Butterfly farmers: Wyoming mother and daughter helping to boost Monarch population

Marin Feniak in her backyard


You can tell by her bright orange shirt that Marin Feniak loves butterflies.

One of the most colourful creatures you could find graces the front of the nine-year old Wyoming girl’s shirt.

And you just have to talk to her for a few short minutes to know this is more than just a passing fancy of a young girl. Marin really knows her stuff.

And she’s proven it by winning one of the top awards at the Lambton County Science Fair while studying milkweed – one of the main homes to the monarch butterflies.

Before Marin even started school she would take her bug collector outside and start looking for ladybugs and caterpillars. Her mom, Alison, loved that Marin was excited to watch as the caterpillars weaved their chrystalis and then became butterflies. Alison, who is also an elementary school teacher, would encourage Marin’s curiousity, even buying butterfly kits for classroom use to hatch and grow their own creatures.

Sometimes, there would be lots of butterflies, sometimes, there would be spectacular disasters including an infestation of bugs which killed the caterpillars right before they were about to go into their chrysalis.

But Marin learned a lot about the insect, learning about each stage of development. She also knows all of the technical names for those stages. If you look confused when she starts explaining about it, she simplifies.

“Caterpillers do three things, eat, poop and grow.”

In fact, says Alison, they eat so much that if a baby were to eat like a caterpillar, it would grow to be the size of a bus in two weeks.

Marin and Alison’s interest in butterflies, especially Monarchs, turned to concern in the last few years as they heard how the population was devastated by poor weather in Mexico where they migrate to and from each year.

In 1996, the Monarch covered 20 hectares of forest in their overwintering area. Today, that’s just 0.67 hectares.

Alison says they were just beginning to rebound from a cold snap three years ago when wild weather again killed half of the estimated 17 million population.

To help repopulate the Monarch family, Marin and Alison started hunting for Monarch eggs which are hidden under the leaves of milkweed plants. They would go to the beach and find as many as they could.

At a cottage in Quebec there was an entire field of milkweekd, so the Feniaks took some eggs home to hatch in a makeshift Monarch sanctuary – a screened canopy. Soon, hundreds of butterflies were alive inside and the family released them with the hope they had improved the population of the Monarchs.

The exercise also got Marin thinking about milkweed. She wanted more farmers to leave the plant, which is usually considered a weed and cutdown or sprayed, so the butterflies can reproduce.

As she researched, she found the milkweed plant isn’t just good for the butterflies, it could be an alternative crop.

Marin, who claimed the Best Environmental Awareness Award at the Lambton County Science Fair, found the fluff we all love to see float into the air is actually super absorbant, especial for oil based products. It can also be made into rope and can be used as insulation for winter wear.  “Milkweed is much better than poly propolene for warmth,” the nine-year-old says.

In fact, a Quebec scientist has formed a company and a milkweed cooperative to create special milkweed socks filled with the fluff. It’s less expensive to use than manmade fibers and absorbs the oil better.

Marin is excited about the possiblities of using milkweed for practical purposes because it might lead to farmers keeping the butterfly habitat on the edges of their fields. And that could lead to more Monarchs in the future.

It’s not clear whether local farmers will be sold on the idea – milkweed has long been seen as a pest in the field. But the Feniaks are doing their part, planting milkweed in pots in their yards and in the flowerbeds to spur Monarch production. While they know they won’t have 450 butterflies in their backyard this year, they’re hopeful, with a little help from local farmers, there will be a lot more again in the future.

“They’re beautiful,” she says simply. “You can raise them and you can hold them…and without them the flowers wouldn’t bloom and the trees wouldn’t have fruit.”