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Let’s leave the monarchs in their habitat

Raising monarch caterpillars
Credit: Flickr (Virginia State Parks)
Raising monarch caterpillars
  • Raising monarch caterpillars
  • Monarch egg
Let’s leave the monarchs in their habitat

Monarchs are sometimes collected in their natural habitat so that they can be reared in captivity. A number of breeders want to help the endangered species by doing just that. Nevertheless, it’s not certain that this activity actually helps monarchs – on the contrary…

Intuitively, gathering eggs and caterpillars to raise them safe from predators and parasites seems like a good idea. Which is why, every summer, some lovers devote themselves to rearing them. On social networks there are even groups where people share tips and photos. Often it’s just a question of a few caterpillars, but some especially dedicated breeders collect eggs by the hundred.

Not such a good idea

Unfortunately, recent studies indicate that indoor rearing is no panacea. First, monarchs in captivity are in a situation of greater density, which increases the risk of disease transmission. 

Next, researchers have demonstrated that reared monarchs are not suited to migration. In fact, the simple fact of having monarchs spend part of their lives indoors is sufficient to make them “lose sight of the south,” the direction they take in the fall to get to Mexico. Not to mention butterflies from commercial breeders, whose wings don’t have the right shape.

A hot topic

These studies have given rise to controversy in monarch rearing circles. Don Davis, a citizen scientist who’s been involved in the conservation of the species for decades, notes that certain monarchs that he raised and released himself in Ontario turned up in Mexico, identifiable by a numbered sticker affixed to a wing. Rearing, in other words, will not inhibit migration in all butterflies.

Moreover, having some monarchs in captivity can make for an excellent teaching tool in classrooms or museums. « When done responsibly and with proper training, rearing Monarch butterflies in an educational context can create deep and meaningful learning opportunities for people of all ages » said Vicky An, Program manager for the Monarch Teacher Network of Canada.

Effective conservation measures

Research is still needed to understand the effects of captive rearing on monarchs, but the fact remains that the solution for helping them is not to breed and then release them. “To make a difference, we have to protect and restore their habitats,” stresses Maxim Larrivée, head of the Insectarium’s collections and research division. “Citizens also help scientists move forward in their research by transmitting their observations to citizen science programs like Mission Monarch, which conservation efforts are based on.”

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3 Comment(s)
Eleanor Parke's picture
Eleanor Parke

I am one of the well-meaning people who has been raising Monarchs in my home this season. The caterpillars were taken from my swamp milkweed plants and raised in containers/cages in a screened porch. The butterfies (and only one caterpillar succumbed) were all released as soon as their wings were strong enough.

I find a lot of the discussion about captive rearing to be deeply disturbing and not helpful to those of us who are merely 'citizen scientists'. Worse still, I was distressed to learn that, without a permit in the province which I call home, I am breaking the law.

The Monarch experts need to do a far better job of educating people, including our elected representatives, about what the Monarchs need to survive and thrive.

Yes, the first aim should be habitat preservation/establishment.
But, where I live, common milkweed is still on the list of noxious plants so growing it is subject to penalities too. And some research suggests it is still the best plant for Monarchs.

A coherent educational effort needs to be launched as well. From my own research, I have learned that the maximum number of Monarchs one should raise is ten per season. This is perfectly reasonable when the amount of milkweed needed for one caterpillar is considered.

Institutions that raise Monarchs as part of a public education program need to provide clear information about this and many other things including the need for sterile conditions, permits, etc.as part of their program. Not to do so is irresponsible.

The Monarch needs all the help it can get.

Ronald Roscioli 's picture
Ronald Roscioli

Reading Eleanor Parkes comment one can see how stupid some of our laws are . On the one hand she says she needs a permit and on the other milkweed is considered noxious. Now are the “powers that be” protecting monarchs or trying to starve them. I see this all the time. A rare species in trying to protect them they will fine you for collecting one specimen but will allow a developer to bulldoze their last remaining area, or one of their last. Ignorance abounds !

Glenda Osnach's picture
Glenda Osnach

So glad I listened to my instincts which told me not to remove a chrysalis from the grass stock that I found it on. I went back to see if I could still find it & found the empty shell...it had obviously hatched.

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