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In Iowa: The monarch hall of fame

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A year ago in this space, I recounted my first year’s disappointing experience with milkweed and monarch butterflies, and expressed the hope that I would learn from it and do better this year.

Well, with the guidance of my mentors at the Monarch Research Project and the assistance of my wife, Corinne, who approaches the rearing of butterflies with a mother’s gentle touch and concern, I have.

Having established since last year hundreds of milkweeds — the only plant on which the female butterfly will lay her eggs, the only plant its larva will eat — we have been well situated to observe these vulnerable creatures’ uphill battle to survive.

It seems like they do everything the hard way, starting with their utter dependence on a plant rapidly losing ground to modern farming techniques and extending to their almost preposterously complicated migrations and to an environment so fraught with predators and parasites that only a few out of 100 monarch eggs ever become butterflies.

Even their mating ritual, which should be a respite from peril and stress, involves the male flying around for several hours while connected with the female — a feat that rivals their uncanny migration to Mexico and trivializes the condition so savvily cautioned against in Cialis commercials.

For us, the season started dismally with the failure of a patch of milkweed that was to have been the foundation of our 2016 production.

As one of more than 60 monarch zones established by the Cedar Rapids-based Monarch Research Project, we received more than 100 half-grown potted milkweed plugs, which I painstakingly planted in a bed that I had begun preparing the previous fall.

I planted each plug through a little hole I cut in landscape fabric, which was to have been the floor of a six-by-six-foot tent intended to protect caterpillars from predators as they developed into chrysalises and then into butterflies.

The milkweed plants looked beautiful before the rabbits devoured them. Though a simple chicken wire fence would have foiled the rabbits and saved the milkweed, I — having grown two large milkweed patches with no rabbit issues — did not suspect the problem until it was too late.

As luck would have it, however, a big patch of milkweed started from seed last November had grown sufficiently by July to serve as the food source for our tent.

On July 9, we placed the six-by-six tent over a dense patch of from-seed milkweed and placed into it 18 tiny caterpillars that had been certified free of Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a parasite causing monarch mortality.

The caterpillars disappeared into the milkweed and were seldom seen until they began climbing the tallest milkweed plants and forming their chrysalises, of which we counted eight.

I was hoping for more but would have been content with eight released butterflies. As it turned out however, many of the caterpillars formed chrysalises where we could not see them.

We released the first two butterflies on July 25 and then four more on the morning of the 27th and four more later that same day, bringing our total to 10.

As our neighbors — who are no doubt tired of hearing about caterpillars, pupas and butterflies — will attest, we were ecstatic.

The following week butterflies appeared so regularly that I joked someone was sneaking in at night and placing butterflies in our tent. By the first of August, the 18 tiny caterpillars provided by the Monarch Research Project had yielded 17 released butterflies — a 94.4 percent success rate that we were sure put us on course for eventual induction into the monarch rearers hall of fame.

Meanwhile, also in the latter half of July, monarchs began to appear regularly around the milkweed plantation we started from plugs last year, and soon it was crawling with wild caterpillars. As they had not been tested for the OE parasite, we put 43 of them into a separate four-by-four-foot tent next to our bigger one, over an adjacent patch of milkweeds raised from seed planted in November.

By the end of July, during the release frenzy from the big tent, the caterpillars in the little tent began turning into chrysalises, and by early last week they began coming out as butterflies.

On Tuesday, as we were releasing the third, fourth and fifth butterflies from the little tent, I noticed a monarch hovering near the mesh door of the big tent, which had been inactive for several days.

When I walked over to discover the attraction, there, inside the big tent, above stalks of blooming swamp milkweed, fluttered another butterfly.

Hello, number 18.

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