By Mark Cullen
The monarch butterfly is in decline. It has been for some time and Canadian Wildlife magazine reports that it still is. So what? Let’s just say that the monarch is to the world of nature, what an ‘economic indicator’ is to our economy. When inflation goes through the roof, or interest rates take off or the Canadian dollar drops like a stone, people take notice.
We notice things that impact on our pocket book.
So, also, we should take notice when a prime plant pollinator like the monarch butterfly population is in steep decline. About one third of our food is pollinated by insects, including the monarch. If one-third of our food-stream was to disappear, all of us would notice.
There is another reason why we should pay attention to the monarch. Without a healthy population of monarchs, the story of their annual migration would be relegated to children’s books and history. It is a story about a miracle. Canadian Wildlife tells it this way, “For any given year, these butterflies represent the final cohort in a four or five generation annual cycle of monarch reproduction and migration.” Say what? Four or five generations of butterflies are produced in one trip from Mexico to Canada each spring?
Late in the winter, the overwintering population in Mexico flies to Texas and other southern climes where they lay eggs on milkweed plants before the adult monarch dies. Then they begin their migration north. “The caterpillar offspring, which feed exclusively on milkweed, spend several weeks growing before they pupate, become adult monarchs and continue the migration farther north before reproducing in kind.”
The process repeats until late summer and early fall, often here in Canada, when the monarchs that are alive at that time fly back to the Mexican pine and oyamel forests. The journey to Canada is like a relay of eggs, pupae, caterpillar and butterfly times four or five.
Think about this for a moment. Four or five generations of monarch butterflies are produced while the whole flock (do butterflies flock?) moves north between 3,000 and 5,000 kilometres over the span of several months from early spring until early fall.
How does each new generation know which direction to fly? And how does the last annual generation know when to stop, turn around and head south again? Not to mention the knowledge they must possess that tells them to stop making babies for a spell.
This is the miracle.
How you can Help
While there are myriad organizations like Canadian Wildlife, government agencies and concerned individuals giving this issue attention, there is a lot that you can do. Even if you live with a condo or apartment balcony you can nurture flowering plants that attract and feed monarchs.
It is not too late in the season to pick up milkweed seeds and sow them directly in your garden. This is a perennial plant that will grow this summer and flower next. Native milkweed is the exclusive food and habitat of monarch butterfly larvae.
Other nectar rich plants include butterfly weed (asclepias), catmint (nepeta), bugle weed (ajuga), coneflower (echinacea), cranesbill (geranium), some coreopsis, false sunflower (heliopsis), false indigo (baptista), yarrow, sedum, hollyhock, lavender and my favourite Joe Pye weed (eupatorium, which is related to milkweed). These plants are available at garden retailers this time of year and are ready to plant.
All wildlife needs water to survive and butterflies are no different. But they are not like birds that dip into the bird bath for a drink. Butterflies have very short legs and top heavy with wings. They prefer lily pads and mud to access water. That is why you often find butterflies hanging out at the beach.
It is helpful, I suppose, that butterflies are handsome creatures. If there is a decline in the population of dung beetles (which there is) I doubt that we would care much. Dung beetles are not classified as primary pollinators, they wallow in animal waste and they are not very attractive by any standard.
But they do represent an essential stage in nature’s decomposition process, without which we would be sky high in organic waste. And that is another story.
Mark Cullen is lawn & garden expert for Home Hardware, member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new best seller, The New Canadian Garden published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.