Friday, February 13, 2015

A family's growing connection to the Monarch Butterfly.

“I like the feeling of them on my hand, and just looking at them,” says Sean Melanson (9). “They’re so beautiful.”

Sean is talking about the monarch butterflies he helps raise with his family, out of concern for declining populations (for reasons associated with pesticide use and loss of habitat).

“They are an endangered species. If they go extinct that will be bad,” Sean’s older brother, Calvin (11) comments.
Four years ago, parents, Sunila and Devin started trying to encourage pollinators on their property by planting 36 “common milkweed” plants.  Not surprisingly, their action sparked an interest in the boys around monarch health.

The Melansons take being in nature seriously. Together they camp, hike, and cycle, taking every opportunity to explore and identify the species of whatever the area they travel to.

“We have always tried to nurture the kids sense of wonder,” says Devin. “Even as toddlers, we encouraged them to see what native flowers they could find.”

The family visited the Butterfly Conservatory in Cambridge and got a book on how to raise monarch.

In the second year of the project, the family purchased two-dozen eggs from a certified breeder in Peterborough because no monarchs came that summer.

Last summer, the family deepened their commitment to raising monarchs by nurturing even more of them.

The boys would check daily to see if the females had laid eggs on the leaves of the milkweed plants.

Once a sesame seed sized egg is spotted, the leaf of the plant is cut and put into a container in moist conditions until the egg becomes a caterpillar. The caterpillar is then carried in a larger container where it will keep eating milkweed leaves until it forms a chrysalis.

Caterpillar Crib
“If you have a lot of caterpillars you are going to need a whole lot of milkweed—trust me.” Calvin states, never failing to be amazed at the amount the humble caterpillar can put away.

Devlin has built a system that allows the caterpillars to create their chrysalis in a safe environment; the butterflies are then moved into an outdoor dining tent (a recent addition to the process) that contains beds of milkweed and is in the partial shade of a maple tree.

They'll linger here for a short while before they are released to join other fellow monarchs on their over 1000-kilometer journey to Mexico.

Out of the 150 butterflies they released last year, they tagged 20 for Monarch Watch. 

“I am not good at putting them on,” Calvin says. “You have to pin them down. It’s so sticky and the monarch is so unsticky.”

In the wild only 2% of the eggs will make it: for example, out of 700 eggs laid there are a dozen that survive.

Raising awareness, sharing knowledge

The Melansons welcomes people interested in learning about the project into their yard and have even encouraged other families to raise a monarch or two—providing them with a few eggs to get them started. Classmates visit from the local school.

They are also protective of habitat that contains the food these butterflies need in order to thrive. Sean explains how he and his mother took action on noticing that a patch of milkweed by the local swimming pool was being cut down: “We talked to the administration there and they put up a sign, saying don’t cut the milkweed.”

As well as two different types of milkweed on their property they've planted thistles, asters, golden-rods, bee balm, and butterfly bushes.  These plants draw other pollinators including finch, bees, humming birds and swallowtail butterflies.

“Dandelions is an essential early crop for bees,” Devin reminds us, so don’t be in a hurry to pull out this overly maligned weed.

The family is currently raising Swallowtail butterflies, “We found them on the parsley and dill—it’s what they like best,” says Sean, “they are in the chrysalis for the whole winter.”

I ask Devin if there are any concerns around raising large numbers of monarchs in the way they are doing it.

“There is some well-founded concern about cleanliness,” Devin is forthright in his response. This is because of risk of infection with the Ophryocystis elektroscirrha  (OE) virus, which is terminal.

The discussion also focuses on whether or not it is helping or hurting to go to this level –there is the possibility of inbreeding and weakening the population: “It’s a discussion I am following closely,” Devin concludes.

Surprising facts about Monarchs?

“It’s kind of weird that the monarchs drip red fluid when they emerge. We thought it was blood but when we researched it, it is just part of the process.” Calvin (11).

“I found it pretty amazing that the butterflies poop so much.” Sunila.

“It looks nothing like a chrysalis when they are making it and you can’t tell that it is happening until it’s formed.”  Sean (9).

Seedy Saturday Workshop: Turning Our Backyard Into a Monarch Haven.

Saturday, Feb 28th. Pioneer Memorial Church 1974 King St. E. Hamilton.


Pollinators Paradise Project will be handing out info and our customized poster. As well, there are presentations and the first one at 11am is about the Melanson family who have been raising Monarchs in their backyards - come to Seedy and hear their best tricks and tips!This is a FREE workshop. For details, contact Juby at: