A leg up for an endangered icon

Sudbury Star

Bernice Levesque gestures at a monarch chrysalis affixed to the roof of a protective butterfly house she keeps in her yard. Jim Moodie/Sudbury Star

A striped caterpillar hangs upside-down from a potted milkweed plant, curled at the tip, like a candy cane.

“When they go into that J shape, you know they are close to the chrysalis stage,” says Bernice Levesque.

The caterpillar of the monarch curls into a J-shape just before entering the pupa stage. Jim Moodie/Sudbury Star

The Dufferin Street resident didn’t know a whole lot about butterflies a few years ago, but she’s learned a lot in the last couple, ever since she started reading up on monarchs and rearing them in her backyard. 

Well, it’s not exactly that she breeds them; it’s more of a nurturing role, ensuring the ones drawn to her yard have a better chance of surviving. Call it monarch midwifery.

Levesque, with help from hubby Bob Loftus, maintains a “caterpillar house” the two purchased from the U.S. It’s about the size of a bar fridge, but composed mostly of gauzy mesh.

That might not sound like much of a fortress, but it’s enough to shield the monarchs from predation in their larval stage, so they can morph into pupae and finally emerge as the bright orange beauties we all know and cherish.

“We’ve released 35 butterflies so far this year, and only two didn’t make it,” says Bernice. “Only one in 10 will survive in the wild because (the eggs and larvae) get eaten by birds, wasps and spiders. Here, it’s a 95 per cent survival rate.”

The homeowner, who already had a lush garden featuring many native species, has now added plenty of milkweed to her jungle, as monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on the plant. There are several varieties of milkweed and the Levesques have many of them — common, tropical, swamp, and the intriguingly titled ‘ice ballet’ strain.

Monarchs were recently classified as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, due to their quickly declining population, so Bernice feels it’s important to give them a leg up.

“There are very few left compared to 10 years ago,” she says. “I learned about it because my chiropractor had an information sheet on them. I started reading about them and thought it would be cool to help out.”

Her contribution involves scanning the milkweed plants in her yard for eggs and caterpillars, then transporting them to the incubator/nursery where they can continue to evolve, unmolested by threats.

A pair of monarchs dry their wings prior to being released from a protective enclosure. Photo supplied

At this point, in early September, most of the monarchs have already hatched and flown off, bound for Mexico, where they spend the winter months, but a few chrysalises are still suspended from ceiling of the caterpillar house.

They are a shiny green in colour, with a row of gold spots, although they turn dark, almost black, when the butterflies are about to bust out, says Bernice.

The chrysalis of a monarch butterfly hangs from a leaf. Jim Moodie/Sudbury Star

Witnessing this transformation isn’t so easy, however, since it happens quite fast, and the butterfly enthusiast works during the day.

“It only takes about five minutes for them to emerge and get their wings stretched out,” she says. “Of the 35 we had this year, I only saw two or three actually appear.”

Once the butterflies have escaped their casing, the couple gives them “a couple hours for their wings to dry out,” says Bernice, then releases them from the mesh house.

Usually they start flying quickly, although if it’s overcast, the pair has noticed it takes longer before they can elevate. “They need to warm up enough for them to fly,” notes Bob.

The two tag the monarchs before they let them go, placing a sticker the size of a nail head on their wings. The University of Kansas runs a program called Monarch Watch, to which they submit the tagging information, and anyone who later encounters the butterflies can provide an update on their survival and movement.

Bernice says the monarchs will remain in the yard for a while after they develop, flitting from plant to plant, which is of course a pleasant addition to their home life.

But even when they are in their caterpillar stage, it’s interesting to see the dynamics of how they feed, grow and reproduce, says Bernice.

“They only lay a single egg, the size of a pinhead, on the underside of a leaf, and it sticks on there.”

While looking for food, monarch caterpillars will actually “fight over the feeding area,” she says. “They butt heads with each other. If somebody had told me that before, I would have gone, ‘yeah, right.’ But I’ve seen them do it.”

Next spring Bernice plans to sow more flowering plants that the butterflies feed off for their nectar. 

“There are eight to 10 that are their favourites so I will incorporate those in the yard,” she says. “It’s interesting. I’m looking forward to next year already.”

jmoodie@postmedia.com

Bernice Levesque points out some of the milkweed she has growing in her yard, amid many other plants that are important for monarch development and survival. Jim Moodie/Sudbury Star

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