing habitat in adjacent fields. We work to provide woody cover and “rough edges” to support quail across the entire range of habitat types they prefer. Our efforts not only support quail, but all other organisms that thrive in a native prairie ecosystem. Through intense monitoring of the quail and songbird population, we are able to see how our management positively affects overall bird populations. We also are able to determine sustainable hunting limits for quail with proceeds from hunting supporting The Preserve at Shaker Village and 1,200 acres of high quality quail habitat.


Join us this month for a Quail Dinner.
Learn more about our Land Conservation work.
Consider donating to Shaker Village to help us continue to make great things happen here.

Please note: The Preserve and trails will be closed Mondays – Fridays from Nov. 1 – Dec. 30 for habitat and wildlife management and trail restoration work.
The trails along River Road (River Road Trail and Palisades Trail) will be open every day for guests who want to hike/walk during the week. All trails will be open Saturdays and Sundays in November and December.


Ben Leffew is the preserve manager. A Kentucky Proud product straight out of Boyle County…