For Manitobans, the return of the monarch butterfly is a sign of spring. Most of us like butterflies, especially ones as vibrant as the monarchs. We might hate mosquitoes and feel vaguely uncomfortable around bees and wasps, but butterflies make us think of flowers and the return of our brief summer season.
Yet monarch butterflies are in trouble, with their numbers declining rapidly. According to staff at The Living Prairie Museum in Winnipeg, the number of monarch butterflies returning to Manitoba in the spring is down as much as 70 per cent from previous years. But what can we do about it?
The 8th annual Monarch Butterfly Festival at The Living Prairie Museum on Ness Avenue was a partial answer to that question. Running from noon until 4 p.m. on July 17, the festival included information on butterflies and their habits, opportunities for hiking, crafts for the children, and much more. Although rain interfered with some of the activities, it was still a good day for people to get to know more about the plants and insects in their city.
Many of the afternoon’s events happened around several tables set up inside the visitors’ centre. Information on the plants and animals was available, and staff members used milkweed plants they had brought indoors to show visitors the different sizes of caterpillar and to tell them how to recognize a future monarch butterfly at any stage of growth. Two mesh-covered enclosures housed butterflies at various points in their development, from chrysalis to full-grown adult.
Visitors who happened to come at the right times had the chance to see butterflies emerge from their chrysalises to fly with newly-minted wings. Throughout the afternoon, caterpillars munched on milkweed leaves, preparing themselves to become the beautiful creatures that flit around gardens and fields. A butterfly release was scheduled for the end of the day so that visitors could watch the insects fly out into the sky.
Monarch butterflies depend on the lowly milkweed plant for survival. On these plants, eggs laid the previous fall hatch into tiny caterpillars, which feed on the green leaves until they grow big enough for the transition to chrysalis and then butterfly.
To help the monarchs in their search for food, museum staff gave out free milkweed plants to everyone who came to the event. The plants were small and would take at least two or three years to bloom. Nevertheless, it was one way that ordinary Winnipeggers could contribute to the survival of these beautiful and endangered butterflies.