Ask anyone to name a butterfly and almost without exception they will say ‘Monarch’. The big, reddish-orange and black butterfly is present and easily recognised across the southern third of Canada, throughout the United States, and into Mexico.
Our general familiarity with the Monarch unfortunately has come about due the dramatic decline in its numbers throughout its range. Habitat loss and degradation due to changing agricultural methods, pesticide and herbicide use, deforestation of its wintering grounds in the mountains of northern Mexico, and climatic changes are all contributing factors. When they happen all at the same time, recovery of the species becomes difficult.
There is hope however, and the last couple of years have seen a slight recovery due to a massive environmental awareness and educational program. The general public have embraced the Monarch and is helping it by planting milkweed, its food plant, establishing butterfly gardens, and by hand rearing larvae and releasing the adults (an easy, entertaining, enjoyable, and enlightening exercise).
Most butterflies have a four-stage life history that begins with a mated female laying eggs on a host plant. This may be the only plant that a particular species will lay eggs on and which the subsequent hatching larvae (caterpillars) will eat, such as the Monarch’s relationship with milkweed. The hatched larva feeds steadily and as it grows, its skin becomes ever tighter; it will shed that skin several times. The third stage occurs as the larva sheds one last time and then turns into a chrysalis from which the adult butterfly, the fourth stage, emerges and the process can begin again.
This four-stage process of progressive change is termed ‘complete metamorphosis’. While adult butterflies can be very specific regarding their host plant for egg laying, they will feed by imbibing nectar from a wide variety of flowering plants.
Some butterfly statistics: number of species in the world: 18,000; number of species in North America: 675; number of species in Canada: 293; number of species in Ontario; 167; and number of species in the Rainy River District: 100.
Of these one hundred district species, between sixty-five and seventy-five species can be seen in a given year.
The first butterflies are usually seen here on the first warm days in late April. These are adults that have found a sheltered spot behind tree bark the previous fall and have hibernated during the winter. Chemicals in their system prevent them from freezing. The last for the year can be active on warm days well into October. June and July are the best times to see the most species, with twenty-five, thirty, or more in a day possible by visiting various habitats.
The butterflies of the Rainy River District range in size from the big Monarch to tiny Skippers the size of the fingernail on your index finger. The photographs accompanying this article are of large butterflies that can easily be seen along any of the area bush roads or in gardens in town.