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Saving And Monitoring Monarch Butterflies in North America

The monarch butterfly migration is one of the most enchanting spectacles in the natural world. These large butterflies head up to Canada for the summer where locals can marvel at their beauty before it is time for them to head back to Mexico. The ongoing risks to insect and pollinators in the world means a growing desire to monitor and protect species. The last thing that we want is to see this migration end. That is why citizens and gardeners need to act now to play their part to save these beautiful butterflies.

The Monarch Migration Long Distance Challenge

These animals travel as much as 8,000 km across North America. This actually occurs in a series of stages. Butterflies overwinter in Mexico and Southern US states before heading north. Some lay eggs here in the US before moving on to Canada, while others lay here. There are different waves of butterflies for different generations. Those born later in the summer and in the fourth generation will head back to Mexico to winter, starting the cycle over once again.

The overwintering ranges are actually quite limited. There is a strip in the forests between Santa Cruz and L.A. and a small population in a trans-volcanic range west of Mexico City. Yet, some think there may be some overwintering sites in the Yucatan Peninsula or even Guatemala. This would be a good southerly point for those heading down from Florida and the eastern seaboard. It would make sense, rather than head south and take a right turn into Mexico.

There are also minimal sites within Canada that are suitable for sustaining these butterflies in the summer months. That is why it is so important to learn more about their numbers and help to attract them when they do arrive. It is possible to find breeding monarchs around southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. This is down to the temperature and vegetation on offer. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t sighting further north, however. This is another reason why it is so important to learn more about these animals and their habits.

So How Do Canadians Fit In This Butterfly Travel Cycle?

As there are so few known sites for migrating and summering monarch butterflies in Canada all information and support for the butterflies is vital. There are two things that we can do here in Canada to play our part in the survival and understanding of these insects.

The first is to provide the right vegetation and nesting sites that will attract them. When more sites are available to these animals, the further they can travel. Obviously, there are some areas that simply aren’t sustainable due to the climate. Still, those that live in suitable areas can help to improve them. From there, we can then help with the second means of helping these creatures – monitoring and data collection.

flower with butterfly

Create Your Own Butterfly Friendly Garden

The best thing that you can do is attract butterflies to your own backyard and monitor the monarch butterflies there. The more sites there are that are attractive to these creatures, the better their chance of settling and surviving the season. Our gardens can offer two separate purposes.

First of all, there is the stop-over. Think of your gardens like a rest stop on the highway to a final destination, or a stop-over airport between flights. You might stop by at a little dinner on the side of the road for a caffeine or sugar fix to help you through the rest of your journey. These tiny winged miracles need to do the same thing on route to their chosen site. The more gardens there are providing this sort of fuel stop, the better their chances of reaching the forest healthy.

Then there is the chance to turn the garden into the perfect breeding ground for these insects. This requires a little more love and care, with great attention to detail with the planting. It may be harder work in some respects, but the pay off could be very rewarding if the butterflies choose to stay.

What should you plant to help attract these butterflies to your garden?

There are a lot of different monarch-friendly plants out there. Choices will always depend on the climate of your area, the quality of the soil and other local factors. Yet, there are some beloved plants that gardeners swear by. Some of these include the following:

  1. Zinnias- Zinnias are a great choice because of their large flowers. It is easy for creatures to land and access the nectar they need to fuel up.
  2. Agastache- The Agastache doesn’t seem as though it would be so popular, as its shape is entirely different to the zinnia. Yet, many gardeners report seeing monarch butterflies on this flower in high numbers.
  3. Mexican sunflowers- These sunflowers are big, bold beacons for anything that wants to fly into the garden. There is also something fitting about using a flower from the butterfly’s secondary home of Mexico.
  4. Buddleia- Then there is the buddleia, better known as the butterfly bush too many gardeners. This plant is one beloved by butterflies of many different shapes and sizes. Monarchs can’t wait to join in the fun.
  5. Milkweed- Finally there is the milkweed plant. This pretty flower actually has two potential benefits for this insect. It is rich in nectar for food, but also a popular choice for monarch caterpillars. This means that rather than just fuel up and head on to the forest, some monarchs may choose your garden to lay their eggs and hatch a new generation.


Source:  Medallion Plants

The monarch life cycle in your garden

Day 1-8 The butterflies lay their eggs on the undersides of these leaves, where they hatch in between three and eight days. Hatching times tend to be temperature dependent.

Day 8-12 They then spend another eight to twelve days as caterpillar larvae on these plants.

larvae caterpillar

Day 12-25 Then they need nine to thirteen days as a pupa in the protective cocoon. Once fully developed, it is ready to fly.

Therefore, a milkweed plant would make your garden an important part of an incredible migration path.

Is it too late to start creating a monarch-friendly garden?

There isn’t a lot you can do to your garden right now to prepare for incoming monarchs, aside from tending the plants that you already have. That is unless you want to spend a lot of money on established plants.

Still, there is always time to plan and get ideas for next season. Starting the planning for next season means that not only can you find the perfect species, and cultivate them yourself, you can design a wildlife-friendly patch of garden. This means somewhere where nature can take over.

Somewhere a little more untidy where pollinators and other creatures can thrive. Where possible, look for plants the CWF Pollinator Collection of Medallion Plants label.


Source: Medallion Plants

The wonderful thing about the plant choices above is that they don’t just attract monarch butterflies. If that were the case, your garden wouldn’t be as productive as it could be. Instead, these flowers are perfect for visiting bees and hummingbirds. This is another reason to spend more time planning a wildlife-friendly garden for next season, rather than rush to help this year.

Your hard work with planting, feeders and living arrangements could help a large variety of species. There are more than 1000 pollinating animals in Canada, according to the Canadian Wildlife Federation. Key groups include hummingbirds, bees, and moths. Examples include:

1) The Rufous Hummingbird

This tiny bird is 9.5cm long. There is beautiful iridescent orange-red plumage on the throat in makes and greener plumage on females. Their life follows a similar story to monarchs. They like to winter in Mexico, follow the western coast and summer in British Columbia and Western Alberta. The population is stable for now but still appreciates help with organic gardens and good flowers. Consider a selection such as the CWF Pollinator Collection of Medallion Plants kit for hummingbirds. This includes – amies, alpine columbine, coral bells and – no surprise – milkweed.

2) Rusty-patched bumble bee

Many people are aware of the plight of the bee as a more general group of insects. Honey bees are in decline across the world, as are many other species. This is all down to a lack of food and the use of pesticides. This bee is the only endangered bee in Canada, at the moment at the moment at lease. It is also critically endangered globally. There are no records since 2009, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there somewhere. Efforts to help this, and other bees, are essential to change the fate of these insects.

Monitoring Sites For Monarch Butterflies And Record Data

If you want to do even more to help this charismatic species, you could try a little citizen science. Citizen science is a popular new way to help researchers gain valuable information. This could be about habitats and species under threat. Try as they might, researchers can’t be everywhere and record all individuals. They don’t have the manpower or finances for such large-scale operations.

That is where citizen science come in. These projects give everyday wildlife lovers the chance to join in and help with certain projects. The tasks are generally easy aspects of data collection. The more people that join in, over a wider area, the better the results. The more people monitoring the monarch butterfly, the better the chance of understanding breeding sites and population numbers.

monarch butterfly on flower

The International Monarch Monitoring Blitz is essential in tracking these summer patterns.

One of the biggest and best examples of this in Canada and North America right now is the International Monarch Monitoring Blitz. This event was a great success in 2017, with 300 reports gathered over the short period from July 29th to August 5th. This summer, organizers are calling upon the public once again to help with reports and sightings.

Reporting sightings of these beautiful butterflies, but also milkweed. As we saw in the list of plants above, milkweed is an important part of a healthy monarch habitat. No milkweed, no monarch caterpillars. That is why it is so important to pay attention to areas of this plant and watch out for any threats or declines. This could have a knock-on effect on monarch numbers and we need to protect them as much as possible.

So how does it all work?

Those that are new to the blitz, or the concept more generally, can learn more about the process online. There are training videos at the Monarch Larva Monitors Project page, via the University of Minnesota. There is a 4 step process: get the right training, sign up to the system, monitor your area and submit your data. The first is essential to ensure that you know precisely what to look for and how to use the system. The online videos are a great start, but there are also in-person training sessions in some regional nature centers. Signing up to the site then allows you to record data and plot your designated area on the international map. The more people that submit data, the bigger the final map.

As you can see there are lots of steps to take to help monarch butterflies summering in Canada.

It won’t be long now until these butterflies arrive in Canada looking for suitable places to breed and spawn, before heading back to Mexico. It is a privilege for many nature lovers just to see this animal. It is always amazing how they are able to keep up this cycle on this massive migration. Yet, those that want to keep on seeing this butterfly can do more.

Start by working on a pollinator-friendly area of the garden, with close attention to the use of milkweed. This should help attract the butterflies to a new site. Then you can use this site, or somewhere close by, in order to track numbers and habits. No piece of data and no patch of land is too small in this fight to help the monarch butterfly. The more of us that help, the better the chances of maintaining a healthy population across the continent.

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