The Monarch Mamas
Anne Furman and Elaine Mansfield stand at the edge of Elaine’s butterfly garden, bright with helianthus and zinnias. In Elaine’s cupped hands is a newly-hatched male monarch butterfly. She gently sets him down on the cupped bloom of a zinnia. He lingers there only a moment before taking to the sky. “Find some girls!” we call after him.
But there’s a serious side to this, too. The duo raise monarch butterflies from eggs they find on milkweed plants in the wild, protecting them from nature’s hazards from the caterpillar stages until they’re adults ready to take to the skies and create more of their kind. In the wild, only one percent of the eggs laid by a female monarch survive to adulthood. She can lay as many as 500 eggs, but that means only five will make it, Elaine says. The hazards to the eggs and caterpillars are many—mostly from spiders, ants, parasitic wasps and other bugs, as well as some birds. With attention and informed care, almost 99 percent of Mansfield’s caterpillars thrive into butterfly-hood.
So each time a strong adult is released into the air, “It’s very moving,” Elaine says. “It gives me a sense of reassurance in the climate-changing world we live in. And it’s a meditation on the magical part of life.”
Discussing the current season, Anne and Elaine both note this year’s monarchs arrived unusually late. This makes them wonder when the final brood of the season will announce themselves by emerging from their cocoons subtly different from the earlier generations—though noticeable if one knows what to look for. The season’s last monarchs will be the migrators who will fly up to 3,000 miles to their winter homes in Mexico and Texas and southern California.
Anne has been raising monarchs for some time. Back when she taught kindergarten, she raised eggs into butterflies with her students. They learned responsibility, how to feed the growing caterpillars, and to keep their surroundings scrupulously clean. Even in a sheltered environment, the young caterpillars are susceptible not only to predators who sneak in on fresh milkweed leaves, but also to a fatal infection Anne calls “the black death.” Once that illness has taken hold where young monarchs are being reared, that place may no longer be used to raise them, she says.
“I’ve been lucky I haven’t had that,” Elaine says.
“Being careful is not luck,” Anne replies. Elaine studied disinfection techniques and each milkweed leaf is carefully scrutinized before being added to the environment.
While raising the caterpillars, their caretaker needs to be observantly present every day. Elaine says she gets out of bed each morning happily anticipating the changes that will have occurred overnight. Anne shares that joy. It’s a commitment that keeps them close to home during the warm season, because the young caterpillars require careful nurturing to reach maturity. It’s a little like raising children.
A few years ago, Anne was having increasing difficulty locating fresh milkweed in her semi-manicured village of Trumansburg. She began asking acquaintances whether they knew where she could find an abundant source and was connected to Elaine, who lives in rural Hector. A friendship began, and Anne became Elaine’s main monarch-mentor.
For many decades, Elaine planned her gardens to encourage butterflies, and left several acres of her farm intentionally wild, occasionally mowing walking paths. Anne suggested a different mowing schedule so succulent milkweed would thrive when the young monarchs most need it, and showed Elaine how to spot the tiny monarch eggs on the undersides of their leaves.
Each egg-containing leaf sits in a loosely-covered jar on the porch until the egg hatches, a three- to five-day process. Then a minuscule caterpillar emerges, so tiny its stripes can barely be seen. The caterpillar feasts on milkweed leaves, growing until its skin splits, a process repeated through five molts or instars. This takes ten to fourteen more days. The almost fully-grown caterpillars are transferred to a large butterfly cage with room for up to forty chrysalides (cocoons) along with a jungle-like supply of fresh milkweed for their final burst of eating.
For monarchs, the transformation happens in a way that is, to us, perhaps, unexpected. The caterpillar suddenly stops eating and attaches itself to the cage ceiling or a milkweed branch, its body forming a J-shape. The caterpillar sheds its skin for the final time, revealing the chrysalis within, celadon green with flecks of reflective metallic-looking gold.
For another mysterious week, the unseen transformation happens just out of sight. Some of the caterpillar’s organs disintegrate into a soupy mush, re-composing themselves into the body parts needed by the butterfly. Finally the chrysalis darkens, then becomes translucent, revealing the butterfly folded within. The casing splits and a crumpled adult monarch emerges. Elaine removes it to a resting cage, giving it twenty-four hours to drink zinnia nectar—the butterflies drink nectar rather than chomping on milkweed leaves—and completely unfold before release among the zinnias. “When they’re just emerged, they can’t fly well and they’re pretty defenseless,” she explains.
The first year, she released twenty butterflies back into the wild. The second year, she released about eighty. When the 2019 monarch season is over, this year’s count will be several hundred. (Anne currently raises far fewer.)
After each batch of adults hatches, cages have to be carefully disinfected, a time-consuming process involving detergent, bleach solution, and a lot of rinsing to ready them for the next generation. This time of year, Elaine and Anne are cleaning each cage for the last time. Next spring, descendants of this year’s departing monarchs will begin returning north, maybe to Hector and Trumansburg. In the meantime, keeping in touch with other monarch enthusiasts along their route, Elaine will know where her “insect children” and their descendants are.
The women feel passionately about climate change. A recent road trip offered Anne the horrifying discovery there were almost no bugs on the car’s windshield afterwards. “Insects are disappearing,” she says. She sees this as a harbinger of more dire times to come.
Can’t anything be done to turn the tide? Probably a lot of things, the women agree.
“It’s why I raise monarchs,” Elaine says.