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Monarchs ate our milkweeds (but that’s OK!)

Recently the Manitoba Centennial Centre renovated Steinkopf Garden (the area between the Concert Hall and the Museum).  I was part of the consultation process with the landscape architect company Hilderman Thomas Frank and Cram.  I suggested including some native plant species in the garden since that way we could potentially use the area for programming.  The architects were willing to do so, having used native species successfully in the past.  One of the plants I suggested was a species of milkweed (Asclepias ovalifolia) since I thought it would help to attract Monarch butterflies (Danus plexippus).  So one of the raised flower beds was planted with 44 Dwarf Milkweed plants last fall.

Dwarf Milkweed was planted in Steinkopf Garden last fall.

I went for a walk through the garden recently and was absolutely astounded.  Not only were Monarch butterflies attracted to the plants, they outnumbered them!  I counted 73 monarch caterpillars crawling around!  Some were big and fat, and others still just little babies.  And they were eating like mad.  In fact they had eaten almost every single plant down to the veins. You’d think that being a botanist this would bother me but monarchs are just too cute to stay mad at!

A face you just can't stay mad at (or is that its bum?).

My astonishment soon gave way to concern.  The big, fat monarch caterpillars might be able to successfully enter the pupal stage and become butterflies but I was afraid that the little ones would starve.  I decided to rescue a few of them and put them on the milkweeds that I grow in my backyard.  Shortly after transplanting them they were happily (at least I assume they were happy but you never really know do you?) munching my milkweeds.  I also contacted the other staff at the Museum to see if they could rescue a few as well.

Those Monarchs were very hungry!

The Museum staff came through with flying colours, relocating just about every single caterpillar to backyards, and community and public gardens.  Apparently this abundance of Monarchs is happening all over North America with unusually large numbers of butterflies seen in Canada (http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/arts-and-life/life/greenpage/alberta-butterfly-lovers-aflutter-over-northern-migration-of-monarchs–159598725.html).  Growing milkweeds in your yard is a great way to help save these beautiful creatures from extinction.  Plus you get to enjoy watching some of the loveliest insects in Manitoba!

Monarch butterfly on a sunflower.

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Dr. Diana Robson

Curator of Botany

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Dr. Robson obtained a Master’s Degree in Plant Ecology and a Ph.D. in Soil Science at the University of Saskatchewan. She has been working at the Manitoba Museum since 2003, conducting research mainly on rare plant and pollination ecology.