Raising monarchs is this year’s new garden project

It’s never too late to learn something new about gardening, and that’s been the case this summer. My husband saw a demonstration about raising monarch butterflies during the Port Garden Club’s July garden tour, and now he’s hooked.

We’ve discovered monarch eggs in the past when we were removing errant milkweed plants. We’d paper clip the leaves with the eggs to other nearby plants so the caterpillars could still feed after they hatched. But even when undisturbed by gardeners, only one in 10 caterpillars in the wild survive to become butterflies. Parasites, weather and plant destruction take a heavy toll on butterflies. Collecting the butterfly eggs and rearing them inside really improves their survival rates. Since we were already finding eggs, it sounded like something we could try.

A collapsible butterfly house was the only equipment needed to start the experiment. Since he was starting the project late in the season, my husband found one on sale. Total investment — $10. A trip to the sidewalk flower beds yielded the rest of his supplies — four monarch eggs glued to the underside of common milkweed leaves. 

Within three days, my husband was running a butterfly nursery in his office. Each morning he walked out to the milkweed plants and brought in a fresh new leaf for his charges. The tiny caterpillars munched away, molting their skins and growing. Twelve days after hatching, the first caterpillar crawled up the side of the butterfly house’s net wall and attached itself to the roof of the enclosure. It positioned itself in the shape of a “J” and remained frozen in that position.

After a day, the anchored caterpillar started to wriggle, struggling to molt for the last time. Its skin split and the caterpillar was gone, replaced by a new chrysalis.

Quickly, the other three caterpillars followed the first to the top of the enclosure. We discovered they liked some cover, so my husband laid a rectangle of black cloth on the outside of the netting. All three caterpillars formed their chrysalises under its shelter.  

As the days passed, the green chrysalises darkened and patches of orange could be seen inside. On the 10th day, the first butterfly struggled free of the case. The fluttering butterfly was enormous compared to the tiny case that had birthed it.

That day was windy, so my husband waited to release the new butterfly. By then it had been joined by a second. Both paused on his hand for a moment before taking wing. The next day, the last two in the butterfly house took flight.

The monarchs my husband raised are part of the long-lived generation that will head for Mexico and then start the return trip north in the spring. With luck, their offspring will return to Wisconsin early next summer when we’ll be ready to start our nursery again.

My husband managed to catch one of our caterpillars forming its chrysalis and he’s posted a time-lapse video on YouTube. The butterflies were stealthier about emerging for the camera. There’s a link to the video on the Port Garden Club website — www.portgardenclub.org/OzGardener.htm — along with a fact sheet about the monarch butterfly’s life cycle.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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