Over the past 22 years, one of nature’s pollinators, the monarch butterfly, has seen its population decline by at least 68 percent, according to the Center of Biological Diversity.
The problem is such that some of the world’s biggest corporations, such as Monsanto, DuPont and Bayer, have put aside competition to take part in various conservation efforts, as herbicides have been pegged as one factor in the decline, alongside weather events and habitat loss.
Additionally, 18 states, including Ohio, are working together to finalize a 20-year plan, the Mid-America Monarch Conservation Strategy, which features cooperation between multiple levels of government across states, as well as private entities, to help bolster the monarch population through milkweed planting (the species’ all-around favorite plant for food and egg laying), tracking butterfly numbers and increasing floral diversity.
And increasingly, individuals are taking it upon themselves to help bolster their numbers.
Recently, Bryan City Schools planted its own butterfly garden through teacher Amy Von Deylen. And three years ago, Bryan’s Heather Johnson started keeping them at her residence after her daughter brought an idea home from school.
Since then, she’s raised and set free 125 butterflies from her home, with the help of her daughter, husband and dad.
“We had a couple milkweed plants in our garden, so that’s kind of what started us off,” said Johnson.
What she found was a close-up display of nature at work.
“It was kind of a neat thing to watch them go from an egg to a caterpillar to the chrysalis to the butterfly, just to watch them just completely change,” she said.
According to Johnson, it’s a long but fascinating process.
“It’s just neat to watch them do their thing in the cage, crawl up to the top. They will form a J when they’re about ready. This sounds weird, but they rip their skin off,” said Johnson.
“They’ll hang in a J for about a day, then you’ll see their antennae go straight and all of a sudden they will start to rip their skin off, wiggle it to the top of their body, it falls off and you’re left with this green blob-like thing. It will harden in a day and that’s the chrysalis.”
Currently, Johnson has about 40 monarchs in the chrysalis stage and 30 caterpillars, including eight she let go on Friday, and eight the morning before, to go off, mate and lay more eggs.
“When they go from an egg to a caterpillar, that usually takes three days, from a caterpillar to chrysalis takes about 10, they’re in their chrysalis from 10 to 14 days, then they’ll emerge as a butterfly,” she said.
“They come out very odd shaped. Their wings are completely crumpled up and then they have a really huge butt,” she said. “All their blood is in their butt and it takes them about a day to push it into their wings and puff their wings out and get them dry. Usually about a day after they hatch, we release them.”
But Johnson says you’ll have to keep an eye on them if you want to catch specific parts of the magic.
“It’s the weirdest thing. They will change in a split second, so it’s very hard to catch them do that or pop out of the chrysalis,” she said. “They do it so quick you’ll turn around and there will be 10 butterflies in the cage.”
It should be noted that various scientists recommend against rearing too many butterflies at once due to the possibility of disease spread, but any amount below 100 at a time (mass rearing) is largely safe so long as equipment is kept clean seasonally.
And the species needs all the help it can get.
“I know they’re having issues with them lately. The population is declining big time due to pollution, pesticides, things like that,” said Johnson. “So it’s neat to be able to release them and see where they go.”
Through the Monarch Watch organization, butterflies can be tagged and monitored as they make their massive migrations to Mexico in the fall and Canada in the summer. The organization also provides great tips for beginners.
And being part of the epic life of an insect frequently petitioned to be the national insect of the U.S. is fairly user-friendly, with no real barrier to entry.
“The workload is not too bad, the work is going and finding them,” said Johnson.
Johnson says all you’ve got to do is look for the most valuable plant to the monarch, milkweed.
“Pretty much every three days you’ll go out and you either have to find the eggs or the caterpillars, snip them off and take them back,” she said.
Johnson keeps her butterflies in a five-and-a-half-foot-tall, four-by-four enclosure with mesh doors, though she says even that isn’t necessary, as even a mesh hamper will do, which is how she and her family got started.
“As long as they have a couple fresh milkweed leaves a day, that’s all they need they don’t even need water. They need nothing but the milkweed, that’s all they do,” said Johnson. “That’s the only type of plant they’ll lay their eggs and survive on, they won’t do anything else.
“It’s super educational for kids and doesn’t really cost you anything,”
Butterfly populations will frequently return to the same patches to lay eggs, she said, except where pesticides have taken hold.
“You can find milkweed all over the county in the ditches,” she said. “Look for little tiny holes, if you flip the leaf over there will be little tiny caterpillars on the bottom.”
The first monarchs can be found at the end of June and early July, increasing in prevalence throughout the summer.
With any luck and well-intentioned help from those like Johnson, governments, corporations and local iterations of programs like the Ohio Pollinator Habitat Initiative (which has collected more than 5,000 gallons of common milkweed seed pods, totaling over 22 million seeds through volunteers), the population will stabilize with time.
In 2017, ODOT told Williams County Commissioners it would plant 24 acres of wildflowers and milkweed along roadways that year
“The goal is to help get the monarchs back to what they do,” Johnson said. “It’s very important. They’re pollinators, without them you don’t end up with a garden, flowers, food, anything like that.”