We’re getting to the point with the Engineer where we talk about environmentalism and he’s all fired up and ready to help save the world. And then, like a deflating balloon, he realizes that the polar bears live too far away and he can’t go visit the super cool trash cleaner that’s in the testing phase for cleaning up the plastic in our planet’s oceans. It’s tough when you’re young, and you think that you couldn’t possibly make a difference.
Well, this summer we’re making a difference. A small one, sure, but to the Engineer and his siblings, it’s critical. Meet the Monarch butterfly.
Did you know that the Monarch butterfly is currently in the assessment stage for Federal Endangered Species status? The Center For Biological Diversity states that:
“Scientists report that this year’s population is down by 27 percent from last year’s count, and down by more than 80 percent from the mid-1990s.”
Center For Biological Diversity, Monarch Butterfly Population Drops by Nearly One-third
Monarchs – the classic butterfly that everyone knows – are going extinct before our very eyes.
Last fall a local homeschooler asked if anyone had a source of native milkweed for their last batch of caterpillars. I checked. Our pond had some – quite a bit, actually. Because it didn’t look like the native milkweed that I grew up with I had assumed that it was a different wildflower. Cue the lightbulb – and the question: why hadn’t we seen more monarch butterflies if we had this much milkweed?
So this spring, I started casually checking. I looked during my aphid runs to see if any caterpillars were around. I didn’t see many. But I did notice how many birds chose to build their nests around the pond – right where the milkweed grew. So I looked harder. And I found a very few caterpillars.
My neighbors think I’m crazy. Every few nights I put on my nasty, muddy red rainboots and trot around the pond checking for monarch caterpillars. I’ve gotten pretty good at finding them – so good, in fact, that I realized that there are tons of them around. It’s just that most of them don’t make it to their last instar (the stage before they pupate) because they’re juicy, highly visible, and a yummy baby bird snack. Birds won’t eat the butterflies because they taste bitter, but apparently there’s no problem with the caterpillars.
Butterflies are prolific critters. One adult can lay a lot of eggs – up to 400 depending on the species. It’s a deliberate attempt to beat the odds: after all, only 1-2 caterpillars out of 100 survive to make it to adulthood. And that’s ok, assuming the species isn’t on its way to becoming extinct.
So what can you do about it?
If your kids are like mine, they want to DO something. Not just read about it, hope someone will help, and maybe throw money at the problem. My kids are very hands-on. So we’re raising monarchs this summer. If 1 adult can lay 400 eggs, then we’re going to up the odds. We’re going to help enough adults survive to lay eggs, enough eggs to keep the birds happy.
Every few days I check for caterpillars. If I find some, I bring them home to our butterfly cages out on the patio. We use those pop-up mesh cages (ours came with butterfly kits) that replicate the natural environment as closely as possible. The cats go in the cage and feast on their native milkweed, protected from predators but still in the humidity and heat that they like. Caterpillars hate air conditioning. We keep small vases in the cage to keep the milkweed fresh, and I wrap a paper towel around the stems to keep the cats from falling in.
They gorge, they roam looking for a safe place to pupate, and they form the gorgeous jade and gold pupa that’s like a glittering jewel. A week or so later, they hatch, and we release them. Time for the next batch!
The kids absolutely love releasing the butterflies. They get to (gently) hold the butterflies and marvel over them, for a few minutes at least. One that we released today flew away and landed on the Destroyer’s bedroom window. The Destroyer thought that was really cool!
Want to help too?
First, check your native milkweed. There are so many different types, and many of them look different or are different colors. We planted perennial milkweed (I asked specifically for our native variety) and the kind the local plant nursery suggested isn’t remotely like the wild variety around our pond.
Plant milkweed – if you can, plant the seeds of the local native variety. Some plant nurseries will sell the local native plants, or you might be able to find seeds from a local gardening group. If you plant your own crop and find caterpillars (oh frabjous day!) then stick a laundry basket or netting over the plants to keep the birds away.
Inspect local plants carefully to locate a few cats (and make sure you know your local laws on this!) Many butterflies will lay eggs on the flowers, and the tiniest caterpillars will hang out there. Look for caterpillar frass: little black pellets of poop on the leaves. If you see frass, then your odds of finding a caterpillar are pretty good.
Try to replicate conditions in the wild and your caterpillars will be fat and happy. Make sure you release as soon as their wings harden so that they can find food.
It might seem like a small thing, but it’s a big impact. To a kid, that’s huge. That’s life-changing, because they did something that helped. And because they’re monarchs, maybe next year we’ll see a butterfly that we raised return. Amazing, right? All the way South and back. Incredible!
My kids don’t know it, but because I posted about what we’re doing in our community group a few other parents and kids are getting involved. At least 5 other families are actively looking for caterpillars and raising them. I think that’s awesome! My muddy red rain boots sparked a conversation about conservation in our community. Now that, my friends, that is making a difference. I love it! 🙂
This post is part of the SEA Monthly Blog Hop – check out the other awesome posts here.