Butterfly farming

BBEMA attempting to raise their own monarch butterflies

Colin MacLean colin.maclean@tc.tc
Published on August 4, 2014

EMERALD – Fun fact: it costs $10 to ship a single, live, monarch butterfly overnight from Ontario to Prince Edward Island.

But it only costs $2 to do same if the butterfly is still in its chrysalis.

For thrifty environmentalists like Tracy Brown the opportunity for savings is too much to pass up.

Brown, executive director of the Bedeque Bay Environmental Management Association, recently gave the Journal Pioneer a tour of the organization’s new monarch butterfly breeding program.

It’s a big job, she said, but somebody has to do it.

“We’re not thinking that we’re going to save the species out of our little Emerald office. But us in combination with a whole bunch of other groups around Canada (it can be done),” said Brown.

Monarch butterflies are a threatened species that have seen their numbers plunge in recent years.

Well known for their beauty, the colourful insects are also important pollinators. BBEMA got involved in monarch conservation about four years ago.

They’ve since started cultivating and planting milkweed (which is essential for monarch survival), setting up monarch way stations and tagging and releasing individual butterflies.

Last year BBEMA paid a Northern Ontario breeder to ship 200 migration-ready butterflies to the Island, which they tagged and released in various events.

Monarchs tend to return to the same area they’re released from, so the hope is to eventually see an increase in the Island’s population.

However, at $10-per butterfly, that’s just not going to happen anytime soon, said Brown.

Which is why BBEMA decided to try rearing its own monarchs.   

 “It’s been a bit of an adventure for us to see if it’s going to work,” said Brown.

“But even if a couple of our butterflies breed, just to have that success and be able to say that we were actually able to breed them … we can do it again. It would be nice to be able to release butterflies that were actually raised on P.E.I.”

BBEMA started preparing for this last year, working with other organizations to breed the native species of milkweed that is so important to the butterfly’s survival.

Adults will only lay their eggs on this one species of plant, and it is the only thing the caterpillars will eat.

They also need a lot of it – one caterpillar can strip a milkweed stalk, top to bottom, in a day.

Once they had the milkweed BBEMA installed a large gazebo at their office property in Emerald and enclosed it against predators and the elements.

They filled the structure with milkweed, watering pans, a variety of flowers and perching wire.

They purchased chrysalises from their supplier in Ontario and hung them late last week (using a glue gun) in special boxes inside the gazebo.

About 50 were purchased, more than half of which have emerged in their butterfly form.

This batch will breed over the next several days, lay the eggs of the next generation and die.

In a few weeks when those eggs go through their own metamorphosis from catapillar, to chrysalis and finally to butterfly, BBEMA will tag the adults and release them.

This generation will live for six to eight months, flying all the way to their wintering grounds in Mexico.

These butterflies will leave Mexico in the spring and mate and lay their eggs as they head north again. Three to four generations of insects will pass over the spring, summer and fall before the species starts its migration south again.

Regardless of the success of its breeding program this year, BBEMA has ordered some adult monarchs for release later in the fall.

Anyone who would like to witness one of these releases can keep an eye on the organization’s website, www.bbema.ca, for more information.

BBEMA will also have a booth set up at Old Home Week in Charlottetown from Aug. 7 to 16 and will have butterflies on display.

Anyone who would like to take a look at the butterflies in their enclosure can stop by the BBEMA office on Nodd Road in Emerald. The office is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday.