The Monarch and the Painted lady: do you know how to differentiate them?


By Daphné Laurier Montpetit
Coordinator of the Mission monarch project

It is called the Painted lady (Vanessa cardui), and it is the most common species of butterfly in the world. In Canada, it seems to follow a cycle: rare in some years, it returns in great numbers other summers. This year, observations of this species abound. With its orange wings, it can remind us of the monarch and deceive the eye of several observers.

Do you know how to differentiate it from the monarch?


Some similarities…

Like the monarch, the painted lady belongs to the family of nymphalids. It is also a migratory species that, having flown in Canada from April to October, migrates to the southern United States or to Mexico for the winter. Two or three generations can be observed during the summer.

… and differences!

If its colors can recall those of the monarch, the patterns displayed on its wings are quite different. The painted lady has no black veins, like those of the monarch, but rather brown spots. On the back of its hind wings, visible when the butterfly has its wings closed, we can distinguish four ocelli – round spots recalling eyes.

With a wingspan of about 6 cm, the painted lady is also smaller than the monarch, which can reach up to 10 cm wingspan. The flight of the painted lady is rapid and erratic, unlike the slow floating of the monarch.


Have you seen painted ladies?

At first glance, the two orange butterflies can easily be confused. To make sure you report the right butterfly, take pictures. The pictures are a great help to confirm the identifications. You can also rely on the Monarch Identification Sheets and the Commonly confused form to validate your observations.

Remember to report monarch observations on the Mission Monarch website. And if you saw painted ladies? Contribute to the research on butterflies, by reporting your observations on eButterfly! Your Mission Monarch login information also works on this site.

Good butterfly watching!

Painted lady
(Photo: André Sarrazin)
Painted lady
(Photo: André Sarrazin)

A breathtaking Blitz!


By Daphné Laurier Montpetit
Coordinator of the Mission Monarch project

From July 29th to August 6th was held the second Mission Monarch Blitz. This year again, the participation (of the citizens and monarchs!) exceeded the expectations. Here is a summary of the week, in numbers.



During the nine days of the Blitz, 115 participants submitted more than 249 missions, exceeding in one week the total number of missions of the 2016 season!

A mission is any outing during which one or more milkweed plants are examined in search of monarch caterpillars and for which observations are shared on the website. People from several Canadian provinces (and even some American states) carried out these 249 missions.


Is the number of milkweed plants inspected by our citizen scientists during the week. This is excellent news, since the host plant of the monarch is at the heart of the mission. The research behind Mission Monarch focuses on identifying the best breeding habitats of the monarch butterfly, and milkweed is an essential part of it. In short, it is as important to document the host plant as the presence of the butterfly. The data collected on milkweed are therefore very valuable, even if no monarchs are found.


Experts agree: we are, so far, witnessing a better year for monarchs. Monarchs observations are on the rise throughout its breeding range, and the 606 adult monarchs reported during the Blitz are only supporting the trend.

The size of populations of migratory monarchs is calculated by counting the number of hectares they occupy during their overwintering season. Based on this summer’s assessment so far, we are hopeful that this year’s count will meet the 2010 and 2015 numbers. Back then, the eastern population covered just over 4 hectares. Still below the last 25 years avergade of 6 hectares, but compared with the 0.67 hectares occupied in 2013, this is a step in the right direction!


They are the stars we hoped to see, and they were there in numbers! During the Blitz, 223 caterpillars were spotted on milkweed plants inventoried.

Caterpillars provide clues to the quality of summer breeding sites. Where they are (and survive), we know that the conditions are adequate. By listing sightings of monarch caterpillars, a map of the most productive habitats can be identified and prioritized to optimize the conservation efforts of the monarch.

No time to rest for monarchs!

The Blitz is over, but for monarchs, the biggest job is coming! The caterpillars that will be observed over the next few weeks will be those that, once adults, will undertake the long journey to their overwintering areas in Mexico, Let’s enjoy their last days among us! The missions carried out in the late summer are just as useful as those during the Blitz.

So, dear participants, we count on you to get back out there and look for caterpillars!

Good missions!



The monarch, an endangered species?


By Daphné Laurier Montpetit
Coordinator of the Mission Monarch project

In December, the Committee on the Status of Endengered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) released its latest list of endangered species. Among the list is the monarch, whom the Committee recommends qualify as “Endangered”. What impact can this new designation have on the population of the emblematic butterfly? A disturbing news or a source of hope?



COSEWIC is a committee of experts who assess the status of Canada’s wildlife based on scientific research, Aboriginal traditional knowledge and community knowledge.
This information provides an informed picture of the risk of extinction of the studied species. Each is given a status ranging from “Not at risk” to “Extinct”. With these assessments, COSEWIC sets out a list of species to be protected.


COSEWIC status categories:

  • Extinct
  • Extirpated
  • Endangered
  • Threatened
  • Special Concern
  • Not at risk
  • Data Deficient


To qualify for legal protection, a species must appear on the Species List. To establish this list, the federal government decides whether or not to follow the COSEWIC recommendations. It then implements conservation regulations and plans accordingly, under the Species at Risk Act (SARA)

A great change for the monarch

Following the most recent assessment, COSEWIC recommends that the status of the monarch be changed from “Special Concern” to “Endangered” in Canada, which represents a significant leap.

There are several threats to the monarch: pesticides, climate change, destruction of their breeding habitats … But what justifies this drastic change of status, according to the Committee, is the continual reduction in the size of wintering areas, in Mexico. Indeed, oyamel fir forests have experienced an upsurge in illegal logging, despite the protection efforts of the Mexican government. Since the entire migratory population of eastern North America finds itself there during the winter, the region is neuralgic for the survival of the monarch.

Good or bad news?

Many are saddened by these recommendations, but is this really bad news? The situation of the butterfly, which was already precarious, did not worsen. Even if the report shows a hard reality, it can be seen as a source of hope.
This new status would reinforce a sense of urgency. If COSEWIC’s recommendations are followed and the monarch is declared “Endangered” under the SARA, significant and valuable actions can be expected for its conservation. In addition to being beneficial to the butterfly, these conservation actions would contribute to the protection of several other species that share the monarch’s habitat. Let us hope that Canada chooses to invest in the conservation of the insect which symbolizes its association with the other countries of North America!

Help already in motion

The good news is that we do not have to wait for official procedures to lend a hand to the monarch: That’s what Mission Monarch is there for!

Whatever the status of the species, the monarch needs our help. Scientific research is the first step in the recovery of the animal.
Even in the middle of winter, you can take action! Talk about Mission Monarch, recruit participants around you and learn about the butterfly!

We wish all our participants a joyous festivities and an excellent end of the year!

The Mission Monarch Team

Danaus plexippus

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Why do monarchs migrate?





By Daphné Laurier Montpetit
Coordinator of the Mission monarch project


If my first experience running a half marathon taught me something, it’s that 21 kilometers is long! Imagine the 4000 km that monarchs must travel to reach their wintering grounds. As the first champions are crossing the finish line of the state of Michoacán, Mexico, one wonders why these butterflies are going through so much trouble. Why do monarchs migrate?

The monarch, a great traveler

The monarch is, originally, a tropical butterfly. Populations of the species are found all over the world (the Americas, Pacific Islands, Oceania …), and some of these populations do not migrate. Indeed, under favorable conditions, generations can succeed each other on an ongoing basis, as is the case for monarchs in Mexico and South America.

Why then are others moving away from the tropics, year after year? It is probably in order to avoid strong competition for food within their environment. Milkweed, a plant necessary for the growth of monarch caterpillars, abounds in summer in northern regions. For the monarch, it is an all-you-can-eat buffet! By expanding its territory, it has access to more resources for the development of caterpillars.

The challenges of winter

There is, however, a price to be paid for this abundance: the arrival of winter! Insects living in temperate environments have developed different strategies to survive the cold season. Some species hide or bury themselves while others take advantage of the protection of snow to stay active. The monarch, for his part, has developed a formidable ability to move over long distances and an outstanding ability to navigate to specific wintering sites.

These wintering sites are not chosen at random. Oyamel fir forests, in central Mexico, offer the perfect conditions to spend the winter. The temperature is cool enough to allow the butterflies to adopt a metabolism that limits the energy expenditure, the trees offer protection against the wind and the moisture is adequate. In a few words, these sites are worth the trip!

Migration at the heart of the Mission

The formidable migration of monarchs is an unparalleled show. It stimulates scientific curiosity, cultural attachment and human passion. It is because of the rich and hospitable habitats that we can observe this magnificent butterfly in Canada, every summer.

To preserve this unique phenomenon, we must preserve the habitats that are necessary for the reproduction of the monarch. Understanding the habits of the butterfly and knowing which environments are most favorable to it will allow us to protect the species. And that is the purpose of Mission Monarch!

Let us ensure that our winged visitors always find the milkweeds they came to seek in Canada!


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Danaus plexippus

“So long, and thanks for the milkweed!”

Tree leaves are becoming as bright as monarchs’ wings, and it’s time to say goodbye to our favorite butterflies. The monarchs you observed during summer (maybe even as caterpillars!) are leaving us for the trip of a lifetime. As you are reading this, they are travelling towards the mountains of central Mexico, where they will spend the winter.


A unique migration

Only a few species can boast of such an achievement.  Travelling over 4000km is not an easy task for a butterfly. How do they overcome this titanic challenge? Well, monarchs have more than one trick up their sleeve!

While previous generations live about a month as adults, the butterflies of the migratory generation can live up to more than nine months. They put on hold the development of their reproductive organs at the time of emergence (at the exit of the chrysalis), and complete their development in the following spring. This pause in reproductive development allows them to invest their energy in storing reserves to fuel their migration. Monarchs take advantage of the strong winds in migratory corridors to travel over vast distances. Along the way, they stop when conditions deteriorate or near big water bodies waiting for ideal conditions and refuel with water and nectar. Year after year, migrating butterflies crowds are observed at the same roost sites, along the great lakes

How do they know where to stop? What guides them to the wintering grounds that their great-grandparents had visited? What other tricks do they use to succeed that great a journey? Mystery! The impressive monarch migration maintains its share of secrets. If monarchs disappear, so does their migration, taking with it the answers several unanswered questions facing scientists.


On behalf of monarchs, thank you!

This summer, you were more than 1,000 participants to inventory nearly 150 locations during 220 missions. The data you have collected will be analyzed by the research team. Throughout the mission, your contribution will create a profile of monarchs’ preferences in choosing their breeding habitats. The better we understand the monarchs, the better we can protect them!

And we have learned much, already! Migration patterns, late arrival dates and small populations give us things to think about. We will adapt the protocol and optimize Mission Monarch in order to learn as much as possible about the butterfly’s reproduction habits.

So thank you for the time and energy you have dedicated to the cause. Each of your comments is like a monarch wing beat: with all those beats put together, we will reach our destination! We count on you: keep up the good work, tell everyone about Mission Monarch, and become and ambassador for monarchs! Stay tuned to follow the new monarch and to prepare for the next mission monarch season!











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A mission easily fixed


It has almost been two months since we first launched Mission Monarch. Many of you answered the call, shared the news and accepted the mission. Your participation is precious, and not only for monarchs!
Any new project needs perfecting, at first, and Mission Monarch is no exception. Thanks to your comments and ideas, we can improve the project as we go. In the past weeks, we listened to your concerns, and can now offer a better protocol.

Let’s keep it simple!

The milkweed abundance evaluation step is now a lot simpler. At first, we chose the quadrat method because of its scientific accuracy. However, many of you shared your doubts about this step. The protocol was complicated and didn’t apply to certain situations. We heard you! We started right away to think of a simpler -but still scientifically accurate – protocol.

How to estimate milkweed abundance?

During your first trip on the field, count, if you can, all the milkweed stems on your site. If there are too many to count, estimate the total number and note if there are:

  • Between 51 and 100 milkweed plants
  • Between 100 and 200 milkweed plants
  • More than 200 milkweed plants

It’s as simple as that! Keep on sending us comments; with your help, we can make Mission Monarch a success, day after day!


All monarchs are orange…

Text Daphné Laurier Montpetit, Mission Monarch team

… but not all orange butterflies are monarchs !

At the beginning of summer, we might be impatient to see a familiar black and orange butterfly, but we must stay vigilent. Butterfly species that are not monarchs show similar patterns and colors. Even the best observers can be fooled ! Here is how to recognize the different species.

Colors that say a lot

In the wild, most preys favor dull colors that match their habitat. But with its bright orange wings, the monarch is not really good at camouflage ! Even the caterpillar is hard to miss, with its yellow, black and white stripes.

With these colors, the monarch sends a very specific message : that of toxicity. The toxins contained in milkweed – the plant that monarch caterpillars eat – are accumulated in the insect’s body, giving it a very bad taste. Therefore, the bright color serves as a warning to predators : « don’t eat me, I taste awful ! »


The monarch is usually recognizable by its orange wings and black stripes. We can’t relay on these sole features to identify a monarch, though, because many other species show similar ones.

In Canada, the list of orange butterflies is quite long. Fritillaries, coppers, admirals and painted ladies can easily be confused with monarchs, if they are seen quickly. The swallotails, on the other hand, also have black stripes ont their wings, although they show a bright yellow color.

Nevertheless, the immitation champion is, without a doubt, the viceroy. This butterfly is found from central to eastern Canada, and looks almost exactly the same as the monarch. Has it evolved to look like the ladder to take advantage of it’s toxicity warning ? Or has it developed the same tricks over time, being toxic itself ?

Whatever the explanation behind the resemblance is, it’s actually pretty easy to make the difference, when you know what to look for. First, size matters ! Whereas the monarch is one of the biggest buterflies of Canada, with its 10cm wingspan, the viceroy is no larger than 7cm. So if a « monarch » seems small, it might actually be a viceroy. Also, unlike the monarch, the viceroy has a black line running across the veins on each of its hind wings. This line is a good clue to identify the viceroy, if you can have a close look at it.

A page is dedicated to these orange butterflies that are not monarchs, on the website. The identification sheets will help you get to know canadian butterflies a little better, and make sure you report actual monarchs in your missions. Oh and, while you’re at it, why not submit you butterfly sightings on eButterfly ?

Enjoy the mission!






Mission Monarch –the science behind the citizen science


Text by Maxim Larrivée, part of Mission Monarch scientific team


North-American migratorial monarch populations have dramatically diminished over the last 20 years. During the winter of 2014, they reached their lowest overwintering population size in Mexico since the beginning of monitoring that began over twenty years ago. It is estimated that 10 to 15 percent of migratorial monarchs breed in Canada each summer. Until now, Canada’s conservation efforts have mostly focussed on the preservation of fall migration roosting areas along the Great Lakes in Ontario. No detailed scientific knowledge currently exists on Canadian monarch breeding grounds to provide the necessary guidelines for establishing a national conservation management plan to improve their summer reproductive success.

It was initially determined, during the first meeting of the Canadian Monarch Expert panel, that Canada (in its international efforts with Mexico and the United-States to restore the migratorial monarch populations to sustainable levels) should aim to maximize breeding success of migratorial Monarchs in Canada.

This goal led to the following question: Is milkweed availability a limiting factor for monarch’s breeding success in Canada? The issue, however, is that there is currently no data available in to answer this question.

The scientific team behind Mission Monarch came up with a 3 steps approach to gather the necessary information to reach this goal:


  1. The first step consisted in aggregating into a single database all currently known information on past monarch and milkweed distribution across the country in order to determine realize and potential summer breeding territory in Canada through bioclimatic distribution models.
  2. The second step is to identify potential regional breeding hotspots by combining the results of step 1 with monarch density estimates from eButterfly monitoring data and national scale land cover and land use change analyses.
  3. Finally the third step is to conduct on the ground validation of potential monarch breeding hotspots through the Mission Monarch citizen science project.


Migratorial Monarchs breed over a very large territory during the summer in Canada. A territory so vast that it would not be possible for scientists alone to gather a sufficient amount of data to rapidly assess if milkweed availability is a limiting factor to monarch reproduction in Canada. Scientists are calling upon all Canadian citizens to help them validate and refine their research on monarch breeding habitat across the country and ultimately help conserve the migratorial monarch phenomenon.

You can now help scientist gain the knowledge that is necessary in order to conserve the beautiful monarch butterfly, as well as it’s impressive and unique migration. Join Mission Monarch!

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Everything you need to know about Mission Monarch


Let’s start the mission !

So here you are, ready to help saving monarch butterflies. You might be feeling a little confused with all these instructions, though. No problem! This blog tells you all you need to know to complete your mission !
Click on the link to get to the sections mentioned in the article.

 First, learn !

Before you go on the field, there are a lot of things that you should know about monarchs. Learn about their host plant, milkweed, and how to recognize it.

You will also discover the different stages of a monarch’s life, and especially the 5 larval instars. You will become an expert on monarchs’ caterpillars !

Trust me, i twill be a lot easier to follow the protocol on the field if you read it calmly, first. Take your time to understand the procedure and see what options you should do, depending on your situation. It may seem complicated at first, but you will get it quickly !


Then, go play outside !

Back home

After your field trips, you can submit your observations directly on the website. All you have to do is create an account, enter and describe your inventory site and note your monarchs observations ! It’s really important to do so, even if you don’t see any monarchs. In science, « zeros » are precious information !

And that’s not all !

On the website, you can also share photos, learn more about the monarch and it’s biology, as well as explore the data you and other participants in North America have gathered.

The FAQ section is also a great source of information, accessible at any time.


Thank you for you participation in Monarch Mission and, enjoy the mission !


How many monarchs will you see this summer?


As a monarch passionate, you are undoubtedly hoping to observe dozens and dozens during your outings in the field and this is clearly what we wish you. However, nothing is ever guaranteed in nature. If you come back empty handed from observation outings, don’t despair. Your data is as valuable for research. Here’s why.


The monarch’s annual cycle follows a particular phenology. For example, your outings in the field can begin as soon as milkweed comes out of the ground in the spring. However, generally speaking this happens much earlier then when the first females arrive ready to lay their eggs! It is therefore to be expected that during your first outings you might find none of those sought after eggs and caterpillars. While it is nearly impossible to predict when exactly monarchs will arrive in your nearby fields, it may take a few outings before you find your first eggs and caterpillars.

You must also consider that throughout the summer, successive generations of monarchs help increase the monarch population. Therefore, it’s not because there were no monarchs present in your field during the first summer generation that you won’t find any later in the season.

Add to this the annual variations of the overall population size with recently very small populations and you will understand that it is nearly impossible to predict the presence, if, and when monarchs will show up at your monitoring sites.

However, it is your regular visits, those where you will have observed or not monarchs that will allow scientists to better understand the reproduction capacity of monarchs in Canada. Hence, let us not forget that writing down a zero where you are reporting the presence of the king of butterflies still says a lot, perhaps as much as any number.

Finally, it is important to remind ourselves that the goal of Mission Monarch is to describe and point out the best breeding habitats to preserve. Sites where we find milkweed that contain no monarchs even where milkweed is abundant provide extremely valuable information. Researchers need this data as much to better target conservation actions.

Your greatest challenge dear participants will be to never forget the importance of regularly monitoring your sites throughout the season, whatever the result of the previous outings may be. We sure won’t forget that your participation is essential to the success of this project.