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A difficult decision: the end of Monarchs Without Borders

Danaus plexippus
Credit: Insectarium de Montréal (André Payette)
Danaus plexippus
A difficult decision: the end of Monarchs Without Borders

The Monarchs Without Borders breeding program is without question one of the Insectarium’s most exciting educational adventures. Since 1994, amateur breeders have devoted a good deal of the month of September to the king of butterflies. And observing the caterpillars as they grow and transform has an inevitable result: everyone falls under the charm of this charismatic lepidopteran, and develops a heartfelt attachment for an insect that’s facing a precarious future.

It’s no surprise, then, that over the last few years a strong desire to work towards safeguarding the monarch population has evolved in Québec society. Participation in the Monarch Watch, Monarch Oasis and Mission Monarch programs are proof enough.

A threat detected

But, paradoxically, what was once part of the solution has today been identified as a threat for monarchs. Scientists are noting more and more alarming clues suggesting that freeing raised butterflies as part of special events or for educational purposes could present a real risk for the survival of the population, because of the following three factors:

  • The presence of pathogens in breeding is difficult to avoid, however stringent the measures put in place. A number of illnesses can be introduced into the environment, including the highly contagious protozoan Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. The spread of such diseases can have dramatic impacts on an already weakened population. 
  • In breeding, genetic diversity is in short supply because of the low number of breeding pairs. This gives rise to a weakening of the genetic stock and with it a lesser capacity to adapt to a changing climate and habitat.
  • In a context in which the migratory population is the subject of scientific studies aimed at assessing its overall status, and whether or not to implement recovery measures, a high number of releases can distort the data collected and, as a result, the conclusions reached.

A time to decide (Acting on our values)

In light of these arguments, and after rigorous analysis, the Insectarium team has made the difficult decision to no longer continue the Monarchs Without Borders program. Ethical considerations and our eagerness to see the monarch population recover prevent us from carrying on with the project. We also hope that citizens, parents, educators, and schools and event centers will follow this example and decide to no longer acquire breeding monarchs in order to release them for educational purposes or in recreational settings such as parties or weddings.

So it’s the end of a wonderful adventure, one that has succeeded in raising the awareness of close to 700,000 people with regard to safeguarding a population in danger. We know that monarch lovers will understand our decision, and we hope that many of them will contribute to safeguarding this magnificent butterfly in other ways: by creating a monarch oasis or by gathering data for the participatory research project Mission Monarch.

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