Raising monarch butterflies at home could drive up numbers, naturalist says

Jim Wilson, a Quispamsis naturalist, says planting milkweed and bringing monarch butterflies in from the predatory wild could be helping to turn around the extreme decline in the monarch population.

Monarch butterfly populations have seen a 90 per cent drop over a few decades, Jim Wilson says

Jim Wilson's grandchildren, pictured here in 2015, admire a fully grown monarch before its release. (Stephanie Skenderis/CBC)

If you think you're seeing more monarch butterflies this year, Jim Wilson says your eyes aren't playing tricks on you.

While the population of the migratory butterflies has been declining in recent years, Wilson, a Quispamsis birder and naturalist, told CBC News things could be turning around because people like him are taking matters into their own hands.

"What we've been doing … is checking milkweed patches for eggs of monarch butterflies, adult monarch butterflies that might be around, and for caterpillars," he said.

Migratory monarch butterflies use milkweed for both breeding and food but in the past decade, the plants have been threatened by pesticide use.

In the wild, Wilson said, it's estimated an egg laid on the underside of the leaf of a milkweed by a female monarch butterfly only has about a 20 per cent chance of living long enough to develop into an adult butterfly.

Jim Wilson has been growing swamp milkweed and gathering seeds for distribution for about three years. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

"That's because there's all kinds of nasty predators for a little tiny monarch caterpillar," Wilson said, pointing to ants, spiders, earwigs and even wasps.

Bu if the eggs can be saved and brought indoors to, for example, an empty aquarium, and are nursed into development, the success rate can rise to 100 per cent, Wilson said.

And that's exactly what the Wilson, and many others, have been doing for the last couple of summers.

"I've got about 140 monarch butterflies on the go here," he said. "We've released about 80 or so far as adults, and I've got another 60 to go."

They've also been planting milkweed and encouraging others to do the same across southern New Brunswick. That way, the butterflies, who lay upwards of 400 eggs per season, don't need a helping hand to develop their offspring.

Still a long way to go

Monarch butterfly populations have declined significantly in recent decades. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

But the situation isn't steady just yet, Wilson said.

He said monarch butterfly populations have reached nearly a 90 per cent reduction compared with 20 or 30 years ago.

Even if butterfly generations have a successful migration to Mexico, there are still problems waiting down south.

Illegal logging in Mexico is cooling down the forested areas of high mountains where the millions of butterflies gather.

"The butterflies find, under normal canopy, enough moisture and just enough protection from the weather that they're fine during the winter," Wilson said.

I've got about 140 monarch butterflies on the go here.- Jim Wilson, birder and naturalist

"But by opening up the canopy, by cutting down some of those trees, it allows the cold to get down in there and affect the population."

That, as well as climate change and severe storms along the trek, imposes problems on their travels.

But Wilson said a decrease in illegal logging, the planting of milkweed across North America, and even at-home efforts are helping the butterflies flourish.

"Hopefully, it'll be a great monarch year this year and the numbers going to Mexico will be vastly improved."

Jim Wilson has been doing his part for the threatened species. 10:31

With files from Information Morning Saint John, Matthew Bingley