Raising monarch butterflies, Ennismore’s Ella Verner is protecting endangered species

·4 min read

Ennismore’s Ella Verner is doing her part to protect a vulnerable staple in Canadian skies and one of nature’s most eye-catching treasures: the monarch butterfly.

Now classified as an endangered species — the International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently added the butterfly’s North American population to its “Red list” of species threatened with extinction — the 22-year-old has made it her mission to raise and release hundreds of the orange-red-winged creatures.

Four summers ago, a family friend of Verner’s brought over a monarch chrysalis that was just emerging into a butterfly.

She was enchanted.

From there, Verner — a volunteer firefighter in Selwyn Township and a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto — began combing a milkweed garden near her home, carefully collecting eggs and small caterpillars.

“The more I researched, the more I learned how fragile and endangered they are. I learned that only 10 per cent survive in the wild, whereas I was seeing a success rate of about 95 per cent if I helped them in my home,” she said.

Verner has multiple enclosures in her home — each dedicated to different life stages — that she uses to raise caterpillars into fully-grown butterflies. She provides them with milkweed and natural light.

Verner nurtures the would-be butterflies over a one-month period. The egg stage lasts about five days; then tiny caterpillars grow some two inches over the next two weeks before forming their chrysalis; their home for up to 14 days. Then they’re ready to touch the sky as newly emerged monarchs. Verner places the butterflies on wildflowers post-release.

Verner, who works at Extendicare Lakefield, is doing more than just helping her winged friends. Since early July, when monarch season began, she’s been bringing caterpillars into the long-term care home to educate and engage residents.

“We’ve had a couple of lockdowns (due to COVID-19) and some residents have been depressed. They needed something to look forward to. It’s been better than I could have ever hoped. Some residents really, really love watching (the caterpillars); spending hours just watching them,” Verner said.

Some long-term care residents even have enclosures in their rooms where they raise their own soon-to-be butterflies.

Verner, the daughter of Peterborough Petes associate coach Andrew Verner, said she’s been approached by staff and family members of residents looking to raise their own caterpillars.

“I’ve given about 75 caterpillars just this summer to people who want to raise them with their kids or grandkids,” she said.

So far, Verner has raised and released 350 monarchs. By the end of the season, in September, she will have released another 200.

“Especially this year, the ultimate goal has been raising awareness and getting other people interested in it, and letting people know not to cut the milkweed down. Some people think it’s an ugly eyesore, not realizing it’s the monarch’s main food source, so they cut it down and it’s contributing to them being an endangered species,” Verner said.

She has no intention of slowing down.

“I want to help raise as many as possible, keep getting people involved. I do it every summer and I plan to for as long as I can,” Verner said.

“It’s definitely rewarding. As an art student, I find this process and nature as a huge inspiration for my own art. So I’ve been able to draw inspiration from how beautiful the whole process is. Monarch chrysalis are absolutely beautiful and it’s just cool to see the whole thing unfold.”

Verner is encouraging others to learn more about the endangered monarch butterfly and what they can do to protect the species.

If anyone has questions or is interested in raising their own monarch butterflies, they can visit Verner’s Instagram account @_umbrella_co or contact her at ella.verner@ocadu.ca.

Brendan Burke is a staff reporter at the Examiner. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach him at bburke@metroland.com.

Brendan Burke, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Peterborough Examiner