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Essay: Raising Monarch Butterflies

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North American monarch butterflies are on the decline facing threats like climate change, pesticide use and habitat loss, so people like Beth Lueck are stepping up and helping raise monarchs.

The monarch butterfly is one of the most recognizable species of butterfly found in Wisconsin. Right now, the monarch population is peaking in the state and soon large groups of them will migrate back to Mexico. 

North American monarch butterflies are on the decline, facing threats like climate change, pesticide use and habitat loss. So, people are stepping up to help. Retired English professor and butterfly caretaker, Beth Lueck, shares her essay on the joys of helping raise monarch butterflies.

  

At a time of great anxiety in the world, what could be lovelier than the almost magical metamorphosis of an egg into a monarch butterfly witnessed firsthand?

It starts with an egg smaller than the head of a pin:  creamy, ovoid, exquisite. I watch as a monarch butterfly flits from one milkweed to another, pausing just long enough to deposit one perfect egg under a leaf on each one. I gather them quickly and bring them inside to mist and guard until what emerges is ... a tiny caterpillar, translucent at first, but soon striped in its familiar yellow, black, and white.

If this seems like theft — or high treason — to steal a monarch’s eggs, it’s not. I do it to save them: only 2% of monarch eggs survive to become butterflies in the natural world. Rescued and tended carefully, up to 95% will survive to take flight. 

As soon as the caterpillar emerges, the caretaking increases. Caterpillars are hungry critters, needing lots of milkweed to grow to maturity. As soon as the tiny caterpillars are big enough for me to see, I transfer them to a butterfly cage large enough for several big caterpillars and for the milkweed that sustains them. 

This may sound like a lot of work, but it’s fun too, and a project the whole family can enjoy. Caterpillars, especially the larger ones, can be comical and individual. One caterpillar I called Hungry Boy munched along each milkweed leaf with gusto, wiggling his black antennae as he chewed and making tiny clicking sounds of gustatory enjoyment. Others are more serious about the business of eating and just chomp away. 

Since monarch caterpillars, or larvae, need milkweed to grow to maturity, for the past ten years I’ve cultivated common milkweed in my yard to help feed migrating monarchs. Monarch butterflies depend on milkweed to lay their eggs and to feed the hungry caterpillars. They also sip nectar from the flowers, as well as from prairie natives like blazing star and bee balm.

The monarch butterfly population has crashed in recent years, but this is one species that ordinary people can help to save. You can do it too! All it takes is a reliable supply of milkweed, a nearby food source for butterflies, a mesh cage or habitat, and patience. Lots of websites offer advice on raising butterflies.

Raising monarchs can be enormously rewarding. Children can learn about the natural world and record when eggs are collected, when caterpillars emerge, when they pupate and finally emerge from the chrysalis.  The habitat must be cleaned daily and disinfected after each use. 

From an aesthetic viewpoint, nothing seems more beautiful than a butterfly: its jade chrysalis, dotted with a mystical line of gold; or an orange and black monarch nectaring on the indigo flowers of a buddleia. A newly emerged monarch in its maiden flight is inspiring: She spreads her wings tentatively at first, holding them open to the sun and folding them again. After a few minutes she flutters to a honeysuckle bush, hangs there, drying her wings, and then she’s off, ruffled by the breeze, searching for nectar and a mate.

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