Monarchs are the poster child of the butterfly world, and with good reason. Their annual migration is one of the true miracles of nature, a multi-generational epic trek that sees great-great-great grandchildren returning to the place where their ancestors were born.
Unfortunately, monarch butterfly populations have been plummeting – dropping by 70 to 90 per cent in 20 years. There are now fewer than 200 million monarchs left, where in the late 90s there were well over a billion. Researchers say there’s a very real risk that the entire population could vanish within 20 years. The US Fish and Wildlife Service will decide by June this year whether to declare the monarch an endangered species.
The main culprit, not surprisingly, is us. Climate change is playing a role. So too is the devastating loss of forests in Mexico, where the butterflies overwinter. A third – and possibly the biggest – factor is the devastation caused by pesticide use on genetically-modified crops in the U.S. Midwest. Monarch caterpillars have to feed on milkweed; thanks to the development of corn and soybean plants that are pesticide resistant, farmers can spray their fields with Roundup, killing everything that’s not corn or soybeans – including acres of milkweed.
So what can we do? Planting milkweed certainly helps, giving the summer generation of monarchs somewhere to lay their eggs and raise their young. We love to incorporate milkweed into our plantings – its pretty pink flowers and gorgeous fragrance are often an asset. (If you spend your winters in the southern US, though, be sure to plant native milkweed rather than a tropical hybrid – the latter can also host a parasite that is devastating the butterflies.)
Avoiding insecticides is also important, since they fell butterflies and mosquitos alike.
What about the other butterflies?
Monarchs are fascinating, but what about all the other butterflies we see in the summer?
Some of them also migrate, although none make as impressive a journey as the monarchs. Others are like some local humans, never leaving Muskoka and happily spending their winters hunkered down to avoid the snow and cold.
All of them can benefit from the same things as monarchs: plant lots of flowers, including native plants, and avoid using insecticides. (See next month’s newsletter, as well as the next issue of Dockside magazine, for more information on how we incorporate pollinator-friendly flowers in our landscapes.)
There are hundreds of butterfly species in Ontario. Some of them are wide-ranging, while others are found only in tiny areas. Records in Muskoka show between 30 and 80 species, depending on the area (Gravenhurst has more sightings than upper Lake Joe, but Parry Sound has even more than either).
Identifying particular species can be a challenge, with minute distinctions separating them from each other, but here are some of the more common ones you’re likely to see in Muskoka this summer.
This is one of the most common species, with a range that extends from the tundra to South America. Their wings are mainly a maroon-brown, with a bright yellow band and iridescent blue spots along the edge, a colour combination that is unique among butterflies.
Looks for these relatively large butterflies to emerge in early spring and stay around all season – they’ve even been spotted flying over the snow in November. In winter, the adults find a nook where they can hide from predators and go into cryo-preservation – freezing solid until the sun warms them again in spring.
There are several different subspecies of this butterfly, some so different that they were once treated as a separate species entirely. Even scientists can’t agree on what to call these butterflies, with some suggesting they should be called Red-spotted Admiral.
The White Admirals seen in Muskoka tend to have dark purple wings with a broad white band. There is a row of spots – blue in some species, red in others.
These butterflies are rarely at rest – even when they’re not flying, they can be seen walking around on flowers or on gravel roads, opening and closing their wings as though soaking up the sun. In the fall, their half-grown caterpillars gather in a cluster called a hibernaculum and overwinter together, emerging as adults in mid-June.
Superficially, these look like a colour variation of the White Admiral – blackish-brown wings with a band that is bright red rather than white. In fact, they are a completely different species with vastly different behaviours.
Red Admirals are migrants, mainly flying to Texas for the winter, then heading back to our region or points farther north in spring. These are known as a people-friendly butterfly – they’ll sometimes land on you if you’re sitting in the garden – but among their own kind they’re very aggressive. Males stake out a territory of 200 to 600 square feet, and patrol it constantly to chase off any other Red Admirals that intrude.
A relative of the Red Admiral, this butterfly is mainly orange with both dark and white spots. It’s extremely widespread, seen on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
Like their admiral cousins, the males are very territorial, and they too migrate from Texas each spring.
They feed on composite flowers like asters, thistles, cosmos, and, yes, milkweeds.