Outdoors

A monarch's journey is worth sharing

Wildside column: From caterpillar to beautiful butterfly

A monarch butterfly extracts nectar from a swamp milkweed blossom on Tuesday in Orlan Love's Quasqueton garden. (Orlan L
A monarch butterfly extracts nectar from a swamp milkweed blossom on Tuesday in Orlan Love’s Quasqueton garden. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
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Monarch butterflies are back, beautifying the neighborhood and providing welcome relief from pandemic angst and boredom.

The early arrivals visited my milkweed the first week of June. We suspected them of laying eggs and confirmed it a week later when we noticed holes in some of the milkweed leaves.

With contributions from two neighbors, we eventually collected 30 fat caterpillars and placed them in protective custody within a small finishing tent stocked with cut milkweed.

Within two days they had devoured most of the milkweed leaves and began inching their way to the top of the tent, there to complete their miraculous transformation from “worm” (as one neighbor calls them) to jewel-like chrysalis.

The first two butterflies emerged June 23, followed by 28 more in the next four days.

Our grandchildren — Michael Love, 8, and Lanni Love, 3, of Ames — helped with their release and joined us in wishing them well during the six-week butterfly phase of their life cycle.

Many of them have stayed in the neighborhood, extracting flower nectar, engaging in aerial mating, laying more eggs and providing visual interest to shade-sitting spectators.

Shortly after their departure, as one of more than 185 Monarch Zones affiliated with the Marion-based Monarch Research Project, we erected our 6-foot-by-6-foot monarch rearing tent and positioned it over a dense stand of about 30 3-foot-tall swamp milkweed plants.

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Into it we placed an estimated 75 monarch caterpillars picked up June 29 at the Monarch Research Station in Marion.

Just days removed from their eggs, they were too small to count, barely big enough to see, and at that point it seemed they would never make a dent in the forest of foliage at their disposal.

Yet by Wednesday, nine days later, the exponentially larger caterpillars, after at least three skin sheddings, had largely defoliated the milkweed and were crawling toward the top of the tent, where three precocious ones had already completed their transformation to chrysalises.

In another 10 to 14 days, they will be flying wild and we will know for sure the number of caterpillars since released butterflies are easy to count.

As part of its mission to expand native pollinator habitat and reestablish the monarch population in Linn County, the Monarch Research Project had distributed about 7,000 monarch eggs and caterpillars as of Wednesday, according to Mike Martin, who manages the research station.

In their protected biotent environment, a high percentage will attain adulthood and be released as butterflies, with each female capable of laying from 300 to 500 eggs. The “one and done” release program is calculated to maximize the generation of monarchs that will make the 2,000-mile fall migration to wintering grounds in Mexico.

As a monarch zone for the past five years, my wife Corinne and I have released hundreds of monarchs, many of which would not otherwise have lived to reproduce.

We feel good about contributing in our own small way to the Monarch Research Project’s worthy goals. But the bigger reward is the hands-on sharing of the monarchs’ story with our grandchildren (and anyone else I can get to listen) and just enjoying the presence of the lovely, graceful insects for most of the summer.

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