I never dreamed that when I attended a workshop on Monarch butterflies in August 2015 that I would get "hooked." I went to learn about the life cycle of the Monarch and the fascinating story of their migration journey to Mexico every year. We each were sent home with a Monarch egg and a caterpillar and that was all it took.
The story of the Monarch (Danus plexippus) butterfly is truly fascinating. The butterflies that leave here in the Fall fly almost 2,000 miles to winter in Mexico. They live in large colonies that hang from trees. In March, they start to migrate back north. They will get as far as Texas and deposit their eggs on the new grown of milkweed plants for a new generation and then die. The Monarchs that hatch in Texas will fly as far as Tennessee and lay their eggs; these butterflies that emerge are the ones that fly to the Midwest in the early Summer. It is unknown why they migrate or how they know where to go; just one of those mysteries of Nature.
That first year, 2015, I raised and released 73 Monarch; 2016 was not as good a year for the butterfly and I was only able to raise and release 35 butterflies. However this year is turning out to be a great year for the Monarch.
I started looking for eggs in early July. Before long I had numerous baggies full of milkweed leaves with eggs attached. It normally takes about 3-5 days for the eggs to hatch, at that point I transfer the leaf to a plastic container where the caterpillars continue to eat and grow. The caterpillars continue to eat for 14 days before turning into a chrysalis. In about 10 more days they emerge from the chrysalis as a beautiful Monarch butterfly. The last couple of days before the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis they have a voracious appetite and eat several leaves each day. I have to check the caterpillars morning, noon and night to make sure they have plenty to eat and to clean out the waste in their containers. This means that every day I am out foraging for more and more milkweed leaves and finding more and more eggs and caterpillars.
This year I devised a method to allow the caterpillars more freedom and fresh air, rather than being stuck in a plastic jar. I purchased a mesh organizer that has 6 large compartments. I refer to it as my "caterpillar condo". Once the caterpillars have grown to 2" long I move them to the "condo," where they can munch on leaves and explore the mesh surrounding them. When they are ready to turn into a chrysalis they climb to the top of their compartment and attach to the ceiling. This way when they emerge they can hang down and have a large open area to flex their wings. There is an occasional escapee and they sometimes move from one compartment up to the next, so I think they like it.
The butterflies that emerge towards the end of August are the ones that make the long tip to Mexico. An organization called Monarch Watch tries to gather data from citizen scientists, such as myself, to determine the numbers of the Monarch plus their range. I purchase tags that are affixed to the Monarch's lower wing. The tag is 3/8" round and has an 800 number, website address and a coded number unique to each butterfly. Information I gather: date released, location and sex, are recorded on a spreadsheet for each coded number and then emailed to their organization. In Mexico, they pay villagers to read the tags so scientists can record and track the Monarch migration. Their website can be accessed the following year to see what butterflies "made it."
The Monarch butterfly is not endangered, but its numbers have dwindled because of loss of habitat, drought and cold weather. What can you do to help? We cannot control the weather, but we can help with the butterfly's habitat by planting milkweed. This is the only plant that they will lay their eggs on and the caterpillar will eat. Please help bring back the Monarchs.
To learn more about the Monarch visit: www.monarchwatch.org
To keep track of the Monarch migration visit: www.learner.org/jnorth/monarch
Melissa Fey is an Advanced Indiana Master Naturalist and an an officer on the Friends of Limberlost State Historic Site board.