Back in early spring of 2008, my next-door neighbor Mikel decided to convert her grass-covered boulevard into a native prairie garden. It sounded like a wonderful idea, so I joined her, converting one section of my boulevard as well. The large bed included a number of Wisconsin native plants: Purple Coneflower, Alum Root, Prairie Smoke, Wild Petunia, Purple Prairie Clover, Big Blue Stem, Little Blue Stem, Side-oats Grama, Common Milkweed, and Butterfly Weed, among others.
Over the summer, we had fun discussing the successes and challenges of the different plants. One day she called me over to see the huge monarch caterpillars tromping all over the garden. I grabbed my camera and asked them to say ‘Cheese’! Mikel and I wished them well and left them alone.
In the years that followed, Mikel and I continued to look for the giant monarch caterpillars in our garden, but never found any. Then, Mikel began volunteering at Beaver Creek Reserve in the Butterfly House. She helped take care of their monarch caterpillars from time to time.
One day in early August 2014, Mikel arrived home from volunteering. We chatted for a while; then, I inquired about the monarch eggs and caterpillars.
How do you go about finding the eggs? What do they look like? Isn’t it terribly difficult to find them? How do you ‘raise’ them once you’ve found them? What does a small monarch caterpillar look like? How long do they eat?
We walked over to the common milkweed in our boulevard garden and began searching. It took only a few minutes to find a single, beautiful, super-tiny, soft-yellow/green egg. Before long, with very little effort, we’d found seven!
I asked Mikel what should be done to protect the eggs, and she gave me a quick lesson. (1) Find a clean ice cream bucket and lid. (2) Trim out the center of the lid. (3) Get a piece of screen to cover the bucket. (4) Break off the milkweed leaves and put them in the bucket. I got four eggs; Mikel got three. We searched for other eggs over the next two weeks. Before summer ended, we’d each raised 10 monarch butterflies.
That summer, I didn’t take notes. I didn’t tag any butterflies. I didn’t ‘invent’ or create special habitats. But, I did find some awesome monarch butterfly websites, read lots of printed articles and books, and ask lots of questions. I was amazed at my level of learning in such a brief period of time.
I loved watching those first eggs develop and change. I studied the caterpillars at every stage. The chrysalis stage provided unexplainable wonders. I tried not to blink as each butterfly emerged! Luckily, I took some cool photos along the way.
In mid-August, I knew that I was hooked when I watched the newly-emerged monarchs fly, heading to Mexico. Mikel and I had raised migratory monarchs that would live through the winter and return to Texas and Oklahoma in the spring to mate, lay eggs, and die. Their offspring would return to the Midwest to our milkweed plants to continue the cycle.
Although Wisconsin winters can be very long, knowing that there would be new eggs and larvae made the wait tolerable. Well, not really . . . it was torture.