Sara Dykman has been following monarch butterflies for so long, she says she’s starting to think like them.
Although there are several groups of monarch butterflies around the world, the eastern population is unique because every year the species travels from southern Mexico up to Canada and back.
In March this year, Dykman loaded her pieced-together-from-parts touring bike and gear onto a bus and headed down to Mexico to begin her 16,000 km journey around North America, following the seasonal migration of the monarch butterfly.
She's calling her journey 'the ButterBike'.
The monarch is considered a threatened species.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has declared the butterfly a species of ‘special concern’. Recently, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada assessed the butterfly as ‘endangered’, meaning, ‘wildlife species facing imminent extirpation or extinction.’
Dykman is hoping her trip will raise awareness about the decline of the monarch with specific focus on the eastern migration.
She’s been stopping at schools, talking to butterfly advocates, and explaining monarch butterflies to regular people along the way.
Each year, the eastern migration monarchs travel north from Mexico and up to Canada to get access to its food source — milkweed.
The monarchs start off mostly in an area of Mexico known as the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve where they winter in one large single group completely covering trees and filling the air.
When March hits, they fly north to Texas where they lay eggs and die.
That second generation then flies north and they or their children eventually reach Canada, feeding on milkweed the whole way.
In the north, they continue to eat and breed until, usually the fifth generation, begins the journey south again.
That generation is the same one that rests in Mexico for the winter then flies to Texas again in the March making its general lifespan drastically different from other generations.
“I tell little kids that imagine that every five generations of humans, that fifth generation lived to be 500 and had to walk 10,000 miles to a place they’ve never been. It’s crazy. But this little butterfly can do it,” said Dykman.
Dykman said the biggest threat to the butterfly is the lack milkweed.
Milkweed, said Dykman, is becoming ever-increasingly scarce because of development.
At one point, she said, the Midwest, prairies, and southern Ontario were covered in it. But the more we build roads, homes, cities, and as we get better at killing what we consider a ‘weed’, the harder it is for milkweed to thrive.
According to the University of Kansas-based outreach program, Monarch Watch, the United States loses an estimated 6,000 acres of milkweed space per day. Since 1992, 147 million acres have been destroyed — four times the size of Illinois.
Without milkweed, monarchs have nowhere to eat or lay their eggs, said Dykman.
Because the monarchs mostly gather in a single location in Mexico every year, their overall population can be easily measured.
According to the World Wildlife Foundation, the wintering grounds of monarch butterflies were measured to be 44.95 million acres in 1996. In 2013, the size of that area was measured at only 1.66 million acres.
While it is normal for the population size to fluctuate, recent years have been significantly and consistently lower than average.
Dykman doesn’t think she can save the monarch butterfly migration on her own, but she wants to at least say she’s tried.
Stopping in Sault Ste. Marie and looking over the park beside the Welcome Arch, Dykman, who’s had monarchs on her brain for the last three or four months, spontaneously lamented the lack of milkweed in the area.
“Agh!... Look at all this waste of space,” she said. “It does drive me crazy because now I see the world through the eyes of a monarch, and I see (places and think) ‘oooo that would be a great habitat.’ I’m looking for milkweed all the time and I don’t see any and I think if I was a monarch I would be so worried because there is no food.”
The message that Dykman wants to get out is for people to plant milkweed, even if it’s just in their backyard.
“Everyone, here in Ontario can plant milkweed in their yards. It’s the only food source of the monarch (caterpillars). If you plant it they will come. You can help be part of the solution,” said Dykman.