As a kid, I remember chasing butterflies around my yard. They were almost always monarchs; I’d cup them in my hands for a couple of seconds, admiring their vibrant orange and black wings before releasing them back into the air. Simpler times, for sure. Chasing butterflies isn’t on my long ‘to-do’ list these days, and even if it was, there aren’t really any monarch butterflies to be seen.
An Endangered Species
Every fall, monarch butterflies make their long journey from North America to hibernate in the mountains of central Mexico. Sadly, the number of them actually making it to Mexico has dropped to the lowest level since monitoring began 20 years ago. The Eastern migratory monarch population is down by a staggering 80%.
Why? Experts say we’ve eliminated too many milkweed plants from their natural habitats. Milkweed is paramount to the monarch’s survival; it’s their primary food source and the only plant where females lay their eggs. But herbicides, pesticides, agricultural development, and deforestation have wiped out this incredibly important plant species. Especially in the US, where World Wildlife estimates about 90% of all milkweed has vanished some states.
A Call For Action
The Montreal Insectarium is asking people in the Canadian city for help tracking the monarch butterfly population. The goal of the conservation project, called Mission Monarch, is to map the butterflies’ local habitat by finding the elusive insect and the milkweed they love so much.
By locating the places where they breed, experts are hoping to be able to save at least some of them by providing them with more of what they need. According to CBC News, the hot weather in Canada this summer has led to somewhat of a monarch revival, so finding them may not prove to be as difficult as it has in previous years.
Spotting a monarch doesn’t have to be an elaborate game of hide-and-go-seek. If you see milkweed, you will more than likely find the butterfly or its eggs there. I have a pretty healthy patch of milkweed on my property. I went out searching and despite not finding any eggs or butterflies fluttering around, I did find a monarch caterpillar, distinguished by its two sets of horns on each side of its body and its yellow, black and white stripes.
In Montreal, several different neighborhoods have started planting milkweed as part of the “Mayors’ Monarch Pledge”, a campaign aimed at rehabilitating natural breeding grounds.
It’s a concept being suggested across North America, whether it be in cities, or individual backyards and small balcony gardens. Once a monarch caterpillar hatches, it will eat the milkweed plant leaves for anywhere between nine and 18 days, eventually growing 2,700 times its original size!
Growing milkweed is actually pretty simple; you can buy seeds from some garden centers, or you can collect mature pods from the plant itself in the fall. Canadian Geographic recommends planting in the spring as soon as the risk of frost has passed. Keep in mind there are a few different species of milkweed, so it’s best to choose one native to your area and growing conditions. It also spreads aggressively, so don’t plant it in any established garden beds.
Other Things You Can Do
Beyond planting milkweed, you can help the monarch butterfly population out by planting a pollinator garden in your yard or on your balcony. Your garden alone certainly won’t save the population, but the Canadian Wildlife Federation says even a small wildflower patch can go a long way.
I might be all grown up now, but if I happen to see a monarch butterfly this summer, I’m going to chase it. For old times’ sake.