A Threatened Monarchy

I’m going to cheat a little bit for today’s Species of the Week. I’m going to talk about something I didn’t need to learn to identify recently. In fact, this is one species I’ve known longer than most. However, there is an important reason to discuss this species so I’m going to do it anyway.

Today, I bring you:

The Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

Image

This particular Monarch is hanging out on some of the Asters that I mentioned in my previous Species of the Week post.

Identification:

Monarch caterpillars are yellow and black striped, and smooth (not fuzzy). At this stage they exclusively eat Milkweed. Once they are ready, they form a Chrysalis, transform for about 10 days, and emerge as a butterfly.

(FYI: “Butterflies hatch from a chrysalis, a life stage made of a hardened protein. A cocoon is spun from silk and surrounds the pupa of many moths.”  – http://www.kidsbutterfly.org/faq/lifecycle/7)  – pretty sure this was an error in “The very hungry caterpillar.”

The Monarch is probably the most easily recognizable butterfly, with its distinctive contrasting black and orange wings, which span 3.5-4 inches. The adults dine on a wide range of nectars and fruits. Yearly, there are four generations of butterflies. One of these generations flies from Ontario to Mexico to make it through the winter.

The Problem:

While previously abundant, Monarchs are now listed as a species of “Special Concern.” Threats include pesticides, the loss of native species, and the destruction of wintering grounds in Mexico. You may have noticed a decline of these butterflies in your own neighbourhood. I saw a total of one Monarch this year.

Interestingly enough, milkweed resides on the Ontario noxious weed list. Check out what regional councillor Jane Mitchell has to say about this here: http://janemitchellblog.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/the-monarchs-are-almost-gone-keep-killing-that-milkweed/

Milkweed is on the list because it is toxic to livestock, and can be difficult to control in fields. That said, the Ontario government does say that it is acceptable to grow it in a personal garden as long as it does not affect agricultural land.  http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/faq_weeds_act.htm#milkweed

Our local Butterfly Conservatory has an annual Monarch raising program, where you can purchase a mesh cage, milkweed, and monarch caterpillars at various stages of chrysalis formation. A neighbour has done this for the past few years, and we were fortunate enough a couple of years back to be invited to watch some emerge. The kids were interested (but perhaps not as fascinated as the adults).

You can help the Monarch population by planting native species and especially milkweed in your garden. (Be careful, as milkweed sap can be very dangerous if you get it in your eyes. If you have little people at home with grabby paws, perhaps hold off a few years…as I will.)

You can also take part in breeding and tagging programs. If you are interested, and live near me, check this out (sold out this year, but check again next fall):

http://www.cambridgebutterfly.com/conservatory/monarch-rearing-kits

Programs like this are important for raising awareness, but also simply to help increase the dwindling population of Monarch butterflies. We now have designated areas in Canada as “Monarch Butterfly Reserves.”

Then again, if you want to be rid of these pesky butterflies, by all means, keep destroying the milkweed!

Sources:

http://www.naturecanada.ca/take_action_monarch_guide.asp

http://www.monarch-butterfly.com/

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Posted on October 15, 2013, in Species of the week, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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