For more than a decade, Margaret McRae has raised monarch butterflies in her east-end Toronto home. Every two years she applies for permission from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, then scans the milkweed that grows plentifully in her gardens. When she finds a leaf bearing an egg, she brings it inside to protect it from parasites. Within four days, she has a monarch caterpillar, covered in white, black, and yellow stripes. “It comes out of this tiny little egg, and initially it’s so small you can hardly see it,” McRae says. “But it grows fast, and in 10 days it’s full-size.”
The insect then spends another 10 days hanging upside down inside a pale green chrysalis, before emerging as a fully formed butterfly, ready to return to the garden. But its first two hours in the outside world are perilous, as the monarch is not yet able to take flight. “One time, I had two butterflies emerge within 15 minutes of each other,” McRae recalls. “I was outside with them when a wasp attacked one and started eating it. A neighbour kid came by and we stood there for two hours, watching over the other butterfly to protect it from the wasps.”
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Over the past few years, governments and regular citizens have increasingly tried to protect monarchs from a wide range of threats. In 2014, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs removed the prolific milkweed — the only food in a monarch caterpillar’s diet — from its list of noxious weeds so provincial inspectors would no longer target the plant for destruction. One year later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would spend $4 million to conserve monarch habitat from Ohio to Texas. And last June, the Montreal-based initiative Mission Monarch — inspired by a similar project at the University of Minnesota — began sending citizen scientists into the field to collect data on the butterfly’s distribution.
These efforts were overdue: deforestation, climate change, and increased use of herbicides targeting milkweed on farms caused the monarch’s North American population to decline precipitously, from nearly 1 billion in the mid-’90s to less than 35 million in 2013, after which the species experienced a slight rebound. But concern for the well-being of the monarch has become disproportionate to concern for many other potentially struggling but less-studied species.
“There’s been a great cultural sense of loss around monarchs,” says Jode Roberts of the David Suzuki Foundation. “They’re these weird creatures that show up, colour the landscape in mid- to late summer, and then leave in the fall and do this miraculous journey”—the longest migration of any insect on Earth, from southern Canada and the Midwest to central Mexico. “There’s so much wonder tied in to them,” Roberts says, “that there’s a connection people throughout the migratory range have with this species.”
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Roberts wants to foster similar feelings for other insects as manager of the Butterflyway Project, which starts this spring in five Canadian cities. Volunteers will plant native shrubs and flowers in their neighbourhoods, creating a network of preferred habitats for many different bees and butterflies — even though many of the volunteers are unfamiliar with the pollinators they’re providing food and shelter to. “I keep asking, when I do presentations, if people can identify any butterfly other than a monarch that visits their community, and a lot of people really don’t know,” Roberts says. “And yet there’s over 300 species of butterfly in Canada, and 100 of those are at risk — or there isn’t conclusive evidence that they’re not at risk.”
One of the butterflies under threat is the mottled duskywing, once scattered throughout Ontario in isolated populations as far north as Manitoulin Island, but endangered in Canada since 2012. The tawny crescent, meanwhile, is still abundant in this province but has vanished from its traditional breeding areas in the northeastern U.S. Obscure species such as these are at a disadvantage, lacking the broad public awareness the monarch enjoys.
In 2014, for instance, Roberts and the David Suzuki Foundation launched their “Got Milkweed?” campaign. First they convinced a nursery to grow the plant (which was considered a weed and not sold at garden centres), then they encouraged members of the public to plant it around their homes. “We put 500 plants on order hoping we could unload them, or my backyard would be full of milkweed,” Roberts says. “We sold those in about two days. I think we sold 4,000 that first year.”
Roberts says the “Got Milkweed?” campaign has done well every year since and has expanded west to Manitoba and east to the Maritimes. He hopes that success will carry over to the Butterflyway Project. “Part of the work now is to take some of the energy and enthusiasm that people have for monarchs and put it into places that benefit other species,” he says. “My ambition is to have people identify at least a couple butterflies that float through their backyards.”
Daniel Sellers works as a journalist and lives in Toronto.
Photo courtesy of Tracey Adams and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)