text and photos by Julia Cipriani
I have been a number one admirer of the Monarch butterfly for a very, very long time. I find their mid-June arrival in Canada and their September journey to return to their over-wintering grounds in the mountains where the Oyamel fir trees grow in Mexico awesome in the truest sense of that overused and misused word. Many people are infatuated with the monarch. Organizations use the symbol of the monarch quite freely to demonstrate their “celebration” of nature.
In the late 1980s I started collecting the eggs and young larvae which I found on the roadside milkweed in late June. I used window screens salvaged from a flea market to create a shelter on the deck of the cottage where I spent part of my summer. I stuffed the host milkweed plants into bottles and replaced the food as the plants dried out or as the larvae munched through them. Sometimes this involved moving the rapidly growing larvae from the plant which was drying to the new plant.
This is easy to do if you can gently persuade the caterpillar to move over to the new plant. If that does not work, you can break the leaf off the plant the larva is on and lay the leaf on the new plant.
Often the mature caterpillars escaped the shelter. The chrysalis formed in sight and out of sight. If the adult butterfly hatched in the shelter, I opened the screen to allow it to fly when it was ready to take its leave. I introduced the monarch’s life cycle to anyone who showed any interest. A couple of neighbours started raising the eggs and larvae.
I have not had access to that cottage for many years. It is only in the past few years that I have again found and provided shelter for the larvae, using a small cage I created to contain the larvae and to provide a place for the mature larvae to anchor the chrysalis on the roof of the shelter.
This summer I found 10 young larvae on the re-grown milkweed along the mowed side of a road near the same cottage where I used to spend summers. I assume they were the newborns of the first arrivals. I brought them back to Ottawa on the collected plants where I found them. Then I found a few more larvae at another site. Not all of the larvae made it. One died during one of the caterpillar’s instars. One chrysalis fell during the transformation from larva to chrysalis. I released 10 adults in 2014 – 3 females and 7 males.
Until this spring, the host plant of the Monarch – Common Milkweed – was on the noxious weed list in Ontario as it is poisonous to some grazing farm animals. Gardeners ripped the milkweed plants out of their gardens and lawns. Herbicide spraying by farmers using Roundup in order to get rid of the milkweed growing on the edges of their fields and along the roadsides of their property also reduces food sources for monarchs. Secondary roads in Quebec and Ontario are mowed regularly during the summer months to control weeds. This practice also removes the Common Milkweed plants upon which the butterflies lay their eggs or kills the feeding larvae.
I see myself as positively interfering with nature. I can easily rationalize my gathering of eggs and larvae as a very small attempt to mitigate some of the damage done on a much larger scale. Raising Monarchs from egg or from young larvae is a 5-6-week-long commitment. Please do not even consider collecting the eggs and larvae if you are not willing to tend to them. You need to provide fresh milkweed daily during the 2 week larval stage. I do not collect all the larvae I find, leaving some to mature in their natural habitat. After 10 days in the chrysalis, the adult emerges, pumps fluid into it wings, rests for about a day and then needs to be released to forage, mate and, if a female, to lay eggs.
For a few summers I volunteered in the Fletcher Monarch Waystation. I was delighted to participate in creating a butterfly-friendly environment full of leaves to munch or nectar to sip. It is vital to have chemical-free habitats for Monarchs and all of the other creatures who occupy the meadow.
Diane Lepage has done an amazing job of organizing and overseeing the transformation of the area. She welcomes volunteers for the Wednesday evening Butterfly Meadow group. Fighting the Dog-strangling Vine (DSV) is a hard but essential task. Not only does the plant choke out native sources of food for pollinators, sometimes Monarch larvae hatch on DSV when the female adult monarch mistakes the plant for milkweed. The larva die because they cannot digest DSV.
Please check the Fletcher website if you are interested in supporting the Butterfly Meadow team.