👀 The Context

The monarch is a magnificent black and orange butterfly; actually, it is one of the biggest diurnal butterflies in Canada. You may have seen one before since they fly around houses collecting nectar from flowers. However, if you were born 20 years earlier, you would have seen many more. In 2003, the monarch was already considered an at-risk species, but with a population decline of 90%, it has been an endangered species sin 2016. The climate changes, the use of pesticides and the destruction of its natural habitat lead to its demise.

Discover the Monarch

The monarch is a butterfly that is active during the day. To reproduce, the females lay eggs on a plant named milkweed. When the caterpillars get out of the eggs, their meal is already served since they feed exclusively off milkweed plans.

The monarch needs to travel in order to find milkweed. It is part of a category of insects that migrate long distances. In the fall, monarchs leave Canada to travel south. In two months, they travel between 2000 and 5000 kilometres. Quebec monarchs go to the state of Michoancán in the centre of Mexico. They appreciate resting the entire winter on Oyamel evergreens of this mountainous region. There can be hundreds of butterflies on the same tree. However, there are far less now than there once were.

In spring, each monarch travels back north. Its travelling path follows the blooming rhythm of its favourite flower: milkweed. It is through this trip back north that females lay their eggs along the way. A beautiful caterpillar, with yellow, white and black stripes gets out of the eggs after three to twelve days. It then feasts on the host plant to reach 2700 times its original weight within about two weeks.

In order to transform into a butterfly, the caterpillar finds a hiding spot and becomes a lovely pupa, also called a chrysalis, which can be recognized by its turquoise-green colouring with golden lines. The body of the butterfly will develop in the pupa for eight to fourteen days. 

Monarch butterflies that will come out of their pupa case will live three to five weeks. The adult butterfly uses milkweed to lay eggs but it also feeds off its nectar on the way. It is protected against most predators by a toxic agent accumulated by eating milkweed as a caterpillar. During its migration north, many generations of monarchs will succeed one another. It is in June that you will see them fly around in your garden, here in Quebec. Monarchs that become butterflies at the end of August develop differently in order to be prepared for the fall and to migrate to Mexico. Those butterflies live up to eight months.

Why are There Fewer Monarchs?

What cause this rapid decline? Mainly, it is the massive destruction of their natural habitat. There are also climate changes to consider with their effects on ecosystems, but humans speed up the process by using pesticides that eliminate milkweed and other nectar-producing plants. Humans build in places where monarch used to lay eggs and spend their winter. Since it becomes more and more difficult to find places to lay eggs, feed and find protection, monarch die without producing new generations to ensure the continuity of the species.

How Can We Help Monarchs?

Canada, the United States and Mexico work together to preserve and restore the monarch’s natural habitat. To understand the causes of the decline of monarchs, researchers study many criteria. They catalogue the number of eggs, caterpillars and butterflies. They identify the plants on their territory and count the number of milkweed plants. They also observe the environment and measure the temperature and speed of the wind. 

Many environmental organizations get involved with participatory science programs. They invite the population to sow milkweed seeds and plants that produce nectar to attract and feed butterflies. They also create platforms where citizens can catalogue eggs, caterpillars and butterflies. Anyone can add data to the Web platform and note where it was found.

There is no age to help monarch butterflies. The following organizations offer ways for people to get involved in the preservation of the monarch and to restore its habitat: 

People who are concerned with the situation of the monarchs and who would like to preserve its migration, should take the time to recognize milkweed (see the picture below). Once it is identified, look carefully to see if there are eggs or caterpillars on them. Pay close attention to spot monarchs but do not confuse it with a very similar butterfly: the viceroy, Choose one of the organizations mentioned above and see which one you like best. It may not seem so but the energy invested in saving monarchs benefits to the entire ecosystem. It is time to act to save the butterflies.

Papillon monarque
Source : Journal le Tour

Adapted in English by Valérie Harnois

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