PEI

P.E.I. butterfly gardens sit empty as monarch population plummets

Watershed groups and butterfly enthusiasts on P.E.I. are worried about the monarch butterfly, which is late to arrive on the Island in 2020.

Challenging fall and spring migrations and shortage of milkweed blamed for decline

Maddy Crowell, co-ordinator with the Stratford Area Watershed Improvement Group, says the group will continue to encourage people to plant milkweed in their gardens and hopes to plant another monarch garden, or seed milkweed into wild areas. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Watershed groups and butterfly enthusiasts on P.E.I. are worried about the monarch butterfly, which is late to arrive on the Island in 2020.

The population has taken a big hit during the fall and spring migrations — down by as much as 50 per cent, according to some reports.

That is discouraging news for people on the Island working to create habitat for the monarchs, including the watershed group in Stratford, P.E.I., that planted a monarch garden last spring.

"This time last year, we had caterpillars present already, which means that the monarch butterflies had come in late June," said Maddy Crowell, co-ordinator with the Stratford Area Watershed Improvement Group.  

"And now of course, here we are, and we haven't seen any yet."

The Stratford monarch garden has seeded in with other wildflowers, which provide nectar for the monarchs, as well as swamp milkweed. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Crowell has been following groups online that track the monarch butterfly, and the news is not good.

"There has been as much as a 50-per-cent decrease in the eastern monarch population," Crowell said. 

"We hope that they do come here, but those low numbers are the reason we probably haven't seen them."

Crowell says even if the monarchs do arrive in the garden, there will be fewer generations than last summer. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Climate change

Crowell said climate change is a big factor in the population decline. 

"When they have their spring migration, warm temperatures in southern U.S. can mean that they end up being pushed farther north too soon," she said. 

"Warm and dry fall migration temperatures throughout Canada and the U.S. can also have an impact on slowing that migration."

Crowell says climate change and a shortage of milkweed are factors in the population decline of the monarchs that migrate to P.E.I. from Mexico. (Submitted by Jim Wilson)

Crowell said the habitat of the monarch butterfly is also disappearing, with fewer milkweed plants available for the monarchs to lay their eggs upon. 

She said the monarch garden in Stratford is thriving in its second season, making the lack of monarchs even more disappointing.

"All the plants have come back really well, the garden has seeded in with other wildflowers, which provide the monarchs nectar sources," Crowell said. 

"So it's here and it's ready and it's doing well. We just haven't seen the butterflies yet, so that's disappointing."

Staff from the Stratford Area Watershed Improvement Group look for caterpillars and chrysalises in the garden in the fall of 2019, the first year of the monarch garden. (Ken Linton/CBC)

Crowell said that even if the monarchs do arrive in the garden, there will be fewer generations than last summer.

"Last year we saw three generations, so that's three full life cycles of monarchs in the garden, and then that last generation makes the migration south," Crowell said. 

"If they were to come soon, we might see a couple generations, with the second one making the migration. But it's hard to tell, not knowing when — or if — they'll get here."

This chrysalis was in the Stratford monarch garden last September, one of several generations of monarchs found there in 2019. (Ken Linton/CBC)

Butterfly sanctuary

The lack of monarchs is also disappointing for Denise Motard, who lives in Stratford too.

She has turned her backyard into a butterfly sanctuary, growing swamp milkweed for 14 years in order to attract monarchs.

Denise Motard is hoping for signs of monarchs here in her swamp milkweed garden. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

She had her first monarch visitors in 2018, and then in 2019, more than 18 butterflies, including some that she raised by hand from the caterpillar stage.

"I felt incredibly lucky, I took advantage of this and took many photos, I raised them, I created a website on the monarch butterfly," Motard said.

"I know it's disappointing for many people because once we see them, we expect them to come back." 

Denise Motard gently places a monarch butterfly she raised on one of the flowers in her garden in September of 2019. (Ken Linton/CBC)

'Very frustrating'

They are also searching for signs of the monarchs in the swamp milkweed gardens next to the Bedeque Bay Environmental Management Association in Emerald, P.E.I.

"It's very disappointing and it's very frustrating," said Tracy Brown, executive director of BBEMA.

"For years, we've done so much work to try and bring up their populations and increase their numbers. The problem with monarchs, unfortunately, is they're across three different countries: Canada, the United States and Mexico."

They are also searching for signs of the monarchs in the swamp milkweed gardens grown next to the offices of the Bedeque Bay Environmental Management Association in Emerald, P.E.I. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

For the last seven years, BBEMA has been tagging and releasing, and tracking fall migrating monarchs.

It also works with community residents to establish monarch way stations, by providing swamp milkweed in their home gardens. 

Brown said she hopes Islanders will continue to plant more swamp milkweed, even if this year has been disappointing.

One of the monarch butterflies raised at Denise Motard's house in 2019 that she released into the wild. (Ken Linton/CBC)

"Just keep trying," Brown said. 

"Even though the numbers are not on our side right now, that doesn't mean that we can't get the numbers up."

More from CBC P.E.I.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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