It could be heard before we entered the room; the soft, unmistakable sound of wings. Thousands of pairs of wings delicately fluttering amongst each other, weighing down the tropical branches of Niagara’s Butterfly Conservatory’s humid manmade habitat that they call home.
The days of catching a monarch butterfly fluttering through your backyard have dwindled from common to slim to none right before our eyes; as their species continues to remain threatened and monarch populations in North America drop from nearly one billion in the mid-1990s to less than 35 million in 2013.
Threatened by deforestation, pesticide and herbicide use, climate change and the destruction of milkweed plants – both their habitats and life source – the monarch’s North American population has declined rapidly within our generation.
“There truly is no one cause to the problem,” says Liette Vasseur, a Biologist with a focus on climate change and member of the Environmental Sustainability Research Centre at Brock University. “This destruction of habitat – especially of the species for which [the monarch] live – the drastic change in climate, the extreme weather events that now occur … these are all factors that contribute to the problem.”
With this realization, efforts to save the endangered monarch butterfly have intensified in more recent years; with North America investing in research into the monarch’s migratory patterns – among other components – and pledging to protect the magnificent insect and their habitats.
Here enters the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation whom infused the North American Monarch Conservatory Plan in 2010. This plan has the objective to contribute to maintaining healthy monarch populations and intact habitats throughout the migration flyway in North America while also educating and creating improved livelihoods for the butterfly in conjunction with local communities where the monarch chooses to settle.
Monarch butterflies embark on a marvelous migratory phenomenon. Their migratory journey takes between two – five thousand kilometers or more from the Midwest United States and Canada to central Mexican forests. Today, it is being noted that it is not about the impact that only one single country has on the species, but the impact of all three together and their individual climates and the practices of each combined.
“We are going through a change of climate,” said Cheryl Tyndall, Curator for the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory. “That is altering things: how plants grow, when things move, when [animals] migrate. Weather seems to be extreme; the winds seem to be in general stronger than they used to be and, in my opinion, more constant. And on a small butterfly that weighs way less than an ounce, it can have a pretty significant impact.”
“As the monarchs migrate north, with the change of climate, they really have hit extreme weather conditions coming up through Texas and the more southern states over the last four to five years,” said Tyndall. “If [The southern states] have an early spring or a late spring as the monarch fly through their area, it creates a challenge. A late spring means the plants they need may not be ready yet; if they have an early spring and there are lots of plants, they don’t have to keep going as far north as soon. So their return to Canada is becoming delayed.”
This delay in returning to Canada due to climate may seem like a minute problem to some, but Canada plays an impactful role on the species’ growth and repopulation; with Southern Ontario and portions of Quebec contributing to approximately 12 per cent of the monarch population due to these regions’ favourable summer climates.
“The life cycle of a monarch is about four weeks to go from egg to adult,” said Tyndall. “So if they land here in the beginning of June, they get all of June for a lifecycle, then all of July and August and then those butterflies all move on. If they don’t arrive in Canada until July, they really only have two generations up here to reproduce due to the timing of our summer months.”
Though we cannot control the climate, government officials are now trying to help the monarch’s migration by tagging the butterflies in order to track their journeys and designate the specific areas that are crucial to the species’ survival. This mapping process as well goes hand in hand with designating the agricultural areas that are detrimental to the success of the journey and pinpointing obstructions in the migratory route.
“When you look at history over the last 30 to 40 years, and you look at Central America, we have changed our agricultural practices drastically,” said Tyndall. “The use of herbicides and pesticides is still in practice. We now have large, massive acreage covered in corn or soybean. So what used to be smaller, more organic fields with hedge rows and wildflowers and milkweed growing in between, now a lot of that is gone.”
Due to this destruction of these small habitats, Tyndall said that a butterfly may now find itself flying hundreds of kilometres further between necessary plants – a distance which used to be a short, quick journey.
“If you have a route and you take the host nutritional plants away, they’re going to have to change where they migrate,” said Tyndall. “So now we have a fragmented migratory route. There is a little patch here and a little patch there, but the distance between patches is becoming far enough apart now that it is greatly reducing successful migration.”
Residents along these migratory routes are now being tasked to rebuild and repair small habitats within their own area; with monarch activists encouraging residents with access to even the smallest lot of land to grow pollinator gardens and plant milkweed in their own backyards – the dominant life source for the butterfly.
“If more people create mini habitats by planting milkweed, then mini habitats can fill in the fragmented habitats corridor that we have,” said Tyndall. “The more and more people that do this, the greater the corridor becomes and the greater the survival opportunities become for the monarch”
Female monarch will lay their eggs on milkweed plants; then the eggs develop to the pupae stage on the milkweed then feed off the plant until they are grown. But an unfortunate trait to the milkweed plant though is that most often it is mistaken for a weed – and overlooked when gardens are planted.
Both Vasseur and Tyndall emphasize the fact that you do not have to cultivate your entire backyard to make a difference. It is easy to add a few fluffs of the plant into your existing space; and with many different species of milkweed in Canada, it is easy to choose one that will work both aesthetically and non-evasively in your yard – while having a positive impact on the monarch.
“Unfortunately most people think of these plants as weeds,” said Vasseur. “It is easy though: if you have some land to spare and you can plant a few milkweeds, or a couple of golden rods or another native plant, do so; it is not complicated.”
And if you are afraid the sometimes invasive plant may overtake your garden, simply watch the plants’ growth; Vasseur said the plants do take patience and will not grow to maturity overnight but are no more difficult to maintain than the other plants in your garden.
As well, Tyndall explained that once the summer season has concluded and the milkweed has gone to seed, it is very easy to transplant these seed pods and distribute them in more wild area to germinate so they do not spread throughout your yard; this will still help the issue and increases the life span of the plant throughout the region.
Education is another huge component to fighting the battle against Monarch extinction. Schools are now helping to not only educate kids about the plants that local animals need but also teaching them how to cultivate these plants and avoid harming their environment
“We have to find a way to help people – especially children – understand that even really small things can be done that can help quite a lot,” said Vasseur.
Education as well reaches past future generations and towards the communities and municipalities charged with the beautification of regions – with roadside mowing for cosmetic reasons another contributing factor to the loss of milkweed in rural areas.
“It is so important for communities and municipalities to be aware of these plants and avoid mowing because they tend to cut a lot of them along the side of the roads without knowing,” said Vasseur. “I know that it is happening along the waterfront trails in St. Catharines and it is quite sad, because these are places where you would probably have these butterflies.”
Looking to get involved and help the monarch?
Gardeners can visit MonarchWatch.org for a list of the best types of milkweed for your yard and a range of other plants that are perfect for the monarch’s appetite.
The Butterfly Conservatory in Niagara Falls also hosts a range of family-centric educational events throughout the year featuring the monarch – alongside other species of butterfly. These events – held both in the spring and fall – are a perfect opportunity for educating children on the butterfly’s life cycle and how they can help the insect.