Toronto butterfly lovers see uptick in monarchs

Butterfly watchers in Toronto say they have reason to celebrate this summer.

Though the evidence is mostly anecdotal, some say they’ve seen a surge in the number of monarch butterflies fluttering around the city.

John Carley runs the annual Toronto butterfly count, what he calls a “census to tabulate how butterflies are doing” in the city. Communities across North America hold their events through the spring and summer months, which are used to piece together a snapshot of butterfly populations across the continent.

Carley says that this year volunteers in Toronto saw the third highest number of monarchs in their 25 years of counting.

Researchers have become increasingly concerned about monarch numbers in recent years. The species is listed as being of special concern in Canada, though some say it should be listed as endangered.

Though recently collected data showed a 144 per cent increase in the number of monarchs overwintering in southwestern Mexico this year, there are still questions about whether the rebound will be permanent.

Given that uncertainty, a community of butterfly enthusiasts in Toronto is trying to help the iconic orange and black insects thrive during their time here.

‘It has become this beautiful project’

Megan Fahlenbock is part of it. She says she fell in love with monarchs while she was still in elementary school. Now, as an adult, she’s offering monarchs a small slice of ideal habitat on her deck in midtown Toronto.

With guidance from a friend, Fahlenbock built what is known as a monarch station. It is essentially a container planted with varieties of milkweed, which monarchs use to lay their eggs in the spring and summer, covered with a permeable bug net. The hatched larvae then feed on the milkweed before developing into the pupal stage, which also relies upon milkweed.

The idea is that the simple-to-make stations encourage monarchs to rest and reproduce before making their migration back to Mexico in the fall.

“I love butterflies and I was very worried about the declining numbers of monarchs so I thought I’d grow my own milkweed and see what happened,” Fahlenbock says.

“Now look,” she adds, gesturing to the 22 chrysalises (a hard outer case that protects a caterpillar as it transitions) ready to hatch any moment in her station.

“This is a very easy thing to do. Why not? It’s an experiment for your kids, it’s fun, it has become this beautiful project,” she says.

‘The most courageous little creatures’

Enthusiam for helping monarchs runs in Fahlenbock’s family. Her mother, Mirian Smith, is an avid gardener who stressed how easy it can be set up a station and contribute to the conservation effort.

“You can do it on a balcony, you can do it as long as you have a little bit of an outside,” Smith says.

Smith believes monarchs deserve all the help we can offer.

“I think they are the most courageous little creatures in the world. Imagine, being that small and beginning in Toronto and flying to Mexico. Think of it — through wind, rain. It’s just the most incredible story,” she says.

“I think it’s spiritual, quite frankly. They are a special butterfly.”

Monarchs aren’t the only beautiful and fascinating species that calls Toronto home during the spring and summer, Carley stresses.

Most residents wouldn’t think a dense urban environment is especially conducive to butterflies. But there are a number of features of the city that are rather ideal for different species. The waterfront, parks, rail corridor, and ornamental gardens all help butterflies thrive.

And vetches, a plant commonly used to line highways, is excellent habitat for butterflies, Carley says.

The best thing we can do, he says, is to grow native plant species.

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