Garden Expert: Bye-Bye Butterfly
The monarch butterfly is in decline. It has been for some time and Canadian Wildlife magazine reports that it still is. So what? Let’s just say that the monarch is to the world of nature, what an economic indicator is to our economy. When inflation goes through the roof, or interest rates take off, or the Canadian dollar drops like a stone, people take notice.
We notice things that impact our pocketbook.
So, we should also take notice when a plant pollinator like the monarch butterfly population is in steep decline. About one-third of our food is pollinated by insects, including the monarch. If one-third of our food stream were to disappear, all of us would notice.
There is another reason why we should pay attention to the monarch. Without a healthy population of monarchs, the story of their annual migration would be relegated to children’s books and history. It is a story about a miracle.
The Canadian Wildlife organization tells it this way, “For any given year, these butterflies represent the final cohort in a four- or five-generation annual cycle of monarch reproduction and migration.” Say what? Four or five generations of butterflies are produced in one trip from Mexico to Canada each spring?
Late in the winter, the overwintering population in Mexico flies to Texas, and other southern climes, where they lay eggs on milkweed plants before the adult monarch dies. Then they begin their migration north. “The caterpillar offspring, which feed exclusively on milkweed, spend several weeks growing before they pupate, become adult monarchs and continue the migration farther north before reproducing in kind.”
The process repeats until late summer and early fall, often here in Canada, when the monarchs that are alive at that time fly back to the Mexican pine and oyamel forests. The journey to Canada is like a relay of eggs, pupae, caterpillar and butterfly, times four or five.
Think about this for a moment. Four or five generations of monarch butterflies are produced while the whole flock (do butterflies flock?) moves north between 3,000 and 5,000 kilometres, over the span of several months from early spring until early fall.
How does each new generation know which direction to fly? And how does the last annual generation know when to stop, turn around and head south again? Not to mention the knowledge they must possess that tells them to stop making babies for a spell.
This is the miracle.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
While there are a myriad of organizations like Canadian Wildlife, government agencies and concerned individuals giving this issue attention, there is a lot that you can do. Even if your only outdoor access is a condo or apartment balcony, you can nurture flowering plants that attract and feed monarchs.
It is not too late in the season to pick up milkweed seeds and sow them directly in your garden. This is a perennial plant that will grow this summer and flower next. Native milkweed is the exclusive food and habitat of monarch butterfly larvae.
Other nectar-rich plants include Butterfly Weed [asclepias], Catmint [nepeta], Bugleweed [ajuga], Coneflower [Echinacea], Cranesbill [geranium], some Coreopsis, False Sunflower [heliopsis], False Indigo [baptista], Yarrow, Sedum, Hollyhock, Lavender and my favourite Joe Pye Weed [eupatorium, which is related to milkweed]. These plants are available at garden retailers this time of year and are ready to plant.
All wildlife needs water to survive and butterflies are no different. But they are not like birds that dip into the bird bath for a drink. Butterflies have very short legs and are top-heavy with wings. They prefer lily pads and mud to access water. That is why you often find butterflies hanging out at the beach (go to Sandbanks Provincial park for a good show).
RUSTY PATCHED BUMBLEBEE
The monarch is not the only primary pollinator that is at risk. The Rusty Patched Bumblebee was Ontario’s fourth most common species as recently as the 1980s. Today, it is only found in abundance in Pinery Provincial Park. There is much speculation of why this species has all but disappeared: loss of habitat, neonic-based pesticides and genetically engineered farm crops are highly suspect.
But, once again, you can help by providing habitat, food and shelter for all native bees by growing many of the same plants that I have listed for butterflies. There are over 700 native bee species in Canada, and all of them deserve our attention and thanks for their hard work.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new best seller, The New Canadian Garden published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook. markcullen.com