The Mother of Monarchs

—Deborah Hackman saves Monarchs - one butterfly at a time
RIDGEWAY - Deborah Hackman raises Monarch butterflies. On the surface, that may sound like an easy thing to do, but it’s not. From hunting down teenie-tiny eggs laid on milkweed plants to releasing beautiful Monarch butterflies to fly away and live their best lives, the process is intensive and never ending … at least until butterfly season is over.
It all starts in early June, when milkweed plants are large enough to serve as butterfly nurseries for football shaped, iridescent eggs the size of a pinpoint. Monarch butterfly caterpillars will only eat milkweed leaves, so laying mothers must find the right plant to lay their tiny egg on before leaving it to its own devices: larder stocked, but absentee mother from the get-go.
They are on their own.
But in Hackman’s world, this is where her mothering duties begin. She inspects her milkweed plants daily to try and catch as many unhatched eggs as possible. When she finds one, she clips the portion of leaf where the egg resides and brings it inside, where it goes into a small condiment cup. Once the egg hatches, the leaf segment and caterpillar move to a larger condiment cup to grow.
Why individual condiment cups for each caterpillar? To keep them separate, in case there’s something wrong with one of them. For instance, there is a common butterfly parasite called OE that can be carried by the parent, on their wings. There’s also a bacterial infection called “The Black Death” that, well, turns the caterpillars black, and they die. 
Butterfly-specific maladies of this sort are why Hackman keeps young caterpillars in their own separate cups, a precaution that is particularly important when she finds caterpillars on her milkweed plants that have evaded rescue as an egg. Monarch caterpillars at the earliest stage of life are little larger than a single grain of rice, and as new hatchlings, they are exposed to many different things that can transfer from one caterpillar to another. 
“I try to get the eggs,” Hackman said, “because that way, there’s less chance of predators, less chance of diseases, less chance of parasites  … any number of things.” Which is why, without knowing for certain what caterpillars hatched outside have been exposed to, the isolation wards of condiment cups are so important. They limit the potential for a single exposed individual to wipe out an entire generation.
Monarch butterfly caterpillars molt five times during their lives. By the time they reach the final stage of caterpillar, they’ve grown up to 2,000% of their original size and are safe to be combined into what Hackman calls a caterpillar condo. 
Proving out the old adage that necessity is the mother of invention, Hackman had to get a little creative at this point in her charges’ journey. The butterfly huts that are commercially available are quite expensive, and Hackman required several of them to raise the number of butterflies she raises each year. To save on expenses, she began using pop-up laundry hampers from Wal-Mart. They work remarkably well at a fraction of the cost, but the weave is a little coarser than commercial huts, so she keeps the condos inside to make sure no predatory bugs can reach her charges in their late caterpillar and chrysalis stages. 
“They usually take over my spare bedroom,” Hackman says. “Or sometimes, my living room.”
It’s not unusual for Hackman to be caring for up to 400 caterpillars at a time. They need constant monitoring and/or attention at every stage of development to make sure they have what they need and their milkweed leaves stay fresh, among other things. With the older caterpillars, each condo has to be cleaned every day because, according to Hackman, “When they get this size, they are eating and pooping machines.”
“Sometimes it gets a little overwhelming,” she admits. “It’s pretty much every day. If I’ve got 400 caterpillars, I’ve got to deal with most of the 400 caterpillars each day.”
Once the caterpillars mature, they spin a small, sticky pad to attach themselves to the ceiling of the condo, then hang from that pad in the shape of a J. When they are ready to form a chrysalis, their antennas get wrinkled up and are no longer “perky.” At that time, they begin to wriggle around inside their skin until it splits.
“They shed their skin,” Hackman explained, “and there’s this soft, gooshy-looking wiggly thing, and it just hardens. That [chrysalis] shell hardens from that.”
It takes from 10 days to two weeks for the in-chrysalis metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly to occur. When they’re ready, the newly-formed butterflies push their way out of the chrysalis, and all the fluid in the chrysalis will pump into the wings to get them unfolded. This is called “eclosing.”
Once the butterflies eclose, Hackman keeps them in the condo for at least four more hours before release. “I want the wings dry,” she said. And there are other condition requirements, too. “If it’s under 60 degrees, they don’t fly. If it’s raining, they don’t fly. And if it’s less than an hour before sunset, they don’t fly.” In all those instances, Hackman will keep the butterflies in their condos until more butterfly-friendly circumstances prevail.
So what inspires someone to devote this kind of time and effort to raising butterflies for release? For Hackman, it was an experience with a single caterpillar. 
Several years ago, she found a caterpillar and thought she was going to see it metamorphose into a butterfly. She waited patiently for the full 10 days of the chrysalis stage only to find a tachinid fly had laid eggs on the chrysalis, and the fly larvae had eaten the caterpillar inside.
Hackman was deeply disappointed. She was so disappointed, in fact, that this incident became her motivation to start bringing eggs and caterpillars inside to protect them from similar fates. Once inside, she started doing research and found out how endangered Monarch butterflies are.
“Right now, they [Monarch butterflies] are on the endangered list,” Hackman said. She’s doing everything in her power to change that status, one striped caterpillar at a time.
And her batting stats are pretty darn good. In nature, only about 10% of Monarch butterfly eggs make it to maturity. Hackman’s average runs from 75% to 90%, depending on the year. 
“The first year, I think I released around 40,” Hackman said. “The next year was around 200. My big year was 440. And then the year after that, there was something going on, and I lost about half of my caterpillars and only released around 200. Last year was closer to 400. This year, I’ve released 175 so far.”
She blames her lower number this year on a long, cold spring. “My season started a good three or four weeks late,” she said. “My first butterfly I saw this year, I didn’t have milkweed that was tall enough, so I’m like, ‘You need to go back south, there’s nothing for you to lay eggs on!’”
And it’s not just her. An online group she belongs to is usually hundreds of butterfly releases ahead of her, but they are experiencing the same thing. A cold spring and dwindling numbers of the butterflies themselves seem to be the culprits behind these diminishing returns.
And butterfly season is limited. The first eggs start showing up in June, and the last viable eggs are usually laid around the end of August. You want the butterflies gone by early October, at the latest, and it’s a good month from egg to butterfly.
Attendant to that timeline, an interesting fact about Monarchs is that the last eggs of the season will develop into what is called a “Super Monarch.”
“A regular Monarch will only live 3-6 weeks,” Hackman said. “Their business is to mate, lay eggs and die. But the last ones that come out in late August into very early October are usually bigger, and they are going to attempt to fly to Mexico. They will stay the whole time down in Mexico while we have winter, then start to fly back. They will only fly as far as the southern United States and start the process again. So the ones that come up here are probably the grandbabies of the ones that flew out of here.”
The process of being the mother of Monarchs has changed Hackman over the years. When she first started gathering eggs and small caterpillars to raise, she wore her heart on her sleeve. “Any time I’d lose a caterpillar I’d just about be in tears,” she admitted. “And … okay I would be in tears. And if I lost a butterfly, I was almost inconsolable. But now,” she says, “it’s just, eh, it’s nature. I can’t dwell on it. I’m doing the best I can.”
And the best she can includes efforts to raise awareness of the Monarch butterfly’s endangered status. She shows her butterfly releases on Facebook Live and harvests the seeds of her milkweed plants to pass on to others to help build their own butterfly sanctuaries. 
The most important thing to know, she said, is that we must not get rid of the milkweed. A lot of farmers spray for these plants and the pesticide kills the caterpillars who eat it, so backyard patches are all that much more important. 
Hackman has her own milkweed patch planted in one corner of her yard. She also plants different kinds of flowers to be nectar sources for the grown butterflies and other pollinators like bees. 
While milkweed is the only thing Monarch caterpillars can eat, once eclosed, the butterflies eat any kind of nectar from pretty much any flower. They also eat nectar-like substances like honey water or sugar water. They even like melon and grapes, which is what Hackman feeds the butterflies if she needs to hold onto them for a couple of days before release because it’s rainy or too cold. 
In addition to the common milkweed patch, Hackman is experimenting with swamp milkweed, which has a prettier flower than common milkweed but isn’t hardy enough to survive Iowa winters. Even so, the butterflies seem to like it. Last year, she had 20 eggs from 120 common milkweed plants but had 17 eggs, in the same time period, on just two swamp milkweed plants. 
For other kinds of milkweeds that won’t come up year after year because they don’t survive the winter, she’s thinking about starting the milkweed seeds inside, then transplanting them to the yard just like you would tomatoes. 
On the other end of the scale, some people spread these important plants by taking balls of mud, putting a bunch of common milkweed seeds in them, letting them dry out and throwing them into ditches.
As for why Hackman, herself, goes to such great lengths to help preserve the endangered Monarch butterflies, she said, “It’s the only thing I can do. I mean, I’m not a doctor or a nurse. I can’t help people that way. But we need the pollinators, or we’re not going to have food for us. And it’s a beautiful animal. I don’t want it to go.”

Cresco Times

Phone: 563-547-3601
Fax: 563-547-4602

Cresco TPD
214 N. Elm Street
Cresco, IA 52136

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