While many believe monarch butterflies play only a minor role in nature, Jones Park volunteer Christina McKinney has a different perspective. With more than 325 flitting around her home, butterflies often take center stage.
Christina began her foray into the butterfly world in May 2016 after volunteering at a garden with her three children. While weeding the flowerbeds, they noticed tiny white dots on many of the plants.
“They had a whole slew of these little monarch eggs everywhere, and we asked if we could raise a couple of them,” she said. “We started with just two and we thought ‘Oh, its summer! This’ll be fun!’ But it was a starting point to a very big undertaking.”
After taking the eggs home, Christina converted her bathroom into a caterpillar nursery. By December, Christina and her children had raised 277 monarch butterflies!
With that many mouths to feed, Christina needed a reliable food source that could sustain hungry caterpillars. Christina planted a variety of milkweed that thrives in the gulf coast region known as tropical milkweed. Soon it matured and attracted new monarchs to her yard. “Now most of the butterflies I raise hatch in my front yard in my flower bed,” she said.
Christina learned the hard way that you need one mature plant for every caterpillar. Three times a day every day for four months, she harvested milkweed leaves to feed the voracious caterpillars that would eventually become the adult butterflies that she and her children would release into the wild. At the same time, she replaced the paper-towel liners of their indoor homes, an essential task. Caterpillar excrement has its very own name, frass, and caterpillars produces a lot of it.
So many leaves were eaten that the milkweed plants in her garden were bare of leaves long before the caterpillars were ready to begin their transformation into chrysalises.
Thankfully, the food shortage occurred at a point in the migration cycle when her fellow monarch enthusiasts up north had already released their charges, so they had an abundance of milkweed to share.
“There are emergency substitution foods, but you shouldn’t use those unless you have to. As you can imagine with over 200 caterpillars, I ran out of milkweed fast! I have fifty some odd plants in my yard and it was not enough. So, I substituted some organic butternut squash and cucumber.”
In the meantime, she contacted her monarch group on Facebook, The Beautiful Monarch, and soon packages of milkweed leaves
began arriving in the mail!
“The leaves are good for two days without refrigeration and you can store them in the refrigerator for about two weeks. The caterpillars wouldn’t have survived without the help of that group. It gave my plants time to bounce back, so that when 20 or 30 more caterpillars hatched, my plants were able to sustain them.”
Now, Christina has taken her love of butterflies to the next level. She is assisting with the development of a five-acre butterfly garden at Jesse H. Jones Park to help repopulate the area’s dwindling butterfly population.
“If we lose our pollinators, that’s a huge hit to nature,” she said. “Only one to five percent of monarchs survive in the wild. When you bring them indoors, 80 to 85 percent survive. I’m proud that I can make such a big difference. I can’t raise bees in my neighborhood, but I can have baby monarch caterpillars in my bathtub.”
You Don’t Have to Give up Your Bathroom to Help!
• Join The Beautiful Monarch on Facebook.
• Plant milkweed, and let nature do the rest. Adults lay eggs on the plant and caterpillars feed on them. Prune milkweed regularly to control spores, which can cause problems with the butterflies’ wings.
• Protect caterpillars from predators by putting mesh over the plants.
• Plant nectar plants for the adult butterflies to feed on.
• Butterflies enjoy orange halves, grapes, mashed up over-ripe bananas, and cotton balls soaked in clear juice or Gatorade.
• Limit pesticide use, and only use natural varieties.
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