UPDATE: Monarchs slow to arrive, may have lost a generation

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Madison Todd, daughter of Long Sault butterfly aficionado Tom Todd, shows off some colourful monarch butterflies.

CORNWALL, Ontario - The annual insect coronation that takes place every summer in Cornwall and area is missing a key ingredient this year - its monarch.

Er, that is to say monarchs...the butterfly variety.

The Cornwall area, and in fact much of eastern Canada, are still waiting for the colourful little insects to make their way this far north.

Tom Todd, a butterfly aficionado from Long Sault, is waiting alongside his daughter Madison for the arrival of the monarchs, and he says normally by this time of year the countryside is full of them.

"A lot of time you start to see them by now - usually mid-July," he said. "We've always gone out and picked the caterpillars off the milkweed.

"And we feed them and watch them grow."

Todd and his family also tag the butterflies with a small sticker, that identifies where they come from.

The tags are used by researchers to shed light on how far butterflies fly during their annual migrations. Back in 2001 Todd tagged a butterfly that ultimately flew some 3,650 km to Sierra Chincua, Mexico from around his home in Long Sault.

"We do this now for the fun of it," he said.

But this year could be a tough one. There were only 60 million monarchs wintering in Mexico last winter, 80 per cent below the 350 million monarch average, said Journey North, a monarch monitoring group based in the United States. The area of forest covered with monarchs was only three acres, compared to the 17-acre average. Why so few? Drought and excessive heat during summer 2012 resulted in low reproduction last year.

Maxim Larrivée, section head in the research and collection department at the Montreal Insectarium, told Seaway News monarchs are on the brink, if extreme weather patterns continue.

He explained monarchs that survived the migration last year were predisposed to grapple with extreme drought. But a wet and cool spring this year meant those same monarchs were ill-prepared for their return north.

"From a genetics standpoint...it means catastrophe," said Larrivée. "Never should we have to look for a monarch as extensively as we are.

"There are a few out there - but they are scattered. We haven't really seen anything like this."

According to Journey North, during the breeding season, monarchs can produce a new generation in about 30 days, resulting in four generations over the course of their travel time. Often the monarchs that migrate to Mexico in the fall will be the great-great-grandchildren of those who left Mexico in the spring.

But, by arriving late this spring across their breeding range, monarchs may not have time to complete four generations. This could result in a small fall migration and low numbers in Mexico again this winter. However, monarchs have a high reproductive potential and they breed across a large region. Breeding success in one area can counteract the effects of poor conditions in another, said Journey North.

Larrivée says homeowners in Canada can try to encourage the return of the monarch by building a butterfly oasis in their backyards that would include milkweed for caterpillars to feed on, and flowers such as a butterfly bush, or Buddlea, for adult monarchs to drink from.

You can also share your observations of monarchs on eButterfly.ca, a database that is helping researchers' document changes to the number and distribution of butterflies.

Geographic location: CORNWALL, Mexico, Long Sault Ontario Eastern Canada United States

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  • Jade
    July 19, 2013 - 15:04

    Clever title, heh heh.