Some people raise dogs or cats for their cuddly companionship. Others opt for fuss-free fish. Carol Stokes and Lori Beilke choose to mother monarchs.
Though butterflies are not as loyal as traditional pets, nor are their demands as simple as fish, their love for the insects prompts the women to raise them summer after summer.
Beilke’s been raising the butterflies since she was 7 years old, while Stokes started only a couple of years ago, the (Manitowoc) Herald Times Reporter reported.
Stokes took interest after her sister received a librarian’s grant to open a butterfly garden.
“And then it became an obsession,” she laughed. “I call myself a monarch midwife.”
Up went more than 20 butterfly cages in her sunroom. Out went part of her lawn, which she replaced with a butterfly garden and milkweed plants.
Milkweed is all a monarch needs for sustenance; monarchs lay their eggs on the plant and it’s the only food the larva can eat.
The caterpillar stage is most taxing on Beilke, who checks on her bugs up to four times a day as they munch through leaf after leaf of milkweed.
“The (caterpillars) are at your mercy,” Beilke explained.
Over a period of nine to 14 days, the insects increase their body mass almost 2,000 times as it grows, shedding its skin five times to allow for this rapid increase in size, said Karen Oberhauser, a butterfly biologist at the University of Minnesota.
Once they pupate and become a chrysalis - that’s science speak for cocoon — the women wait another nine to 14 days for the butterfly to emerge. After letting their iconic orange and black wings dry for a couple of hours, the ladies release them into the wild.
Stokes transfers the monarchs from their cage to her finger and onto a flower.
“Use your legs,” she instructed them during the release.
Most monarchs only live for a couple of weeks before mating and dying. The last generation, born in late August, gets to live for seven to nine months but forfeits mating in order to migrate to Mexico. The butterflies fly back north in the spring, where they mate and die.
“It’s amazing to watch all the different stages of life and know you helped them along,” Stokes said.
Despite the women’s efforts, monarchs are in steep decline across the nation, a disturbing trend that’s persisted for much of the past decade, said Oberhauser.
She attributes this drop primarily to habitat loss, which includes the wintering sites in Mexico but also the mating region, which spans from the East Coast through the Corn Belt.
Farmers spraying pesticides to eradicate weeds have simultaneously eliminated a majority of milkweed plants. Illegal logging in Mexico also contributed to the plummeting numbers.
Still, some experts dispute that the monarch populations are declining at all.
“It’s a difference of opinion on how to interpret the data on hand,” said Andrew Davis, an assistant research scientist at the University of Georgia. “The lower numbers are mostly at sites in Mexico, which is only one of the stages of a monarch’s life cycle.”
He went on to say he has noticed an increased number of monarchs sited at coastal states throughout the winter, which suggests the monarchs are simply adjusting to the temperature change and making a shorter migration.
“It’s not good or bad,” he said. “It just is. Monarchs are adapting to a changing environment.”
No matter how the data is deciphered, there are still many questions about this critter with a brain the size of a pinhead. Their months-long migration makes it one of the most beloved insects.
“I would hate to think that someday there wouldn’t be monarchs,” Stokes said.
While Oberhauser said it is unlikely the species will become extinct, the conservation work done by private citizens is boosting butterfly numbers.
Stokes released only 35 monarchs last summer, but this summer is already up to 133 with another month to go. Beilke usually raises up to 600 monarchs each summer. Despite the amount of work the job entails, both said they will be back at it next summer.
“The last release of the summer is always a relief because I know I’ll get a break,” Stokes said. “But it’s also sad because I know I won’t see them again till next spring.”
Published as an AP Member Exchange.