The Wood Folk Diaries: Volume 3, Chapter 1: Monarchs and Milkweeds

Dear Wood Folk,

In Ontario, monarchs are presently (as of 2021) of “special concern”, not endangered or threatened as they are in some areas. On our side of the Rockies they are doing okay, but they’re not out of danger. The largest threat to Ontario monarchs is habitat loss at overwintering sites in central Mexico due to logging and clearing for agri. Widespread pesticide and herbicide use is also an issue. Western monarch populations, on the other hand are, in a antennae dive; for every 160 monarchs 40 years ago, there’s only one west of the Rockies today. A 97% drop since the 80s.

The Best Way to Help Monarchs Is Planting Native Milkweeds Along the Perimeter of Your Garden or With Other Native Plants

The host plant of monarchs is milkweed. It’s the only plant they lay eggs on, the only plant the caterpillars will eat. And sadly it’s a plant that has been maligned for decades now. The government here has only recently removed it from their noxious weeds list.

These are the milkweed species native to Ontario: most abundantly common milkweed (asclepias syriaca) and swamp milkweed (asclepias incarnata). You can also spice it up with native butterfly milkweed (asclepias tuberosa), dwarf milkweed (asclepias ovalifolia), four-lead milkweed (asclepias quadrifolia), green milkweed (asclepias viridiflora), poke milkweed (asclepias exaltata), redring milkweed (asclepias variegata) and whorled milkweed (asclepias verticillata). It’s a slightly different mix in the west.

One recent study suggests the best spot for milkweed is in the perimeter of your yard or garden. In another study, other native wildflowers in the mix increased the production of monarch eggs, versus a monocrop of milkweed. What’s good for the monarch caterpillar is good for all insects, and vice versa. Plant milkweeds and plant native nectar sources. Embracing biodiversity seems to be the answer to a lot of species loss.

Adult monarchs are generalists, meaning they will feed from any plant that offers nectar. Native nectar producing plants monarch butterflies love include, besides milkweeds: all our native asters and goldenrods, woodland sunflower, boneset and Joe-Pye weed, yarrow, wild bergamot, and special mention to New England aster for those migrating monarchs in the autumn. It’s mid September as I write this and New England aster is blooming, and a few monarchs are still fluttering around.

The shrub buttonbush may also work around Haliburton, if you can give it a slightly warmer microclimate than the usual. There are few recorded on iNat around Minden.

If you create a “Monarch Waystation” you can watch for signage to be available from groups like the Canadian Wildlife Federation to display with your plants. Some signs even explain why you have the milkweed there so any onlookers might get hyped up to do the same.

Another Way to Help Monarchs Is to Get a Permit and Learn Precisely How to Raise Healthy Monarchs, or to Protect Them Within Nature With “Catios”, if Even

If you are considering rearing monarchs, you should know that in Ontario you are allowed just one for educational purposes. More than one requires a permit. Which isn’t really a bad thing – monarchs being improperly raised appear to be having problems with navigation, among other things. But the debate on this can get heated.

The studies go back and forth on the migration issue as yet. You can intervene slightly instead by protecting them outside. A screened or netted shelter over the milkweed with your caterpillars on it will increase survivability. At least until more studies are in.

If you’re set on getting a permit and raising them, there’s a lot of research to do first. Things have to be kept clean, not overcrowded, and lots of monitoring is involved. The obvious action is still planting milkweed!

There are over 700 butterfly species in North America, with almost 300 occurring in Canada. Many of them are in the same crises as monarchs. There are conservation teams carefully raising and releasing some endangered butterflies, recently Team Butterfly of Wildlife Preservation Canada released mottled duskywing butterflies in Pinery Provincial Park, Ontario (July 21st). We’ll learn more and more about this butterfly rearing business as time goes on. I’ve always wanted to raise some, but that’s on hold while the debate is raging. I am planting a lot of milkweed though.

A monarch caterpillar after a rainy morning

Monarch Watching

Bookmark this one for spring: You can report the monarchs as you spot them returning.

Watching monarchs on local milkweed patches is a fun months long endeavor. It’s not 100% sugar and sunshine. You may see predators in action, like wasps inhaling a whole set of fresh eggs, or like this predatory stink bug:

Monarchs are also food at every stage, but the more biodiversity the more eggs the more chances for adult butterflies!

Some of the best milkweed patches I’ve found were along sideroads. It was fortunate most of the caterpillars I’d been watching this summer had already left the milkweed to form their chrysalis when the worst happened. Nearing the end of summer one patch had been cut down by a cottager associations hired road maintenance, and soon after that the township went and cut down the first few feet along all the roads anyway, even sideroads abundant with native plants. All the more reason to plant your own milkweed and other native plants, far from city/township allowance.

Most monarchs live about 5 weeks, but the ones you see as our leaves start to change may push 8 months. These are the migrators. But it won’t be the same ones that return in the spring despite that longevity. It’s their descendants that return.

Monarchs have one lookalike here, the Viceroy, pictured here:

Viceroy, the monarch look-a-like.

Here are a few more pictures from our Instagram:

I look forward to a 2022 full of pollinators and their host plants – happy holidays and have a happy New Year!

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