Skip to Content

More than Monarchs: Plant Diversity for Ecosystem Health

Mar 31, 2021


  • More than Monarchs

Photo caption: Planting nectar flowers for monarchs can help other insects too, like this beautiful goldenrod stowaway on Bidens aristosa. Photo by Doug Tallamy.

Why Monarchs? While monarchs are intrinsically important, conserving monarchs matters for more than just their own protection. We’re exploring the ways that monarch habitat and conservation helps people, other wildlife and the environment in this ‘More than Monarchs?’ series! Join us to learn more.

The plight of the monarch has perhaps captured the country’s attention more than any creature in the past. The monarch has become the poster child of declining pollinators because they are large, easily recognized, beautiful, and they are in trouble. Urged on by groups across the country, monarch waystations have been planted, thousand-mile-long migration corridors planned, and milkweed seeds and plugs distributed to homeowners and civic groups. In fact, monarch conservation has been so completely embraced by the public that there is growing evidence that grassroots efforts alone can reverse the fortunes of iconic species in trouble.

One ecosystem service that some insects perform is pollination. But there are other important services that insects perform in addition to pollination, including decomposition and supporting other animals as their food.  A successful media campaign to save the monarch is one that also helps to save other native insects as well.  Some people think that pollinators are the only insects in trouble, and, even worse, the only insects worth saving. Nothing could be farther from the truth.  

Life as we know it cannot survive without all these services. Insects pollinate 80% of plants and 90% of flowering plants. But every bit as important are the insects that decompose organic matter, making nutrients available for future generations, and insects that transfer the energy harnessed from the sun by plants to other animals by becoming their food. Without the insects that eat plants, the food webs that support our amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds would collapse, and potentially be gone.

Most vertebrates do not eat plants directly; they eat the insects that ate those plants. And, of all the creatures that eat plants, caterpillars feed more animals than any other type of insect. Birds are excellent examples: 96% of our terrestrial birds rear their young on insects, and most of those insects are caterpillars. In fact, many thousands of caterpillars are required to nourish a single clutch of nestlings - and nearly all those caterpillars are the larvae of moths, not butterflies. 

But here’s the thing. Most of those moth species are declining just like the monarch, and for the same reasons the monarch has declined, yet no national campaign to save our moths (and thus our birds) exists. Why not? Because few moths are as pretty as the monarch, and the public does not understand how critically important the 12,000 species of North American moths are to healthy ecosystems. Yes, we need to save the monarch, but we also need to save the ugly brown moths that serve as food for the birds and other animals we so love and need.

To do this, we need to return the native plant species that support the growth and reproduction of other pollinator species, and we need to do so at pollinator/butterfly gardens or Waystations, rights-of-way, agricultural lands, public lands, and everywhere else. Luckily, creating monarch friendly habitats can help save many other insects, too. A recent study, for example, found that 368 species of insects, in addition to monarchs, use Arizona milkweed. Goldenrod species support at least 180 caterpillar species nationwide, and various asters support another 130 species. Fortunately, both types of plants are important sources of nectar for migrating monarchs. But we need to move beyond saving other insects by accident, while we save monarchs. Just as the monarch can be a flagship for broader insect conservation, monarchs will benefit from broader communications to the nation urging them to save all of our native insects.

Increasing plant diversity to improve ecosystem health is just one example of how the work we do for monarchs (now a candidate species) can make a difference in many ways. What are the co-benefits of monarch conservation that matter most to you? Keep following our “More than Monarchs?” series to hear more stories of what monarchs can do for us, our communities and our world.

Do you have an idea for a More than Monarchs article that you’d like to share with us? If so, let us know!

Article contributed by Dr. Doug Tallamy, University of Deleware, for the Monarch Joint Venture Communications Working Group and NAPPC Monarch Taskforce’s More than Monarchs Series. Photos by Doug Tallamy. The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners.R


Behrstock, R. A. (2020). New records of pollinators and other insects associated with Arizona milkweed, Asclepias angustifolia, at four sites in Southeastern Arizona. Journal of Ecology, 26, 1-24.