Saving monarch butterflies is the goal of a partnership between University of Guelph researchers and the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF).

Prof. Ryan Norris, Department of Integrative Biology, and post-doctoral researcher Tyler Flockhart will work with the foundation on a project intended to increase monarch butterfly numbers in Ontario.

Researchers have noted monarch population declines in recent years. The butterfly is well known for its annual migration between its wintering grounds in Mexico and its summer home in Canada.

A monarch butterfly
A monarch butterfly

Many scientists believe a key reason for the decline is the removal of milkweed along many North American roads and fields, said Flockhart. The butterflies lay eggs in the plant, which provides food for newly hatched larvae.

“We want to understand what the best practices for milkweed restoration are, so we’ll be planting milkweed along roadways, in fields, in hydro corridors and along railway lines in Markham, Uxbridge, Brampton and Sarnia,” said Flockhart.

“This could provide the butterflies with an important food source. We’ll be planting in seed and with plugs to see what grows best. We’ll also look at how the time of year when these plants are mowed affects the number of eggs these butterflies lay.”

Flockhart recently received a Liber Ero fellowship to support early-career scientists studying conservation and management issues in Canada. The program selects four fellows each year to partner with a non-governmental organization on a conservation effort.

“I’ve done a lot of research at Guelph on monarch butterflies, and the Suzuki Foundation was interested in the concept of how making simple changes could benefit the butterflies,” he said.

Norris said the chance to partner with DSF is exciting.

“This is an opportunity to get people mobilized using the Suzuki Foundation’s wide media reach and experience in communications,” he said.

“We are providing the research and expertise, but we need volunteers to make this project successful. That’s where DSF will be especially helpful.”

Flockhart and Norris have arranged with rail, highway, municipal and hydro agencies to plant milkweed in linear corridors where little else is planted.

The three-year long project could help monarch butterflies and agencies looking after these corridors, said Flockhart.

“Slight adjustments could enhance beneficial pollinators while actually reducing costs for managing these areas.

“By making cost-effective approaches, we can make informed decisions on conservation issues. The findings from this study could lead to wider interventions, potentially in the province and then across Canada.”