GEISMAR — There’s a quiet place at the BASF chemical plant on River Road set aside for one highly sought-after guest — the monarch butterfly.
The Geismar plant in Ascension Parish is one of the most recent of the BASF complexes across the country to create what’s called a waystation for the monarch, providing the plants the brilliant orange-and-black butterfly needs to survive in an increasingly unfavorable world.
Due largely to loss of habitat, the North American monarch population has declined by more than 90 percent in the past two decades, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
The garden in Geismar was planted last summer, then made it through the winter — a time of year when the monarchs are hibernating in the Sierra Mountains of Mexico — and is now thriving again for the expected return of the monarchs any day now.
One important plant in the garden is milkweed, the only plant on which monarchs lay their eggs and on which their caterpillars feed. Other flowering plants provide the nectar for adult monarch butterflies.
Blythe Lamonica, external communications manager with BASF in Geismar, said monarchs come to the spot regularly.
On a recent weekday, when a brisk breeze was probably working against the appearance of butterflies, Lamonica checked the undersides of the leaves of the milkweed plants in the garden for monarch eggs.
“The eggs are very, very, very little,” she said, carefully turning the leaves over.
The garden, situated on a grassy area near the BASF administration building and outlined by a walking path with benches, is certified with the National Wildlife Federation as a wildlife habitat and designated as a monarch waystation by Monarch Watch, an outreach and conservation program based at the University of Kansas.
The butterfly garden effort by BASF joins those of other organizations and individuals to stop the decline of the monarch butterfly, known for its heroic migration south every year from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico, traveling up to two months and as many as 2,500 miles to “roost” for the winter, before returning in the spring.
The disappearance from the landscape of the milkweed plant — an all-important part of the monarch’s life cycle — has been a large factor in the dwindling monarch population.
“Habitat loss is the main reason for the decline,” said Angie Babbit, communications coordinator for Monarch Watch.
That loss, she said, comes from development, conversion of habitat to cropland and depletion of milkweed from corn and soy fields due to the use of herbicides.
The monarch butterfly isn’t one of the world’s top pollinators. Insects like the bee, wasp, beetle and even the fly, because of their body designs, are more effective pollinators in the food chain, Babbit said.
But the habitats where monarchs thrive also are good for those more efficient pollinators, she said.
And the monarch is “one we can see” in the landscape, she said.
“Almost everyone I talk to has had a positive interaction with that relationship,” Babbit said. “It’s a really good poster child” for bringing back butterfly-friendly habitats.
The monarch waystations at BASF locations are a complement to the company’s Living Acres program, which provides guidance to help farmers establish milkweed plants that can co-exist with high-production areas, Lamonica said.
The chemicals BASF makes at Geismar, according to the company’s website, are used for a wide array of products, including automobiles, pharmaceuticals, diapers, adhesives and inks, as well as herbicides and pesticides.
“BASF is constantly looking at ways to improve the use of those products,” Lamonica said. “From our standpoint as a company, sustainability and environmental stewardship are at the core of our operations.”
Babbit said, “If a company chooses any green space they have for habitat creation, we’re all for that.”
For residents who would like to plant milkweed in their yards for the butterflies, Babbit recommends a native milkweed plant rather than a tropical milkweed that’s often sold in nurseries.
Native milkweeds die back in the winter and come back fresh for the monarchs in the spring, she said.
Tropical milkweeds grow all year long and can pass along to the monarchs diseases left by other insects, she said.
If a gardener has a tropical milkweed plant, they should regularly prune it down to about 6 inches throughout the winter, Babbit said.
Gardeners should also check with the plant nursery to make sure the milkweed they buy is free of any systemic pesticide that can harm the monarchs, she said.
“If you look at the big picture (of the monarchs),” Babbit said, “what you’re seeing is something going wrong in the environment.”