Butterflies have been plentiful this year. All day they flutter by my office window, flaunting their exquisite dance moves and the kind of freedom that is only possible if you have wings. Lured by their charm and hoping to finally capture them in their glorious multitudes, I grab my camera and head to Colonel Samuel Smith Park near Lake Ontario. After an hour of unsuccessful wandering around, I am finally rewarded with a butterfly mosaic clustered in a tree. And while they don’t amount to millions, like in this story from University of Ottawa biology professor Jeremy Kerr about his visit to the monarchs’ overwintering site in Mexico, it is still a mesmerizing sight.
I am fascinated by butterflies. And judging by the number of fellow photographers in the park with their zoom lenses trained high up on the trees, it looks like I am not the only one. Butterflies have inspired poets, writers, artists and even scientists helping them improve solar panels’ efficiency. Because of metamorphosis, they are seen as symbols of hope, transformation and rebirth, and in many cultures and religions, butterflies are associated with the soul. I can see why: if my soul ever takes on a physical form, I’d like it to look like this creature of light and beauty, with wings so seemingly fragile, yet, according to the chaos theory, strong enough to cause a tornado miles away with just one imperceptible flutter.
The butterfly effect aside, the strength required to complete the 3,000-mile migration that monarch butterflies undertake every year is nothing short of miraculous. In early September, they congregate along Lakes Ontario and Erie before starting their journey south to the mountainous regions of Mexico where they will spend winter roosting in oyamel fir forests.
In the spring, they begin their trip back laying eggs on milkweed plants (the only food monarch caterpillars will eat – they are picky) along the way, a trip that will take several generations to complete: it will be grandchildren of the original butterflies that will make their way back to Canada.
In the past two decades, monarch populations have been declining resulting in their “special concern” status in Ontario. Most of it is due to the loss of habitat, unsustainable agricultural practices, use of pesticides and climate emergency. This year’s resurgence is partly thanks to the habitat restoration efforts over the past few years, partly due to luck, according to Professor Kerr. Good weather during their travels meant more butterflies were able to survive.
There is still a lot of work we need to do to prevent monarch butterflies from becoming endangered and ultimately disappearing. Why should we care? Butterflies, just like bees, are pollinators. They provide food for other species. They are indicators of a healthy ecosystem. And if their important role in nature isn’t convincing enough, our world without their vibrancy, grace and vivacity would be a much sadder place.
How to see monarch migration
- Throughout September and into early October, monarchs gather along Lakes Ontario and Erie preparing for their southbound trip. Point Pelee National Park, the southernmost point of mainland Canada, is a great spot for butterfly viewing. Last year, we headed to Point Pelee in late September but missed them by a few days. We still had a blast of a trip but if you want to make sure you arrive at the right time, you can follow Point Pelee on Twitter where they update butterfly count daily.
- You can also visit one of these provincial parks: Rondeau, Wheatley, Rock Point and Long Point on Lake Erie, and Sandbanks, Presqu’ile and Darlington on Lake Ontario.
- And if these places are too far, you can just stop by your local park by the lake, that is if you are lucky to live close to the lake. In Toronto, good spots are Colonel Samuel Smith Park, Humber Bay Park and Tommy Thompson Park.
- Head to the tip and keep looking up. Butterflies roost high up in trees and resemble dry leaves, dry leaves that occasionally move that is. Binoculars or a zoom lens will help get a better view.
- Largest movements usually occur with cold fronts: cold temperatures, winds from the south and rain keep monarchs shore bound. Early mornings and evenings are best times for viewing.
How we can help monarch butterflies and other pollinators
- One easy thing to do is to plant milkweed in your garden, the only food source for monarch caterpillars. And while you are at it, get rid of the grass on your lawn, a resource-consuming practice with a devastating environmental impact, and instead plant native species that flower from spring into fall. Not only will it provide habitat for butterflies, bees and other pollinators, but also mean less mowing and watering because native plants are better adjusted to local conditions.
- Support broader actions calling on governments to ban pesticides, promote sustainable agricultural practices, and restore pollinator habitats and migration corridors. Canadian Wildlife Federation has launched their five-step pollinator recovery plan. Check their website for information and resources.
- To learn more about what you can do to support butterflies and other pollinators, visit: