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Plant Some Milkweed, Save a Butterfly

The Monarch butterfly is disappearing but home gardeners can help by planting milkweed, which is its only breeding habitat. (U.S Fish and Wildlife Service)
The Monarch butterfly is disappearing but home gardeners can help by planting milkweed, which is its only breeding habitat. (U.S Fish and Wildlife Service)
March 24, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - Scientists who have been analyzing data collected on monarch butterflies got a bit of good news recently. There were more of them wintering in Mexico than anticipated.

Brice Semmens, assistant professor at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, says they're not out of the woods by far. He explains that 85 percent of the monarch population has disappeared, and could become extinct in the next 10 to 20 years.

Monarchs rely on milkweed to reproduce, and Semmens says we've gotten too good at eradicating weeds, which destroys their habitat.

He says the Midwest plays a crucial role in whether the monarch survive or not.

"If you look at where corn in grown and where Monarchs are in terms of density, there's almost perfect overlap," says Semmens. "It really is that sort of corn-breeding ground, that really fertile Midwestern ground, and it's where we need to get milkweed back in order to recover the monarchs."

Monarchs can only reproduce or lay eggs on milkweed, and no other plant. Semmens says both the United States and Canadian governments have recognized the peril the iconic butterfly is in and are taking steps to protect it.

Semmens says if everyone who cares about the monarch planted some milkweed, it could save them.

"You only have one garden, but if we collectively are doing it, that results in a lot of potential Monarch breeding habitat, even in our urban areas," he says.

Many other species of insects use milkweed as their main food source. Although it is considered a weed, Semmens points out that it can be beautiful – and it's crucial to the monarch.

"They only can reproduce, or lay eggs, on milkweed and no other plant, so it really doesn't matter if you're in Maryland or in Arkansas, or if you're in Indiana," says Semmens. "Milkweed is the thing that they need in order to reproduce. "

Common milkweed grows up to six feet tall. It has large, broad leaves, usually four to 10 inches long, which sometimes have red veins. It is often found along roadsides or in ditches.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - IN