Expanding food habitat in the city may help elevate the Monarch from a ‘species of special concern’ under the Federal Species at Risk Act Hugh Kruzel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Butterflies seem to make us happy. They often are seen to symbolize rebirth. Their lifecycle intrigues us. 

Their numbers may also speak to a decline or improvement in environmental health. Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are an international icon of conservation efforts.

Monarchs are especially exceptional and their two-way multi-generational migration is unique; it is not the same individuals that return. Having no freeze-resistant stage of metamorphosis, they fly from eastern Canada to the Mexican highlands. 

The Oyamel Fir Forest vibrates with their wing movement. A PBS documentary available at youtu.be/lWOySU_hAz0 reveals 500,000 butterflies waiting for the warmth of sunshine. There is a smaller group from British Columbia that arrives in Southern California and can easily be seen in evergreen groves like the one near Pismo Beach.

In Sudbury, an expanding food habitat may be helping maintain and even elevate the Monarch from a “species of special concern” under the Federal Species at Risk Act. 

Pesticides and habitat loss are but two of the stressors on the population. There are many programs to protect their over-wintering sites, as well as summer food sources.

It was David Pearson who pointed out the milkweed plants on a hillside in the Vale property. He has been observing the improvement of that area “for at least five, six years and inspecting the patch by the road near the Atikameksheng turn-off for the last three or four.

“Milkweeds, plants in the Asclepias genus are the sole host plants for Monarch butterflies … We have more and more of it every year because people have really got into planting it for the butterflies,” says Cas Krane, staff scientist for Nature Exchange and the F. Jean McLeod Butterfly Gallery at Science North in Sudbury. “We are indeed in peak monarch season – they will continue to breed as long as the weather holds, but they normally start migrating mid-August.

“All butterflies have host plants and some of them are very specialized. Monarchs rely on a single species. Host plants are the species that butterflies lay their eggs on. What’s neat is that milkweeds are actually poisonous, which works out to the monarch’s advantage. Monarchs evolved alongside milkweeds, so the poison doesn’t harm the caterpillars, it actually helps them survive because it makes them taste awful so most predators leave them alone.

“We really are getting large patches across Sudbury,” notes Peter Beckett, Emeritus Professor at Laurentian University. “Though I prefer the Wetland or Swamp milkweed, which we plant along Junction Creek. We do see it in slag revegetation zones. Seeds do blow in and milkweed can get very aggressive. It can smother out other plants, effectively reducing diversity.

“Milkweed was not that abundant here in the original Sudbury landscape. It really likes pH-neutral soils like on Manitoulin.” 

For adult Monarchs, the nectar of the plentiful and very tall native species Spotted Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) is attractive. That, too, seems very successful across our landscape.

Quentin Smith from Vale’s environment team is one of the leads on the revegetation program. 

“Vale has been growing (tree) seedlings in Copper Cliff since the 1950s and has grown over 7 million since the start of the program. We incorporated milkweed into our revegetation strategy in 2013. 

“Initially, Vale purchased mature milkweed plants from a local greenhouse supplier and planted these. In 2015, we began to grow milkweed ourselves from locally collected seed and cuttings.” 

His colleagues in the Copper Cliff greenhouse operations currently include Lisa Lanteigne and Mike Peters. Vale grows 300 to 500 milkweed plants at their greenhouse annually.

“Vale’s revegetation program is a biodiversity-focused initiative and, from a continuous improvement perspective, we’re always looking for new and novel additions. We have not directly incorporated milkweed seed into our grass seed mix but have focused on growing more mature milkweed plants in our local greenhouse for eventual planting on Vale properties or Crown Land surrounding our operations.” 

Milkweed to support the globally stressed Monarch butterfly population was introduced by three Vale employees: Lisa Lanteigne, Glen Watson and Mark Palkovits.

“Our experience working with milkweed has been very positive. In the early stages of the program, we began planting milkweed on Vale’s revegetated smelter slag pile, which has resulted in one of the largest known milkweed plots in the Sudbury area. 

“We started with approximately 200 mature Milkweed plants, directly opposite Dynamic Earth. Since this initial planting event, the milkweed has naturally spread/propagated to cover the entire lower bench of the pile over a linear distance of approximately 300 metres. We estimate there are now more than 10,000 individual plants present in this area.”

Smith says he routinely visits this plot and is continually impressed by the density of milkweed plants and the sheer number of Monarch caterpillars and butterflies present in the area. 

“Personally, I have never observed so many Monarch caterpillars and butterflies in one place.”

Maybe you also will marvel at the Monarch, its migration and its lifecycle. Perhaps you too will look for caterpillars and pupae in the Milkweed oases. It now is peak season to observe these amazing insects. Go to www.monarchwatch.org or www.worldwildlife.org/species/monarch-butterfly to learn about conservation, the Monarch Waystation program and so much more.

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.


X: @SudburyStar

By Hugh Kruzel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Aug 30, 2023 at 00:46

This item reprinted with permission from   The Sudbury Star    Sudbury, Ontario
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