Photo: You can help bring monarchs back from the brink

(Credit: Jode Roberts)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Homegrown National Park Project Manager Jode Roberts.

Jode Roberts has spent a lot of the summer checking out ditches and fields along the sides of roads, railways and trails. At first, he didn't like what he was seeing. Roberts, who is leading the David Suzuki Foundation's effort to bring monarchs back from the brink, was searching for signs that the butterflies had visited patches of milkweed plants. Despite the bleak start, he recently hit the jackpot: a half-dozen eggs and a couple of monarch caterpillars, calmly munching on milkweed leaves.

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Over the past millennium, eastern monarch butterflies have migrated northward from Mexico in spring, arriving in southern Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes in early summer, where they lay eggs on the undersides of milkweed leaves. In the following weeks, their caterpillars hatch and eat a steady milkweed diet. In late summer, they form chrysalises and undergo the amazing transformation into butterflies. They then begin fattening themselves for the arduous return to the Mexican alpine forests where they overwinter.

Concerned citizens, scientists and conservation groups were starting to think monarchs might largely be a no-show in Canada this summer. The eastern monarch population has plummeted from more than a billion butterflies in the 1990s to an estimated 35 million in 2014 — a drop of more than 95 per cent. They bounced back to about 55 million in Mexico this past winter, but a cool start to their journey northward coupled with the virtual eradication of milkweed plants — mainly thorough widespread use of the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) over the past two decades — left monarch experts wondering whether the butterflies would make it across the border this year.

The good news is that citizen scientists and backyard butterfly lovers from across the northeastern U.S. and southern Canada have reported through social media that monarch butterflies are arriving and laying a remarkable number of eggs. But it's too early to gauge whether the numbers will meet already low expectations.

While monarch enthusiasts are breathing a momentary sigh of relief, Roberts and colleagues have launched the Monarch Manifesto, encouraging people throughout the monarchs' path to pledge to do their part to ensure the butterflies continue to recover. Visit to sign.

Participants are asked to commit to do three simple things this summer: grow milkweed, report monarch sightings and avoid using pesticides on their properties. They also commit to two simple tasks for the fall: reach out to at least one neighbourhood school, faith group, business or other institution about planting a butterfly garden and call local garden centres or nurseries to ask them to order native milkweed plants for next spring. Manifesto signatories will receive information and tips on how to begin these conversations.

The Monarch Manifesto is part of a growing movement to bring back monarch butterflies and help other important pollinators, like honeybees and wild bees. If all goes well, we'll see thousands of participants, hundreds of new butterfly gardens and more local milkweed sources next spring.

The backyard and urban-focused campaign is bolstered by research by University of Delaware entomologist Douglas Tallamy, who found monarchs lay more eggs on garden plants than on milkweed in meadows. The campaign also complements a research project the David Suzuki Foundation will launch this fall, in partnership with University of Guelph researchers Tyler Flockhart and Ryan Norris, examining best practices for cultivating milkweed and encouraging monarch populations along rail and hydro lines, roadways and trails.

What can you do to help? An easy first step is to sign the Monarch Manifesto, which includes information on how to attract butterflies to your neighbourhood. If you already have milkweed in your garden or on your balcony, consider collecting seeds this fall and sharing them with friends and neighbours. If you don't have a garden or balcony, you can look for places where you live, work and play that could become new butterfly garden patches.

While Roberts continues his hopeful hunt for signs of monarchs this summer, I hope you'll join thousands of people who are taking action, adding pollinator-friendly plants to their yards, spurring butterfly gardens in their neighbourhoods and transforming a multitude of spaces into safe havens for bees and butterflies. Together, we can bring monarch butterflies back from the brink.

August 20, 2015

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Sep 17, 2015
1:54 PM

I saw a monarch butterfly September 16 fly through our garden and land on our weeping birch tree in Kelowna BC. Gorgeous!

Sep 05, 2015
7:21 AM

Two sightings of single monarch butterfly on September 2 and 3 in the Pointe Au Baril area, Georgian Bay

Sep 01, 2015
4:40 AM

We have a small acreage and left much of our pastures unmowed to encourage milkweed and the Monarchs. We have a perennial garden planted to attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds, but we would like to turn over a large part of our property to try to help the Monarchs. I am wondering if anyone knows a good source of milkweed plants in the south west Ontario area?

Aug 25, 2015
9:36 AM

I live in Thunder Bay,Ontario,Canada.Last year was my 1st year having Monarchs and there were MANY!!I had a blast documenting,photographing,videoing,and hovering…lol….over them. This year it seems to me that I didn’t have as many.I have already hatched 3 in my house,as it is fairly cold and rainy here.I only have 7 chrysalis in my terrarium.I only saw 3 hatch outside,early in July.It seems numbers are down here. I am trying my best to make sure the ones I do see and also the ones I bring in the house have a great chance of hatching and surviving,I wish I could have done more.

Aug 24, 2015
3:28 AM

I live in Port Colborne On. I met a woman at the market who is on a quest to help save the monarch. She hatched and released over 100 monarchs this year. They have also been tagged. She went to our town counsel and asked that they refrain from cutting down the weeds in the ditches along our side roads for a few extra weeks. During her studies she found the monarchs eggs were being destroyed by cutting the grass and weeds. Our town responded by stopping the grass cutting and actually placing signs up about the monarchs! This young ladies endeavours are all self funded…her educational booth at the market was amazing! I too am trying to play a small part. Rather than groom our beach completely we have let 50% of the natural grasses and weeds grow in their natural state. I also have an area where I am growing nothing but milkweed for the monarchs. Hopefully we are not to late to save these amazing little creatures.

Aug 23, 2015
11:08 AM

Next year I’m planting milkweed!

Aug 23, 2015
7:07 AM

Just the other day on a trail in Newfoundland I sat on a rock resting and counted at least 40 monarch cater pillars and though about his problem and also I see lots of bumble bees here we are the lucky one I hope thank-you for all you do David

Aug 22, 2015
11:42 AM

If the monarch goes, so will my Viceroy butterfly as birds will no longer mistake them for monarchs and advod them.

Aug 21, 2015
11:59 AM

Congratulations on your recent finds! I wanted to pass on some notes my searching, perhaps they will come in handy.

I have a waystation in my yard where I have both Common and Swamp Milkweed. The new plants which get to around the flower budding stage are by far the most desired by females to lay eggs on. They cannot be occupied by any other insect, and leaves should be bright green, no yellowing.

Unfortunately established Milkweed in Ontario starts to grow seed pods and the time which other insects has occupied it render it somewhat distasteful to the Monarch females. However, anywhere that Milkweed has been mowed in June or early July results in fresh new growth in August for peak egg laying season.

I currently have collected 43 eggs from my backyard waystation and 18 eggs on a quick stop on the highway where I found milkweed that had been mowed. I have NEVER found eggs on established “old growth” milkweed. My parents have acres of old growth milkweed and never saw a caterpillar in 10 years of looking. I planted one incarnata in her flower garden and got eggs on the first year. Amazing, simple, effective.

Thank you for your efforts.

Aug 20, 2015
4:24 PM

I saw 68 monarch butterflies in a mile and a half in Fairfax, MN.

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