Positive butterfly effect to help monarchs
The mystery stumped both scientists and ordinary citizens. Where did millions of monarchs go when they made their flight from backyards and farmers’ fields?
Fred Urquhart, a Canadian zoologist, solved the puzzle 40 years ago. He unearthed the monarchs’ winter getaway in the warm mountain forests of Mexico. The revelation was splashed on the cover of National Geographic, which declared: “Discovered: the Monarch’s Mexican Haven.”
Like so many kids before us, watching monarch caterpillars transform into cocoons and emerge as mesmerizing new creatures taught us about the concept of metamorphosis and that nature is awe-inspiring.
We can’t imagine Canadian children not experiencing this natural wonder.
But today, conservationists and eco enthusiasts are fixated more on the plight — not the flight — of the butterflies.
Studies by the World Wildlife Fund and other conservation groups show that monarch populations in Mexico have plummeted. An estimated 33 million arrived in 2013, compared with the 550 million monarchs that migrated there in 2004.
It’s not a stretch to see the monarchs’ plight as an example of “the butterfly effect” — the theory that seemingly small or innocuous actions have significant, unforeseen consequences. The scientist who coined the term (part of the bigger chaos theory) suggested that the fluttering of a tiny butterfly’s wings could cause a colossal storm on the other side of the world.
Research, including a groundbreaking study out of the University of Guelph, reveals the biggest threat to monarchs are pesticides. They kill weeds in farmers’ fields, wiping out milkweed — the monarchs’ food source and prime breeding ground.
Monarchs are important species because they are pollinators, and scientists say their population size is an overall indicator of nature’s health.
So what’s being done to save monarchs — and how can we all help?
Last year, leaders of Canada, the United States and Mexico vowed to protect monarch migration. The David Suzuki Foundation reports that our southern neighbours are investing millions in planting milkweed in wild spaces. Meanwhile, the organization says we still need a made-in-Canada plan.
In Ontario, new pesticide regulations are supposed to be finalized this summer. They would reduce the amount of “neonic” pesticides on corn and soy seeds used in commercial farming by 80 per cent over two years. That’s a huge accomplishment because “neonics” — systemic pesticides, as opposed to the contact variety that linger on the surface of plants — are particularly toxic to monarchs.
If you live outside Ontario, find out what your province is doing to help pollinators. And when you visit your community or big-box garden retailer, ask for plants and flowers that aren’t treated with insecticides.
Better still, skip the pretty greenery and plant milkweed. Put it in your backyard, front yard — everywhere you find a spot in your community, like green spaces and gardens at your local library, church, school and so on. Bonus: it’s completely low-maintenance and grows, well, like a weed.
“Every little bit of milkweed really does help,” says Tyler Flockhart. The conservation biologist and monarch expert (who works with the University of Guelph and the David Suzuki Foundation) would like municipalities to plant milkweed along highways, railways and hydro fields across the country.
Flockhart told us that planting milkweed can make nature lovers of us all. “When we watch milkweed grow and monarchs come to it, we connect with nature. And when we connect with nature, we care about it more.”
Monarchs are now making their migration back home. Soon they’ll be searching out milkweed in a yard, field or park near you.
These butterflies are small but just as spectacular as other larger species about which environmentalists have sounded the alarm. Creatures that come to mind include a breaching orca whale, a sauntering polar bear in the stark Arctic or a languorous panda chomping on bamboo.
Let’s show monarchs our respect and be part of an epically positive butterfly effect. With little acts, collectively we can reverse the downward spiral of this species.