In Iowa: New hope for the monarch takes flight

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The pleasure afforded by the shade of the giant bur oak overhanging my garden is more than doubled these days by the flitting of monarch butterflies.

As they flutter from milkweed to corn tassel to oak leaf, seeming to leave orange and black contrails in their wake, they heighten nature’s beauty while distracting a shade-seeking gardener from unpulled weeds and unmown grass.

To look at my garden, with as many as a half dozen monarchs fluttering about at any given moment, you would not suspect the monarch butterfly is fighting an uphill battle to survive.

They are the offspring of four male and four female monarchs that honeymooned in June inside a 6-by-6-foot plastic tent situated over blooming milkweed, the only plant upon which monarchs will lay their eggs, the only plant its larvae will eat.

The Cedar Rapids-based Monarch Research project, which is dedicated to helping stem the monarchs’ two-decades-long decline, provided the brood stock to dozens of designated Monarch Zones, including the one managed by my wife, Corinne, and me.

On June 16, we put the butterflies in the tent over blooming common milkweed, and we released them June 23.

My regular welfare checks during their week in the tent occasionally had to be cut short to maintain the privacy of pairs observed (with at least a modicum of scientific detachment) in flagrante delicto.

By the end of the first full week of July, fat caterpillars had defoliated much of the milkweed within the tent and were approaching the stage, just before the formation of their chrysalises, when they would be most vulnerable to predation by the dreaded chalcid wasp — a fiend that wrecked our first attempt to raise monarchs two years ago.

Because the 6-by-6 tent was far from bio-secure, we rounded up the caterpillars and transferred them to a pair of much smaller but bug-proof finishing tents filled with cut milkweed to meet their nourishment needs.

Within 24 hours, most of the caterpillars had crawled to the tops of the tents and transformed themselves into beautiful green and gold chrysalises, after filling the bottoms of the tents with their droppings.

Like Bess Truman, who had trouble getting her husband to use the word “manure,” I’ve been unable to get my wife to call the green pellets “frass.”

The first butterfly emerged July 21, followed by 18 the second day and 51 the third day.

By July 28, when the last chrysalis opened, we had released 160 healthy butterflies, with only three casualties — one dead butterfly, one dead caterpillar and one bad chrysalis.

The fun of raising and releasing them has been equaled, if not exceeded, by the fun of being able to see one or more almost wherever and whenever I care to look.

With many remaining in the neighborhood, frequently visiting our several patches of milkweed, we hope for a second boost to the monarch population later this month.

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