Indigenous

'It's a little thing that can have a big impact: Hiawatha couple raises monarch butterflies

In Hiawatha First Nation in southern Ontario, some community members have started their own monarch butterfly hatching stations to help the insects through their metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly.

Sandra and Barry Moore estimate they've hatched 150 of the endangered insects this season

'It's really miraculous to see it,' says Sandra Moore of the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

In Hiawatha First Nation in southern Ontario, some community members have started their own monarch butterfly hatching stations to help the insects through their metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly.

The iconic orange and black monarch butterfly was classified as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada in 2016, citing population declines of more than 50 per cent in the past decade due to loss of habitat in their overwintering area in Mexico and increased frequency and severity of storms.

While in the larval stage, monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed leaves for two weeks until they are ready to form into a chrysalis. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

"It was really just knowing that the numbers are decreasing," said Sandra Moore.

"If we can help them get through these stages until they're ready to either have more little ones or fly south, then why not do that?"

Inspired by another community member who has been helping monarchs for a decade, Sandra and Barry Moore tried their hand at the process.

They set up a home-made hutch — a cube frame build out of wood with a solid floor and mesh sides — about a month ago. On the bottom are soup cans filled with water and fresh milkweed leaves. The monarch solely eats milkweed plants.

Sandra and Barry Moore estimate that by the end of the season they will have brought up almost 150 monarchs from egg or caterpillar through metamorphosis to adult butterfly. (Submitted by Sandra Moore)

Every other day Sandra and Barry go to neighbouring farmers' fields to collect fresh milkweed leaves and check for any caterpillars or eggs to bring back to the hutch.

They estimate that by the end of the season, they will have helped up to 150 monarchs grow from egg or caterpillar to adult butterfly.

"It's really miraculous to see it and to know that you started from this little egg," said Sandra.

When the caterpillars are ready to become pupae, they will dangle upside down in a 'J' shape while they harden from the inside out. Eventually they shed their outer skin to reveal the green chrysalis. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

Every year as the summer turns to autumn, monarch butterflies take part in one of the longest insect migration paths in the world from parts of Canada and the United States down to mountainside forests in Mexico.

"It's great to know that some of these will be going to Mexico to begin the process all over again," said Barry Moore.

The metamorphosis from egg to butterfly takes approximately 30 days. Adult monarchs lay their eggs on the leaves of milkweed plants so that when the larvae emerge they will have quick access to their only source of food.

The whole process of going from egg to adult butterfly takes approximately 30 days. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

Then they eat and eat, growing at incredible speeds for about two weeks before finding a spot to enter the third stage of chrysalis.

When the caterpillar is full grown, it will find a spot to dangle from in a 'J' shape. The external skin will shed and reveal a jade-green pupa that will harden for 10 days until the adult butterfly emerges.

"To see them flying outside, you stop and you wonder, is that one we raised?" said Barry.

"It's a little thing that can have a big impact; this is 150 butterflies that will have a better chance of making the migration," said Sandra.

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About the Author

Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at rhiannon.johnson@cbc.ca and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.