A Winnipeg woman who has been raising monarchs for decades is sharing her love of the metamorphosing creatures online, including video of a caterpillar going into chrysalis.
Yvonne Sharples recently founded the Manitoba Monarchs Facebook group with the goal of connecting with others in the province who captive-rear monarch butterflies, and to encourage others to take steps to help them thrive in the wild.
“It is one of sort of the ethereal things that we have here, that you almost think, don’t belong,” said Sharples, who began collecting the caterpillars after naturalizing her garden in the late 90s and installed the only variety of plant you’ll find them on.
“They will always only be on milkweed,” said Sharples.
The milkweed patch in Sharple's yard. (All photos: Yvonne Sharples.)
She said it took a couple years before the first monarch caterpillars appeared in her garden, and she kept a watchful eye over them.
“A couple days later, because I was checking them all the time, and there was a little drained carcass,” she said, explaining that research led her to believe it had been attacked and killed by another insect.
That’s when Sharples decided to take the caterpillars into a habitat she built using an old bird cage.
“A couple weeks later, I had these beautiful butterflies that were hatching in my house,” she said.
In the decades since her habitat has grown, she now keeps the screened-in collection of milkweed stems outdoors in her yard, which experts say recent research points to as the best-practice method.
An insect on decline
Sarah Semmler, museum director at the Living Prairie Museum in Winnipeg, said there’s been a general trend towards decline in the population of monarch butterflies, which goes through four generational cycles per year, the final of which migrates to Mexico before starting the journey back.
Semmler said lack of milkweed plant throughout their range is one of the reasons for the decline.
“The milkweed is the host plant for their caterpillars,” she explained. “And without it they can’t complete their life cycle. So when there isn’t enough host plant while they’re migrating, they can’t make the journey back.”
She said seven species of milkweed grow in Manitoba and monarch caterpillars will feed on all of them.
“But they do have to be present in a great enough abundance to support the whole community,” said Semmler. “I think one of the reasons why they’ve been declining is because a lot of the natural areas where these milkweeds have been traditionally found have been converted to agriculture, or to cities and towns and homes, and so there’s less of it available.”
Semmler said people can plant milkweed as seeds or as plugs, which she said are sold in Manitoba by businesses Prairie Flora and Prairie Originals, and the seeds are also available for purchase at the museum.
She said more people are choosing to plant milkweed, learn more about monarchs and getting others involved.
“And they feel like they can actually get a difference.”
The science of safer captive-rearing
Part of the appeal of raising monarchs comes from the ability to develop a bond while watching them go through their life cycles, Semmler said.
“People have the opportunity to really make a connection with this insect, because they are so easy to raise at home,” she said, explaining the goal is to remove them from the natural environment during more vulnerable life stages.
“So you’re trying to keep it safe from things like predation and disease, parasites, that sort of thing.”
But in recent years, scientists have come to believe some methods of captive-rearing may interfere with the butterfly’s ability to migrate, including keeping their habitat indoors.
Sharples' took this photo of the outdoor monarch habitat she now uses.
“If you can captive raise them outdoors, so in like a covered structure where they can get the right temperatures, sunlight, angle of the sun, those things, then they’ll have the proper ability to migrate,” Semmler said. She also said commercially raised monarchs have genetic differences that cause them to have issues with migration.
Semmler said it’s best to take in up to ten from the wild, earlier in summer, because those generally will belong to the generations that don’t migrate. It’s only the monarchs that transform later in the summer that make the journey.
“So if you stop taking them indoors in early July, you’re probably not going to be taking in the ones in that are going to need to migrate and may have their cues a bit altered.”
Caterpillar going into chrysalis captured on camera
In early July, Sharples saw something she had never seen before in all the years she’s been raising monarchs – a caterpillar going into chrysalis.
“I had never seen it live before. And it just blew me away.”
It happened as she was taking video of the habitat, and she kept rolling for nearly ten minutes as the stage of the transformation took place.
It was around that time that Sharples founded her Facebook group, after coming across other hobbyists from Manitoba in other online communities.
She’s also called the Living Prairie Museum for advice, something Semmler says others are welcome to do.
People can also learn more at the museum’s 13th Annual Monarch Butterfly Festival on Sunday from noon to 4 p.m., which will include activities for all ages, storytelling, crafts, guided hikes, a native plant sale and presentations where people can learn more from scientists.
“So many of our natural creatures are declining, but this is something that we can affect change right where we live with very little effort,” Sharples said.