Butterfly nets empty

When once monarch butterflies fluttered in large droves across Windsor and Essex County in July – the peak season for their sighting – this year they’ve been few and far between. Anecdotal evidence pouring in from many quarters points to this phenomenon. The disruption in the natural scheme of things has caused a concern among Monarch watchers, naturalists, academicians and enthusiasts alike.

Monarchs – North America’s most recognized butterflies

A monarch butterfly is a milkweed butterfly that lays eggs on different milkweeds, which also serve as food for the larvae. The striking orange and black markings, and peoplefriendly behavior of monarch butterflies are hard to miss. The inherent ability of these creatures to navigate so easily across continents has inspired researchers. So much so that a program called Monarch Watch has been developed where volunteers across North America catch, tag and release these butterflies during migratory periods; the idea is to study their migratory patterns if and when they are recaptured.

Waiting on the monarchs to fly in

This summer, southern Ontario hasn’t witnessed the influx of monarch butterflies that it is normally habituated to. Founder-director of Monarch Watch and professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, Chip Taylor, says that monarchs have been slow to migrate this year, with the numbers in May at record low levels. His sentiments are echoed by Windsor’s Ojibway Nature Centre that puts its count of adult monarchs to just one, as part of its annual butterfly count. Hobby nursery owner Vic Bernyk admits he hasn’t yet seen a monarch so far this year.

The issue is impossible to ignore given that many garden owners are also commenting on the near absence of any kind of butterfly sightings. Farmington Hills native Joe Derek, who has two acres of native butterfly-attracting plants in his landscaped property, is accustomed to seeing hundreds of butterflies at this time of the year. He says that he has never seen a season where butterfly sightings have been sparse.

Executive director of Michigan Butterflies Project Holli Ward, who studies monarch butterflies in particular, says she has seen very few of these brightly-colored species. This is despite the fact that hundreds of milkweed stalks have been planted in each week of June. Still, there are no eggs or caterpillars to report. Monarchs lay their eggs only on milkweeds. The poison in milkweeds protects them from leaf-eating insects and animals. Monarch butterflies being poisonous themselves, store the poison in milkweed inside their bodies. The cardenolide aglycones in monarchs defend them against wasps and bees, but fail to prevent larger creatures of prey like birds, reptiles, spiders and some mammals.

Possible reasons for absence

Taylor blames the decline in monarchs on habitat loss. As monarchs thrive on milkweed, it is likely that the crash in milkweeds in Midwestern United States or the corn belt, is responsible for this effect. While the drought and record-high temperatures in the continent have affected this critical food source and the migration of monarch butterflies from central Mexico, another man-made folly is also under question. The use of genetically modified corn crops and soybean, which are tolerant to herbicide, have wiped out milkweed from the country’s farmlands. Milkweeds, which have been growing alongside these crops, are dying out as farmers are spraying a systemic herbicide called glyphosate that kills them. The cold spring in Texas, which has prevented butterflies from laying eggs, is another reason cited by monarch research group Journey North.

If the loss of habitat persists, we may stop experiencing the simple joys in life like watching vivid monarch butterflies fluttering in our gardens. For our part, we can plant milkweed in our garden to encourage the reproduction and migration of these beautiful creatures.

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