For Sunila and Devin Melanson, the adage “a family that plays together, stays together” is truer still when it comes to connecting in nature.
The Ancaster, Ont., couple consistently make it a priority to expose their children, Calvin, 12, and Sean, 10, to the natural world. “We have always tried to nurture the kids’ sense of wonder,” says Devin. “Even as toddlers, we encouraged them to see what native flowers they could find.”
Five years ago, concerned about the plight of the declining monarch butterfly, Devin and Sunila started trying to encourage pollinators on their property by planting 36 common milkweed plants. The family visited the Butterfly Conservatory in Cambridge, Ont., and got a book on how to raise monarchs.
Over the last couple years, the Melansons have deepened their commitment to raising and releasing monarchs by nurturing even more of them. Devin built a system that allows the caterpillars to create their chrysalis in a safe environment; the butterflies are then moved into an outdoor dining tent (a recent addition) that contains beds of milkweed and is in the partial shade of a maple tree. They’ll linger here for a short while before they are released to join fellow monarchs on their more than 1,000-km journey to Mexico.
To date, the Melansons have released more than 500 monarchs.
The Melansons have welcomed people interested in learning about the project into their yard and they continue to encourage other families to raise a monarch or two – providing them with a few eggs to get them started.
They are also protective of habitat that contains the food these butterflies need in order to thrive. Sean explains how he and his mother took action on noticing that a patch of milkweed by the local swimming pool was being cut down. “We talked to the administration there and they put up a sign saying don’t cut the milkweed.” The family is currently raising Swallowtail butterflies, too. “We found them on the parsley and dill – it’s what they like best,” says Sean. “They are in the chrysalis for the whole winter.”
The family frequently offers presentations to school groups and to the broader community through the Hamilton Pollinators Paradise Project, a locally based initiative whose goal is to plant a “highway” habitat of native species for pollinators across the city’s urban landscape.
Reaping Nature’s Benefits
Since raising monarchs became a family project, Sunila says the children have much more awareness of little wonders. “The kids have a deeper appreciation of living things. My youngest son in particular shows more empathy about killing spiders and even mosquitoes!”
Not only is the nature connection beneficial in terms of exercise – kids are more apt to go on a hike to “see what we can see” – but it’s a confidence builder as well.
Through their involvement with monarch butterflies, a few libraries have approached the family to talk about the project, so the boys have had the opportunity to practise public speaking. The experience has led to other interests too, such as photography and bird watching.
“The boys have become more inquisitive,” Sunila says. “They want to know more about how things are formed, what stage of maturity a species is at and so on.”
It may be easy to convince families to attract beautiful butterflies to their back yards, but what about the humble bee? Our very survival depends on a large population of healthy bees, since one in three bites of food we eat is made possible by bee pollination.
But over the past 10 years the honey bee and native bee populations have been in dangerous decline, due to pesticides, bee diseases and parasites, and a lack of “bee flowers” to nosh on (thanks in part to suburbanization and climate change). In the winter of 2014, honey bee populations in Ontario, for example, shrank by 58 percent. This past winter was less devastating, at 38 percent.
Planting wild flowers will help all bees thrive, says Marla Spivak, professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota. And parents needn’t worry about kids getting stung by honey bees.
“Honey bees only sting when their nest is threatened,” says Marla. And the honey bees that might come into your garden are from bee keepers’ colonies. “What do sting, and perhaps give bees a bad name, are wasps called yellow jackets that nest in the ground or other cavities. Hornets, another type of wasp, hang their paper nests from tree limbs, and they don’t bother people much.
“Good nutrition for bees helps them fight off diseases and detoxify pesticides. We want good clean food to eat, and so do bees.”
Honey Nut Cheerios is behind an initiative to plant 35 million wild flowers this spring, enough for every Canadian. To learn how you can get a pack of seeds for your family go to bringbackthebees.ca. – Janice Biehn
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April/May 2016.