Have you always wanted to see a Monarch butterfly?
The yearly migration of these butterflies will take place in late August. It takes three to four generations of butterflies to complete the migration they undertake, and the final generation starts in Saskatchewan. Each generation lives only a few weeks, migrating north and laying eggs along the way, until late August.
The last generation lives for up to nine months, starts far north in Saskatchewan, migrates south, overwinters in Mexico or California, and finally lays eggs in the spring.
Monarch butterflies complete the longest and largest insect migration in North America. “It’s hard to believe, but birds aren’t the only ones to travel thousands of kilometres due to the changing of the seasons,” said Ashley Fortney, Habitat Stewardship Coordinator with the Stewards of Saskatchewan programs.
Millions of these butterflies, every year, somehow fly south up to 5,000 kilometres. “It’s somewhat mind boggling when you think of a Monarch being born halfway through migration, transforming from a caterpillar to a butterfly, and then knowing which direction to fly.”
Monarch butterflies are identifiable by their bright orange colouring, black veins through their wings, along with white spots on their black body and trailing the outside edges of the wings. A male Monarch has two distinct dots on its hindwing, which distinguishes it from a female. “Don’t be fooled, as there are a few Monarch look-alikes, the most notorious of which is the Viceroy,” said Fortney. The colouring and patterns are very similar to the Monarch, but a Viceroy has an extra stripe on its hindwings which intersects the other veins.
In Saskatchewan, the Monarch is distributed across the southern portion of the province, and is seen throughout mid to late summer as they finish the northern extent of their migration. Of the two populations of Monarchs in North America, the Eastern population is the one sighted in Saskatchewan, with the Rocky Mountains as a barrier to the Western population.
Monarch numbers have dropped by as much as 90 per cent across North America. The three lowest overwintering populations in Mexico on record occurred in the last 10 years. One of the largest threats to these butterflies is habitat loss, both in the winter and summer breeding grounds, due to logging, destructive bark beetles, agriculture, urban development and pesticide use affecting milkweed and wildflowers.
Monarchs rely on Milkweed plants for survival. The butterflies lay their eggs on the undersides of the leaves, and larvae feast on the leaves growing 2,000 times their size. Bitter heart toxins from the plant are stored within the Monarch making them unpalatable to predators.
“This is why there are Monarch look-alikes out there,” said Fortney. “Other butterflies pretend to be the poisonous Monarch, to trick other animals into thinking they’re not a good meal.”
To help these butterflies, residents can plant milkweed. “It is very important that this plant is available to the Monarchs,” said Fortney.
Another way to help Monarch research and conservation is to report a sighting of the butterfly. Every sighting helps to determine the numbers and the range of the Monarch population. To report a Monarch butterfly in Saskatchewan, or for more information, call Nature Saskatchewan’s toll-free line at 1-800-667-HOOT (4668).