Monarchs and Milkweed

When I was a child my father, brother and I spent hours each summer looking for milkweed caterpillars, and upon finding these small yellow, black and white creatures, taking them home to feed and raise to adulthood. Over many years of my youth we released thousands of Monarch butterflies. To this day it is a thrill to witness caterpillars shedding their skin for the final time, and magically transforming into an emerald green chrysalis. An even more magic moment occurs a few weeks later when a beautiful Monarch butterfly appears from its chrysalis to make the transformation complete.

During my younger years we reached out to Dr. Fred Urquhart from the University of Toronto to see if we could be a part of his pioneering research into the migration of this fragile insect. He suspected these butterflies were migrating to Mexico, but at the time it was not known if this was actually true.

Since that time, the mystery of this amazing migration from Canada to Mexico has been solved. However, also since that time, a number of factors have worked to decimate past Monarch Butterfly populations. The loss of habitat throughout North America, and especially habitat that contained milkweed plants, has played a significant part in this decline. Pesticide use that has killed milkweed plants in many agricultural areas, and logging in the overwintering sites in Mexico has meant fewer and fewer Monarchs successfully arrive in Mexico each winter.

The miracle of the Monarch’s life cycle, including its migration to Mexico is a fragile one. Human populations in Canada, the United States and Mexico have all had a part in the population decline, but in each country efforts are currently being made to reverse the trend.

Between 2003 and 2011 my son and I participated in a program tagging Monarch Butterflies through an organization called Monarch Watch. This is a great organization that does further research and monitoring of migrating Monarch populations by asking citizens from across North America to apply very small tags to the wings of these butterflies so their migration can be studied.

In many situations with species at risk, there seems to be very little an average person can do to effect a change. In this case, there is work that we can do in Richmond Hill to help this little creature recover. We are working on an event during the Mill Pond Splash on June 7th this year to plant Milkweed at the Mill Pond. Stay tuned for more information about the Mill Pond Splash. There is also a link at the end of this article telling how you can help as well.