The Butterfly Effect

Climate change can feel impossible to solve. But, as monarchs show, small actions can have world-altering results

A group of monarch butterflies resting on a tree branch in their winter nesting area.

Carlotta James feels as though her bones are breaking. She’s running through what she calls a “dead zone,” a stretch of empty towns with nowhere to refill her hydration pack. She’ll have to ration the water she has left for the remainder of today’s fifty-kilometre stretch. As she keeps moving forward, James looks up and sees flutters of orange against the sky’s blue. It’s the monarchs. The butterflies remind her that she can’t give in to her fatigue, can’t stop moving, save for those brief moments when, overcome by emotions, she pauses to take in the nature around her. James is running alongside the monarch’s annual migration, and the monarchs stop for no one.

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It’s the first Friday in October, and James is about two weeks into the Monarch Ultra, a 4,300-kilometre journey that set off from her hometown of Peterborough, Ontario, in mid-September. The ultramarathon—roughly seven weeks of running, fifty to 100 kilometres each day—mirrors the monarch’s exact route and schedule, a trail going from southern Ontario, down through the United States, finally ending at the monarchs’ overwintering grounds in Cerro Pelón, Mexico.

James is the project director for the continent-spanning journey, which she is undertaking alongside a three-person team that includes a run director, a filmmaker, and a chef/RV driver. Each day, the ground is covered by either James, a teammate, or a volunteer—often members of local conservation groups, students, professors, or government officials. And, as always, there are the monarchs: human and insect are battling the same thirty-degree heat, breathing the same polluted air, and often travelling paths made more dangerous by cars and trucks. “The monarch butterflies don’t have it easy,” James says.

James first dreamt up the idea in the summer of 2016, during a run along the Kawartha Trans Canada Trail, in Peterborough, where she has a local business planting pollinator gardens. Ontario was engulfed in a drought that year, and James had seen only a handful of monarchs outside. “It would be a fantastic idea to just follow their migration through the act of running,” she remembers thinking. It is auspicious (if not downright lucky) that, when she set out on her ultramarathon, three years later, it was following what James calls an “epic comeback” for the species: in 2019, southern Ontario saw the highest number of butterflies in recent years.

However, the monarchs’ migratory life cycle means that the species’ health can change dramatically from one year to the next. And, like many other species, monarchs are now facing an existential threat that is increasing due to climate change—in 2016, Canada officially listed monarchs as an endangered species.

But, unlike other endangered creatures, from Fowler’s toads to American eels, monarch butterflies have many champions. The butterflies have long been symbols of beauty, transformation, and hope for many in North America, and consequently, scores of committed citizen-scientists and do-gooders have started doing their part to help the species survive. Scientists have recently pointed to this love, which sometimes borders on obsession, as a likely factor in the monarch’s surging 2019 population. Monarch fever can, fittingly, cause a butterfly effect: at a time when damage to the environment can seem impossible to reverse, the butterflies are a living reminder that even the smallest actions can lead to enormous results.

A monarch chrysalis is jade green at first, with golden ribbons running through. Some people describe these shells as akin to jewellery. As time passes and the monarch grows inside, the chrysalis darkens until a patch of orange with a black vein can be seen through the translucent green. The chrysalis continues darkening, turning almost completely black, until the butterfly is ready to slowly unfold itself. The monarch’s wings, crumpled and small at first, expand during its first hour in the world. Then, after a few slow flaps, it is ready to fly.

Watching this process from her porch in Hiawatha First Nation, near Peterborough, is something Sandra D. Moore looks forward to each year. Her husband has made three cages, which, in the summer months of last year, were filled with butterflies at every stage in their life cycle. She watches it all: the chrysalis, the caterpillar, the larva, the eggs. “My summers are not really productive when the butterflies are going on,” she jokes.

Moore started raising monarchs about ten years ago, after her niece, a teacher, went through the process with her students. Moore’s curiosity was piqued, and she and her husband have raised butterflies off and on ever since. Throughout late summer, the two go on walks through farmer’s fields and along old railway tracks, keeping an eye out for caterpillars and eggs to nurture—they raised and released 300 last year alone.

According to Moore, it’s “a big day” when one of her monarchs hatches and she is able to hold it in her hands. “I can’t say there’s not an emotional connection with that,” she says. Moore and her husband have noticed that, though the female monarchs fly away instantly, the males tend to linger on nearby bushes. She likes to joke, “Buddy, I’m not packing your lunch.”

When she thinks about the dangers that the species is facing, Moore gets emotional. “When I hear political leaders say that climate change is a hoax,” she says, “it makes me weepy to think that we have messed up this environment so bad that some of the things we’ve seen and enjoyed aren’t going to be there for the future.”

Raising butterflies at home is a hotly debated issue, with some arguing that domesticated butterflies don’t fare as well on migrations as their wild counterparts. But Moore has done her own research. She says that the eggs and caterpillars she plucks from fields would be in for a certain death if a farmer plowed through them with a combine. “I think that releasing 200 or 300 monarchs from this little corner of the world isn’t going to translate into a big, huge number when they actually go [to Mexico],” she says. But she’s still optimistic about what she does: “Every one makes a difference.”

Millions of butterflies make the annual migration to the overwintering grounds, which, for many, are the oyamel fir forests on the mountains west of Mexico City. The region’s cool air helps the butterflies preserve energy over the long winter months, and the monarchs are protected by both the tree canopy and their proximity to one another. Since scientists can’t count the individual butterflies to gauge the strength of the species, every year they count how much land the butterflies take up when they “roost,” or cluster together for warmth. In 2014, monarchs occupied 0.67 hectares. In 2018, they filled 2.48 hectares. Last year, it was 6.05 hectares—a remarkable increase. But there is a fickleness to monarch populations: this winter, the numbers shot back down again: 2.83 hectares, a 53 percent decrease.

Monarchs are a multigenerational species. The butterflies that arrive each summer in southern Ontario live for approximately two to six weeks. Usually, three generations live and die on the journey north over the summer months. The fourth generation, born in Ontario from mid-August to September, is the “migratory generation”—the one that makes the long, perilous journey south and overwinters in Mexico. This cohort lives for approximately nine months and reaches sexual maturity later than the others. In the spring, this generation finally procreates, and they, along with their offspring, start the migration north. The cycle begins anew.

Greg Mitchell, a wildlife research scientist for Canada’s federal government, says one indicator of future monarch populations is spring temperatures in the southern United States. His team used fifteen years of community data to find that warm spring temperatures mean more monarchs. This factor is critical for both milkweed growth and migration. If the temperatures are good, then the first generation of monarchs is likely able to reproduce more. If weather conditions are abnormal—something that is becoming more and more likely due to climate change—it can cause this generation to fail to prosper, setting the tone for the rest of the year.

In 1986, forests where monarchs overwinter were designated natural protected areas by the Mexican government, and they later became a UNESCO-designated site. But these important ecosystems remain threatened by warming temperatures: models for the region predict that trees will be affected by heat and droughts in the coming years, making them more vulnerable to insects and disease, according to one 2015 study.

Ryan Norris, a professor at the University of Guelph who has been researching monarchs for the past ten years, warns that even last year’s high population was significantly lower than historical highs. He’s concerned about the long-term prospects for the species, noting that important flora for monarchs, including milkweed and other nectaring flowers, continue to be lost due to pesticides. Based on population models, he predicts the availability of milkweed, along with overall monarch butterfly habitats, will keep diminishing in the years ahead.

Lisa Massie recalls seeing monarch butterflies everywhere when she was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s. Then, a few years ago, the Toronto high-school administrator read a statistic about the decline of butterfly and bee populations that was so jarring she now calls it her “wake up call.” (One 2016 study reported that the population of eastern monarchs had declined by 80 percent in the past decade and suggested the species had a substantial chance of becoming extinct in the next twenty years.) But, as Massie soon learned, there were clear steps she could take to make a small difference.

In 2018, she bought bee balm and allium plants for her small Mississauga backyard garden, and last year, after doing more research, she added more: lavender, liatris, Joe-pye weed, and hibiscus. Massie isn’t the only one making insect-friendly gardens, and she noticed that landscaping stores have picked up on the growing trend, with some even adding signs with butterfly and bee images to signify pollinator plants. As Massie says, the fight to save butterflies and bees is literally a grassroots effort.

Scientists say that people like Massie can in fact have a significant effect on monarch populations. Milkweed, in particular, is crucial for monarchs, who feed on it as caterpillars and lay their eggs on the plant as butterflies. A toxin within the plant is stored in the caterpillars’ systems, making both them and their butterfly forms poisonous to predators.

The increase in milkweed across southern Ontario in recent years has been a result of both individual actions and larger efforts from conservation groups. In 2013, the David Suzuki Foundation launched its #gotmilkweed campaign to encourage people to plant the species. The foundation says this resulted in 10,000 new plantings of milkweed in just two years. In 2014, Ontario’s agriculture ministry removed milkweed from its list of noxious weeds, meaning it was no longer mandatory to pull it from the province’s farmlands.

When people like Massie plant pollinator gardens or milkweed, they’re helping not only monarch butterflies: these plants also benefit the hundreds of bee species in the Toronto area alone. “If you’re supporting a more diverse ecosystem in your backyard, you’re supporting more life than you really realize or than can ever be concretely measured,” says Aaron Fairweather, a PhD student in entomology at the University of Guelph.

Fairweather, whose interest in entomology was sparked by learning the monarchs’ annual migration as a child, says the fact that many people identify so closely with monarchs has been a boon for conservation efforts. “We usually think about [monarchs] as having a very ephemeral life . . . but we see this strength within a small species, and people identify with that,” they say. “They get this emotional backing behind it.”

But, while monarchs and honeybees have proven to be “charismatic” species that draw the public’s attention, Fairweather says there’s a need to diversify our focus toward more insects. A 2019 study suggests that 40 percent of insect species worldwide are currently threatened with extinction due to climate change, chemical pollutants, and invasive species. Fairweather estimates that there are hundreds of millions of species that haven’t even been documented yet. Many of these could also be at risk. As Fairweather says, not every bug is as vibrant as a monarch, but every insect has a story of its own.

A monarch can fly as high as the clouds. With wind travelling in the right direction, the butterflies glide on the current, sometimes not even needing to flap their wings. But, when the wind is against them, they fly lower, gathering together in clusters. As the monarchs fly south, they eventually join together in a single path, trailing from central Texas into Mexico. When they arrive in the latter, you can actually hear the fluttering of their wings.

The monarchs’ migration might begin in southern Ontario and end in Mexico, but it’s not a continuous journey. They make pit stops along migratory corridors to roost and recharge. Monarchs are cold-blooded and need sunlight to warm the muscles that allow them fly. But they are also sensitive to extreme heat. It’s thought that the butterflies’ migration is similar to our work lives: an eight- or nine-hour commitment during the day followed by a long rest overnight. When it’s time to stop, the monarchs must come down to earth, and the land is always changing.

If monarchs had words to describe what they saw when they glanced down from the sky, they’d lament these changes. Today, swaths of their migratory path are covered by dense agricultural zones with fewer nectaring flowers for monarchs to feed on. Insecticide used on farmland also poses a risk to monarchs’ survival.

Travelling through these agribusiness areas, monarchs encounter little wildlife and ever fewer trees. “That’s probably one of the worst things to happen to twenty-first century agriculture,” says ultramarathoner Carlotta James, noting the pesticides and chemicals used in the businesses. Having adequate nectaring flowers at the monarchs’ pit stops is just as important as having pollinator plants in southern Ontario and oyamel fir trees in Mexico. There is some awareness of the importance of this: in April, the US announced that it would preserve millions of acres of monarch habitats along transportation corridors, with the aim of helping revive monarch and other pollinating insect populations.

This decision is especially important because, due to their migration, monarchs will feel the negative effects of climate change more than some other species will, Fairweather says. As the climate warms, monarchs may stay in Ontario longer, resulting in less milkweed and fewer nectaring flowers to go around. This could mean the butterflies will have less energy to make their journey. Changing precipitation patterns also mean that the monarchs may be travelling through Texas right in the middle of hurricane season. An extreme weather event has the potential to decimate the population, Fairweather says.

Greg Mitchell, the federal researcher, says the scientific community hasn’t yet adequately addressed all the ways in which climate change threatens the monarchs. Some research shows that it could affect the oyamel fir forests where monarchs overwinter, he says. Other data suggests milkweed distributions might shift north, expanding the monarchs’ breeding habitats. But, Mitchell says, we still need to make sure monarchs have enough habitat and breeding grounds to survive: essentially, more milkweed and nectaring flowers all the way across North America. To help ensure that this occurs, Mitchell is part of the Trinational Monarch Conservation Science Partnership, a research group made up of scientists from Canada, the United States, and Mexico that has developed a network, alongside the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, to centralize monarch data and bolster efforts across the continent. James puts it simply: “If we can save the monarch butterflies, then we can probably save other species as well.”

Monarchs mean different things to different people. To some, the orange insects represent a visit from a deceased loved one. The belief can be traced back thousands of years to Mexico’s annual Day of the Dead festival, which coincides with the millions of monarchs that return home.

To Ann Marie Gill, a former corporate sales consultant, monarchs represent transformation. In 2017, she found a caterpillar on a milkweed plant in her community garden during a time when one of her dogs was in the hospital. She decided to care for the insect and purchased a glass structure for it to call home. She searched the internet and called local experts for advice, learning to feed the caterpillar milkweed and to clean its living space every day. She watched, mesmerized, as the caterpillar spun its jade cocoon. When the butterfly hatched, she named him Milagro, Spanish for “miracle.”

When it was time to release Milagro, Gill cried. Everything about the butterfly seemed auspicious and lucky. Before letting Milagro go, she talked to him. “It’s like he totally understood me and was hanging out with me,” she says. As she spoke with Milagro, her nose touching him, the butterfly fluttered his wings.

Last April, Gill was in a car accident and got a concussion. During this trying time, as she raised another sixteen monarchs from her living room, Gill thought of how caterpillars, as they grow into butterflies, reinvent themselves. “[I was] kind of in my own cocoon while I was healing,” she says. “Part of that is being around that transformation energy while I’m also reinventing myself. It’s been really healing and magical and spiritual.”

Dorothy Taylor also feels a spiritual significance to butterflies. Taylor is a member of Curve Lake First Nation and the founder of Sacred Water Circle, a volunteer community group that advocates to protect water in the area. Butterflies, she tells me, are part of a creation story in which Sky Woman gave birth to twins: one who was born normally, and one who was born from her left armpit, killing her. When the twins grew up, they chased after butterflies, who, as Taylor says, “gave them the strength to start being fascinated, to open their eyes to the world around them.” The twins were responsible for the work of creation: one twin created a rose, and the other gave it thorns. There’s also a dance at powwows, shared across First Nations in North America, called the Girls Fancy, also referred to as the butterfly dance. It’s a quick dance involving lots of jumping, usually done by young women, that mimics the movement of butterflies and represents transformation.

Similar to Fairweather, Taylor says that monarch butterflies have the potential to be a “mascot” for people to care more about all insects. Because of her Indigenous teachings, she doesn’t kill any spiders or other “creepy crawlies” she finds in her house—she simply carries them outside. She believes everything is interconnected, similar to the spider webs she sometimes sees in the corners of her room. “Right now, the way our world is, there’s a competition between the natural world and our comfort as people,” she says. “It’s caused a disruption.” Monarch butterflies in particular, she notes, can arouse human curiosity. “How do they survive travelling from [southern Ontario] to Mexico and back again? How do they do that?” she asks. “That’s tremendous strength and magic. We’d consider that ordinary magic. And we have to show them respect.”

Under large orange tents, schoolchildren wearing black shirts and shorts with orange monarch butterfly wings are dancing for an audience of around 400. Orange letters on a black sign read, in Spanish, “Welcome Monarch Ultra Marathon.” Later, there will be a mariachi band, food, and speeches—all organized by the Macheros community as a surprise for James and her team. The group arrived at their destination in Cerro Pelón on November 4, right on schedule.

“From the moment we crossed the border in Mexico, we were constantly surprised,” James says. “The community participation was huge. Canada and the States have a lot to learn when it comes to how to galvanize communities to support big projects.”

The November 4 celebration was the end of the 2019 Monarch Ultra, but James is quick to point out that it was also the beginning of something greater. She is now hoping to organize another ultramarathon in the years ahead. Because of the support the project received in Mexico, she feels a responsibility to do an even better job next time and get more levels of government, schools, and conservation groups involved.

For most of last year’s journey, the team saw streams of monarchs overhead. As the runners got closer to Mexico, the butterflies sometimes numbered in the thousands. But it was only when the team was on the bus heading home to Peterborough that they looked out the window to see even bigger waves, tens of thousands of monarchs, streaming south. James later joked that, with their meticulous timekeeping, her team had run too fast for the monarchs.

No matter the planning or predictions, the monarchs fly on their own schedule, following the intuition that leads them generation after generation, year after year. There is still some mystery to the monarchs, and as James says, “Maybe that’s how it was supposed to be.”

September 8, 2020: An earlier version of this article stated that Ann Gill rescued and raised a butterfly in 2018. In fact, it was 2017. The Walrus regrets the error.

Sherina Harris
Sherina Harris is a reporter at HuffPost Canada and graduate of Ryerson University’s journalism program. Find her on Twitter @sherinaharris