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Students helping to reverse decline of monarch butterflies

Lisa Proulx releases Monarch butterflies at the Isaiah W. Wilson Memorial Library in Digby this fall.
Lisa Proulx releases Monarch butterflies at the Isaiah W. Wilson Memorial Library in Digby this fall. - Contributed

Eight-year-old Margo Welch knew she had no choice but to bid adieu to her newly hatched monarch butterflies.

“I was happy because they were free,” she said.

One of them lingered on her finger for a few moments before flying away.

This past August, she and her classmates at Clark Rutherford Memorial School in Cornwallis raised and released 160 butterflies into the wild. Under the guidance of their teacher, Lisa Proulx (aka The Butterfly Lady), they raised each creature from caterpillar to chrysalis, to a beautiful golden-winged butterfly. The transformation took about five weeks.

Welch and her classmates are part of small but province-wide effort aimed at reversing the dramatic decline of the endangered monarch butterfly population.

The Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute is taking the lead, working with hundreds of Nova Scotians to help rebuild monarch habitat in the province. The research institute provides the key ingredient, milkweed. It’s the only place an adult monarch will lay her eggs because it’s the sole food source for monarch caterpillars.

The institute’s butterfly club is behind about 1,000 milkweed gardens that have popped up in the province. Milkweed has been in sharp decline across North America, in part because farmers keep their fields clear of the poisonous plant with the use of herbicides.

The group of 1,480 members is getting encouraging results. This year the group reported more than 1,000 monarch sightings across Nova Scotia: more than 360 monarch butterflies and 700 monarch caterpillars. A combined 360 butterflies and caterpillars were reported provincewide in 2017.

Proulx, an avid gardener, joined the club soon after it launched a decade ago.

Not long after she decided to add the plant to the school garden she started a few years before. But she took the initiative a step further by setting up a little incubation lab at the school. The kids were provided cages in which to raise the caterpillars, giving them a better shot at survival than in the wild. Margo and company had the task of ensuring the caterpillars were fed and their cages cleaned.

That meant a lot of poop for Welch to clean up. But it was worth it, she said, even if it was a dirty job at times.

“They’re very beautiful and you become friends with them,” said Welch, who recently finished her second year raising monarchs. “I liked watching them hatch and forming into chrysalises, but they eat the milkweed very fast and poop a lot. I thought that was funny.

“Ms. Proulx was really great. I really liked her education about butterflies in the classroom. She was really excited like we were about seeing them grow.”

It was a joy for Proulx, who just retired as an educational assistant at the school last year. She still plans to continue with the project.

“It was the ultimate reward of my career,” said Proulx. “Because not only did the kids take on the whole joy of raising the monarchs and remembering them, they also developed a real love of gardening and cultivating the milkweed.”

A monarch’s job is just getting started after a successful metamorphosis. It must set out on a roughly 5,000-kilometre migratory journey to Mexico, one of the longest migrations of any insect. The epic journey to and fro takes four generations of the short-lived butterflies to complete.

“I’ve come to view the monarch as an ambassador of the environment because we’re pretty much wrecking our planet and the monarch,” said Proulx. “These poor little tiny things have to fly so many miles and climate change, the destruction of their habitat is really affecting them.

“But they persevere and they are beautiful. They’re so big and bright and against all odds they continue to maintain this amazing migration. I think they’re trying to bring our countries to work together, to try and save not only the world, but also them. They bring our attention to the magic of nature. We’re responsible for looking after it.”

A survey released by the World Wildlife Fund and the Mexican National Commission for Protected Areas in March showed a 15 per cent drop in the forest area occupied by hibernating monarchs in the fir forests of central Mexico this winter.

In absolute terms, that represented a loss of about 16 million butterflies compared with the previous year. Monarchs are a critical element in the North American ecosystem, pollinating a number of wild flowers and serving as food for birds and other insects.

Nicole Hubley, the research institute’s Monarch butterfly project coordinator, says more North Americans are planting milkweed to combat the decline of monarch habitat. She says members of the club work together, collecting data and sharing their findings with the group. Hubley visits a number of schools and organizations across the province to raise awareness about the plight of the monarch butterfly and encourages people to grow their own milkweed garden. Several do, she says.

Hubley, who grew her own milkweed garden this year that produced 72 monarch butterflies, says she’s convinced they are making a difference. “It’s been amazing. Not only did we get a bumper crop of sightings this year, but with those sightings we’re seeing more monarch butterflies in groups. The lesson is, let’s grow more milkweed.”

With files from the Canadian Press

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