Mother, daughters share passion for creatures that will fly to Mexico
A small milkweed patch in Deanna and Jim Rychtik’s back yard in rural Port Washington is a haven for monarch butterflies and their offspring.A MONARCH BUTTERFLY that emerged from its chrysalis was watched by Sydney and Peyton Rychtik and their mother Deanna. Photo by Sam Arendt
Deanna and the couple’s daughters Peyton, 9, and Sydney, 7, nurture tiny black-and-yellow caterpillars, some as small as 1/2 inch with their colors barely discernible. They pamper them, clean their cages three to four times a day and give them fresh milkweed leaves until they get plump and form chrysalises.
The family watches with amazement as a monarch’s wings become discernible in the clear casing. When the butterfly emerges, they can’t take their eyes off the creature as it completes its metamorphosis.
The butterfly emerges with a fat body and short wings that slowly grow and expand as fluid flows from the body into them, eventually becoming the beautiful, sleek black-and-orange creature that may travel more than 2,500 miles to Mexico for winter.
When the butterfly is ready to fly, Peyton or Sydney let it crawl on their finger and watch it fly off.
“Sometimes, the butterfly wants to stay on us and won’t get off our finger,” Peyton said.
When it leaves, they wave goodbye.
Each flight is awe inspiring, Rychtik and the girls agreed. Some butterflies linger in the area for a while and may even come back to the girls, while others soar on the wind and disappear.
Before the butterfly is released, the girls check if it’s a boy or girl. Male butterflies have a black spot on each wing.
As of Tuesday, the family had released eight female and two male monarchs.
Last year, they released 50 to 60 butterflies, but Rychtik doesn’t expect as many this year because of the cold wet spring here and cold temperatures in Mexico last winter.
This is the family’s fifth year raising monarchs, and the fascination hasn’t waned. In fact, it’s become stronger as the girls understand the process more, Rychtik said.
Peyton can recite the entire life cycle of a monarch, eagerly showing each step with the caterpillars currently sheltered in hamster cages according to size.
Sydney is adept at spotting the tiny white eggs and larvae on the underside of milkweed leaves. The family looks for eggs and caterpillars every morning from early July to mid-September until they no longer find caterpillars.
“It’s part of our morning ritual. We were out for an hour this morning and had eight caterpillars,” Rychtik said last week. “I could watch them all day. I have to tear myself away or I wouldn’t get anything done around the house.”
It all started five years ago when a fifth-grade student in Rychtik’s science class at Oostburg Middle School brought an aquarium filled with monarch chrysalises to school.
There were enough that every student in the class was able to release a butterfly hoping it would make the long journey to Mexico.
A few days later, Rychtik looked out the dining room window and saw a large caterpillar on a milkweed plant outside.
She brought it inside with a milkweed leaf.
“I knew nothing about what to do except that they ate milkweed leaves,” Rychtik said.
She contacted her student, did her own research and now has a system that results in many more butterflies emerging than if left in nature.
The Rychtiks try not to touch the caterpillars to keep the environment as natural as possible. On nice days, they take the cages outside on the porch.
When one aggressive caterpillar started attacking a new one that had been found that day, Peyton used a leaf to move the newcomer to its own cage. Those in the first cage settled down and went back to munching leaves, while the newcomer seemed perfectly content having a leaf to itself.
The cages are cleaned by removing the leaves and caterpillars and shaking the droppings into a wastebasket. The cages aren’t washed because caterpillars spin silk around the sides to make it easier to hang onto them. As they grow, they shed their skins, often hanging onto the sides of the cage, then eat the skin.
It’s fascinating to watch caterpillars munching a leave by going up and down a row, similar to how people eat corn off a cob. “If you put enough caterpillars in a cage, you can actually hear them munching,” Rychtik said.
The milkweed leaf imparts a poison that protects monarchs from predators.
The larger caterpillars consume one fresh milkweed leaf a day. The insects like leaves of young plants before the pods develop.
“I used to get up at 4 a.m. and run out and get fresh leaves, but I’ve gotten smarter,” Rychtik said. “Now, I put a couple leaves in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.”
When the caterpillar is ready to turn into a chrysalis, it hangs upside down from the top or side of the cage in a J shape, suspended by its hind legs with silk. The hind legs become the stem of the chrysalis, which Rychtik carefully moves with the silk to a rack in an aquarium.
Her husband built a scientific-looking chrysalis rack in an old aquarium.
“We once had 12 chrysalises on the rack,” Rychtik said. “It keeps them nice and separate, so it’s easier for the butterfly to emerge.”
Raising monarch butterflies is like raising kids, she said.
“You can’t just leave them for a long time. You have to take them with you or get a sitter,” Rychtik said. “We went to Wisconsin Dells last year and took them with us.”
A sister-in-law, who lives across the street, now takes care of them if necessary.
Only third and fourth generation monarchs are born in Wisconsin, Rychtik said. The fourth generation is the strongest and heads south to wintering grounds in Mexico.
There, the butterflies rest through the winter, awaken in spring, mate, then head north, usually to Texas, where they lay eggs in February or March and die. They live six to eight months compared to two to six weeks for the first three generations.
The first generation of next year’s monarchs will fly from Texas to Illinois or Iowa with the second generation arriving in Wisconsin in May and June. The third generation is born in July and August.
The monarchs that emerge in September and October will undertake the long journey, and the cycle of life continues.
Rychtik decided to raise monarchs with her daughters as a summer nature project, but it has expanded to includes friends, classmates and relatives.
In September, one-third of the chrysalises will stay at home, one-third will go to Oostburg Elementary School and one-third to Lincoln Elementary in Port Washington, where Peyton is a fourth-grader and Sydney is in second grade.
In addition, a nephew gets caterpillars and milkweed leaves from the family and raises his own monarchs in Saukville.
“Several friends are raising caterpillars now because of us,” Rychtik said.
“They will let us know if they had a boy or girl and some even e-mail pictures.”
In nature, it is estimated only one monarch per milkweed plant will survive, Rychtik said.
“We’re enjoying the fact that we’re raising them, not hurting them and giving them the opportunity to survive,” she said. “This has been one of the most rewarding things we’ve done as a family. We just love doing this.
“We get excited when the season starts, and we’re sad when it ends. When we’re releasing the last ones and there aren’t any more, we’re all sad.”