A passion to learn; prepares strength in wings
Just south of town, tucked away off of a blacktop road lies a whole monarchy, a splendid kingship where generations gather each season to continue their winged flight in their family tree. A monarchy one may question, right here in rural Monroe City one may ask? To see it with the eye reveals the depth of the Monarch Butterfly world and what it takes to help these beautiful creations flourish.
Cheryl Patterson is committed to helping the Monarch Butterflies thrive. She assists these fluttering, milkweed munching creatures in all cycles of their lives. From tiny eggs, seen only through a magnifying glass, to caterpillars feeding until they move into their hanging chrysalis. Then she watches them emerge into their bright orange and bold black color schemes, as they pump their wings to prepare for flight.
Patterson has different stations set up in her basement, stating with a laugh, “I had them upstairs first, but there was too much frass.” Frass is another name for caterpillar poo. This is her sixth year helping with the butterflies, but in 2018, she started tagging them and keeping a log through an online program.
Patterson has watched hundreds of butterflies be released from her home stating, “I love nature, I am a teacher. I have learned a lot and am happy to share it with others.” Patterson explained there are lots of ways people can help the Monarch’s survive without creating whole habitats. “Don’t use pesticides in your own garden,” Patterson explained. Many pesticides contain glyphosate, an herbicide that kills milkweed. Milkweed is the only plant monarch larvae eat, and the only plant the monarch will lay its eggs in.
Without milkweed, the monarch butterfly would cease to exist. Homeowners can also plant bright colored flowers for the butterflies to feed nectar from.
Patterson has several habitats of milkweed throughout her property. She explained the caterpillars are more active at night, so she goes out after dark with a flashlight to find them. Each are placed in a safe habitat of milkweed according to their sizes. Once the caterpillar is matured it will form a “J”, once in the “J”, the larva molts for the last time. This final molt is the trickiest, because the larva must shed its old skin and still hang onto the silk button. Once the larva embeds a hook-like structure at its rear end into the button, the rest of the skin can slip off. The monarch has no eyes and no antennae. It has no legs, and it cannot move. All of the major changes in body shape, size, and arrangement happen. In monarchs, this stage can last as long as a week. At the end of this stage, an adult butterfly is emerged.
Patterson explained, “Before you can release them, I wait five hours for their wings to be fully dry.” After the wings are hardened, the butterfly will fly away to find its first meal.
Patterson watches this cycle over and over again, as she continues to release the Monarchs, but like with any monarchy, it doesn’t happen without predators. The butterflies have two main predators explained Patterson, as she added, “The Tachnid fly and Chalcid wasp, which cause OE disease.” Patterson spends time bleaching everything in order to prevent the spread. Another issue can be bad weather, she stated, “Once I had over 40 Monarchs ready to be released. We were having bad storms for a few days, so I had to keep them and feed them watermelon and honey water until it was safe for release. Patterson has a special station she calls the “hospital”, where she puts them when they are not looking quite right, but doesn’t want to give up on them.
After the Monarchs are released they migrate to Mexico, where they will winter and generations will fly back. The Monarchs settle in the Oyamel fir trees there, traveling 80 to 120 miles per day, depending on the conditions and stopping at night until they reach their destination. Patterson said, “For a butterfly to be able to do this there is no other explanation than it being a work of God. It’s just amazing they can travel on such a long journey and find their way back each year.” The Midwest region serves a large portion of the Monarch’s pathway, being the place where super generations have a high Monarch production and fall in the both the fall and spring migration.