NASA retirees create launching pad for monarch butterflies
It started so simply: About four years ago, someone had a few caterpillars and was willing to share them with Larry Kenyon. Today, Kenyon and his wife, Nancy Garrick, have successfully launched more than 1,000 monarchs in their yard during fall annual migrating seasons.
“We had not planned on this growing so much, but it just evolved,” Garrick said. “We love watching them grow and feed and then become butterflies and leave.”
The couple, both NASA retirees who moved to the Clear Lake area 20 years ago from Boston, set up part of their Bay Oaks yard and kitchen to allow the monarchs, swallowtails, great swallowtails and queen butterflies to safely feed and then curl themselves up into their green chrysalises before emerging a few weeks later as delicate butterflies.
Garrick wanted to protect the eggs and caterpillars from wasps and lizards in their garden. She purchased several collapsible white nylon mesh cages, put the potted Mexican or tropical milkweed plants in and started collecting tiny eggs, caterpillars and even some chrysalises or cocoons and placed them on tables in front of the couple’s kitchen window. By doing this, they could watch the caterpillars devour the leafy milkweed plants. Garrick would continuously replace the plants with ones that had more leaves.
To further protect the changing chrysalises, she moved them into plastic shoeboxes when their pale green protective casing was complete, attached them to the inside top of the box and then waited about 10 days for the butterflies to slowly emerge from their “skin.”
“It is so exciting to watch,” Garrick said. “What a party they have inside the cage: food, water, hanging on the leaves, walking around. It has its own ecosystem inside.”
Before they bought the mesh cages, Garrick and Kenyon would find chrysalises adhered to all sorts of places inside the house: under the counter, hanging on the rung of a chair, dangling from a window pane or from the bottom moulding on the kitchen island. Now, the critters are contained in the window cages and released once they develop into butterflies. The chrysalises feel slick — almost greasy — are extremely resilient and are decorated with a tiny golden band around the middle, Kenyon said. Although the couple has two dogs and a cat, none of the animals harmed the tiny crawlers.
To ensure the health and safety of the insects, the couple routinely wash their hands before handling any of the plants or caterpillars. They also clean out and disinfect the cages to prevent the transmission of any germs or bacteria. And they try to separate the little caterpillars from the larger ones so they don’t get stepped on or eaten.
“These caterpillars are eating machines,” Garrick said. “They consume everything in their path.”
During the annual migration period, Garrick usually finds 10 or more chrysalises a day, she said. But on a recent morning, 23 butterflies appeared overnight and were released once their wings were dried. She has had as many as 70 chrysalises hanging at once.
“They are very docile, but I think they want to get out of here,” she said. “I watch them take off — they sometimes smash into the magnolia tree or the wisteria and then they are gone.”
The couple doesn’t use chemical sprays or treatments in their garden that would be harmful to the eggs, caterpillars or butterflies. Garrick and Kenyon keep growing and propagating the milkweed as the primary food source for the picky eaters. They also provide host nectar plants such as salvia or zinnia for the monarchs, and herbs such as dill, fennel, rue or parsley for the swallowtails, they said.
“This is a lot of work and we have to have someone here when we go on vacation,” Garrick said. “You can’t do it halfway because they will starve. You have to keep up the food source to keep it going.”
Food for thought
Monarch butterflies feed on tropical milkweed, the leggy-looking plant with tiny red/orange/yellow flowers. One caterpillar can devour a 4-foot-high plant in a day. However, it’s recommended gardeners prune back all the milkweed by mid-October to about 6 inches in height to discourage the butterflies from establishing local winter breeding colonies. Cutting back the milkweed also eliminates spores of Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a parasite that infects butterflies and caterpillars. The spores can be deadly for monarchs, said Barbara Willy, with Monarch Gateway, a statewide educational monarch and pollinator organization.