Endangered monarch butterflies have allies in Toronto

This month, as dahlias and sunflowers bloom and Ontario gardeners weed, water, and prepare for fall planting, thousands of monarch butterflies will emerge from their chrysalises.

Monarchs born in August are a special kind. These distinctive orange and black-veined butterflies rimmed with white spots look the same as others of their species but live nine times longer. That’s because of their critical role in monarch migration, which many people don’t realize is an annual multi-generational affair.

There’s a chance that children born today won’t ever get to witness this phenomenon, because in late July the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added the migrating monarch butterfly to its endangered list.

Don Davis captures, tags and releases a monarch butterfly at Tommy Thompson Park.

“Monarchs are probably the most studied insect in the world,” says Don Davis, who has been tracking them for 42 years. “They ordinarily only live about 30 days, but a physiological change takes place with the gradual arrival of fall: less sunlight and cooler temperatures.

“Migratory monarchs,” he continues, “emerge and live about nine months: to migrate to Mexico, and then begin the journey back to the southern US about mid- to late- February and March.” Along the way, they breed and their offspring continue the migration.

Davis, a Toronto resident, is one of many local citizen scientists working to save migratory monarchs. With his involvement in such programs as Monarch Watch, Journey North, Monarch Teacher Network of Canada and the Monarch Butterfly Fund (of which he is currently chair), Davis has helped develop conservation plans, consulted on the 2012 3D IMAX documentary “Flight of the Butterflies,” and most recently worked with a federal advisory group on monarch recovery.

As the phenomenon that captivated Davis for decades has been declared two steps from extinction, what people are seeing this year are lower numbers of these super-long-living butterflies, on whose wings the migration of the next two generations remains.

Rebekah Bennett repairs broken or deformed wings of monarch butterflies.

Ontario is one place where their absence would be especially felt. “Most migrant monarchs emerge in Ontario,” Davis says, “with Quebec and other provinces contributing to the migration.” The butterflies follow the shorelines of Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron, as well as rivers and other pathways during migration. Roosts of migrant monarchs numbering in the hundreds, sometimes in the thousands, can be seen along coasts where there are abundant flowering plants and trees that offer shelter on cooler nights. Here, they stop to feed and build up their fat reserves while heading southwest. “They cross large bodies of water when conditions are favorable,” says Davis.

For Davis, who worked with famous zoologist Fred Urquhart and his wife Norah in the 1960s to identify monarch migration routes, the recent news was not a surprise. Migratory monarchs — which are impacted by loss of milkweed (its host plant), extensive use of pesticides and herbicides, increasing climate change and weather extremes, and degradation and loss of wintering forests in Mexico — have long been on the provincial and federal Species at Risk lists as a Species of Special Concern. “We are not planting native species,” Davis says. “Ecosystems are being changed by invasive and non-native plantings and species.”

There are more than 147,000 other species on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. For many people, this is where confusion sets in. Toronto-based citizen scientist Carol Pasternak emphasizes that it is the migrant monarch butterfly that was recently added to this list. “The first thing to make clear is that monarch butterflies will not become extinct,” says Pasternak, author of the best-selling book “How to Raise Monarch Butterflies: A Step-by-Step Guide for Kids.” It is the phenomenon of migration that is endangered.

Carol Pasternak with a monarch caterpillar.

“Each year,” she adds, “monarchs born at the end of August, and September travel up to 4,000 kilometers over several months to a small area of ​​the mountains in Mexico. After semi-hibernating there for five months, they head north.”

It takes two generations for the monarchs to make it to some areas of Canada. “If monarch numbers get too low,” she says, “that multi-generation migration over three countries will disappear.” The butterflies would, however, continue to live in Hawaii, Texas, Florida and other southern states, Pasternak says, as well as in Spain, Central America and many islands.

Through Monarch Watch, a volunteer organization affiliated with the University of Kansas, Don Davis tracks this journey by tagging monarchs — which involves capturing live butterflies and applying to the rear wing a small circular adhesive tag with an identifying number, the name of the program and its website. Once the insects reach their destination in Mexico, Monarch Watch buys the tags from residents for 100 pesos ($6.00 CAD) each, which allows the researchers to retrieve the data and support the local economy.

A monarch butterfly after emerging from its chrysalis.

In 2021, Davis volunteered dozens of hours tagging 2,329 monarchs at Presqu’ile Provincial Park and elsewhere. Earlier this year, 15 of his tags were recovered. Over the years, many of Davis’s tagged monarchs were found across the eastern US and in Mexico. “(Data) increases our knowledge about monarchs, monarch biology and migration,” he says. “And when we benefit monarchs, we also benefit many other species.” Davis holds the Guinness World Record for documenting the longest migration by a butterfly, which traveled from Presqu’ile Park to Mexico, and was found the following April in Austin, Texas in 1987.

Citizen scientist Rebekah Bennett has participated in tagging but prefers to help butterflies by growing hundreds of milkweed plants — the only food that monarch caterpillars will eat, and the only place female monarchs will lay their eggs — on her two-acre property in Burketon Station.

Her home on the Oak Ridges Moraine is registered with Monarch Watch as a monarch waystation. She will leave most of the eggs and caterpillars alone, but others she protects from predators in specially constructed outdoor enclosures. For the past four years, Bennett has become an expert in repairing and replacing wings of injured and deformed butterflies, which she then sets free. “I don’t know if they make it to Mexico,” she says, “but they can fly and mate.”

Signage in Carol Pasternak's garden designates it as a monarch waystation.

Carol Pasternak encourages people to replace the habitat lost to development by planting native plants in their yards and on every inch of vacant land. “Milkweed is abundant in Toronto,” she says, “but there can always be more.” She maintains butterfly gardens at her home and, in addition to public speaking, offers up her lectures for educational purposes.

Like Pasternak, Bruce Parker has given talks on the monarch butterfly’s annual migration to Mexico in schools, libraries and nature clubs. He’s also written articles, and for 20 years has tagged thousands of butterflies. On behalf of Monarch Health, he also has swabbed butterflies for a specific parasite.

But Parker’s biggest reach is arguably his Facebook group, Monarchs Migrating Through Ontario, which he started in 2014. The goal of the group, which has 3,200 members, is to make people aware of this threatened migration and to promote the establishment and maintenance of pollinator gardens. “There tends to be a spike in membership whenever monarchs are in the news,” he says.

A monarch butterfly after emerging from its chrysalis.

The federal government is now reviewing a recommendation by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada to declare monarch butterflies endangered in Canada. Rebekah Bennett says it remains to be seen how the current endangered designation will affect citizen conservation efforts, but it could potentially hinder them. “Sometimes, when something is on the endangered list,” she says, “it can mean hands off.” In the meantime, she encourages people to ask their municipalities not to mow the milkweeds in the ditches. Since Lake Ontario is along the migratory pathway, it’s important to keep the green spaces along these routes as natural as possible.

Don Davis says he will continue to work on and support the projects he is already heavily involved in. The placement of the migration phenomenon on the endangered list, he says, “will give rise to reflection and action on how we can conserve and protect monarchs and their habitats.

“There is a great deal of work to be done.”

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