I’ve done owl releases, fox releases, turkey releases, and even mink releases, but the other day I was present for something a lot smaller, but just as special: a butterfly release.
My adventure began when I met with Jennifer Ballantine and her mother Sandy. The two have been raising monarch butterflies for about four years, ever since they noticed how a milkweed plant in their garden attracted the beautiful orange-winged insects. Since that first observation they have been a part of the release of over 500 monarchs. Librarian Kelly Scott was a great butterfly mentor.
Jennifer says the process begins by discovering eggs on milkweed leaves. The eggs are kept safe by removing the leaf from the plant and either putting it in water or wrapping the end of the leaf with paper towel and tin foil. Removing the leaves allows Jennifer and Sandy to keep the eggs safe from weather and predators.
When the eggs hatch, tiny caterpillars emerge. They are kept safe in plastic containers covered with cling wrap and a few air holes. As long as they keep adding milkweed leaves for food, Jennifer says the caterpillars should thrive.
After two weeks, when the caterpillars are about two inches long, they are put into individual containers with several sticks. When they are ready, they will make a cotton lump on the roof of the lid that they will then attach their hind legs to, hanging down and creating a ‘J’ with their body. Over the next 24 hours they will stay there and slowly build their cocoon.
After about two weeks, if you look carefully, the butterfly’s little orange wings will be visible through the translucent cocoon. A little while after that the cocoon will hatch, the little butterfly will come out, dry and stretch its folded wings, and be almost ready for the world. Jennifer and Sandy usually place the butterflies on a flower at this point, giving the monarchs the chance for an easy meal before they beat their wings and fly away for the first time.
When I asked her what the most rewarding part of what she does is, she told me that it was watching them build their strength after emerging from the cocoon and then flying away. Knowing that they have survived and will attempt the flight south to Mexico to continue the next generation of monarchs feels amazing.
The monarch voyage is full of danger, as only one out of 100 will survive in the wild. Ensuring that even just a handful more of the butterflies will make it to Mexico is a big accomplishment. The efforts of people like Jennifer and her mother may become crucial one day to saving and supporting a species whose long-term survival is in doubt.
If you’d like to help the monarch butterfly population, the first step is putting a few milkweed plants in your garden and seeing if you can attract these beautiful little creatures. I want to thank Jennifer, Sandy and my sister-in-law Mary for introducing me to the birth of a butterfly.
Ann Brokelman is an avid birder and nature photographer – naturephotosbyann.blogspot.ca