NEWARK, Wis. — Darcy Hess watched intently as ravenous monarch caterpillars munched milkweed leaves on her kitchen counter.
"They will shed their skins four times to grow bigger," said Darcy, her face animated. "When they are ready, they will hang upside down and turn themselves into chrysalises."
Darcy and her husband, Gary, keep the chrysalises in small tent-like enclosures in their living room. After more than a week, full-sized monarchs emerge in one of nature's wonders.
In early June, Darcy and Gary began their personal head-start effort to help the vanishing monarch, The Janesville Gazette reported (http://bit.ly/14nT0Pf).
All summer long they collect tiny eggs from milkweed plants growing naturally around their rural Rock County home. After the eggs hatch, the couple feed the baby caterpillars indoors to protect them from disease, parasites and predators. The only food the larvae eat is milkweed. Later, Darcy and Gary release the mature butterflies outdoors.
Their small but diligent effort is in response to a big problem. In recent years, monarchs have been in sharp decline. Reasons include habitat loss and destruction of the plants they depend on in the United States.
Gary said that human development, chemically intensive agriculture and excessive roadside mowing eliminates milkweed and nectar sources needed by caterpillars and adult butterflies.
In addition, last summer's drought and record high temperatures reduced the content of the milkweed plants monarch larvae depend on to survive.
Last year, Darcy and Gary were raising more than 300 caterpillars at any time in various stages of development. This year, they are finding fewer eggs and had only a couple dozen caterpillars and chrysalises recently.
After Aug. 15, they will begin tagging the butterflies to help biologists understand the complexities of monarch migration.
The insects travel up to 3,000 miles from Canada and the United States to a small forested area of Central Mexico, where they face more challenges. Deforestation at their over-wintering sites has eliminated a number of colonies and degraded others.
In spring, monarchs leave their wintering grounds, lay eggs on their way north and then die. Several generations pass before another generation returns south. Somehow, the monarchs return to the same wintering areas, even the same trees, as their ancestors.
Darcy and Gary work with Monarch Watch, a University of Kansas outreach program that engages citizen scientists in monarch monitoring and conservation efforts. They buy small round tags with adhesive backing from the program. In late summer and fall, they use toothpicks to gently press the tags on the undersides of monarch wings. The location is close to the butterfly's center of lift and gravity so it will not impede flight.
Darcy and Gary also enter tag numbers into data sheets online to make it possible to find out when, where and by whom a butterfly is tagged.
"The tagging information reported back to Monarch Watch is an attempt to build a picture of breeding success and population distribution," Gary said. "We report date of release, sex and whether the monarchs are caught wild or raised."
Last year, they tagged 258 monarchs. All grew and became butterflies in the couple's home. Both work full time but happily raise monarchs to bring back the favorite butterfly of their childhoods.
"All these insects are being pushed to the edge," Gary said. "Connecting milkweeds to Monarchs may be the only way to get humans to see these plants as a good part of nature and worthy of saving."
Darcy, Gary and environmental groups are trying to educate people about the importance of milkweed and native plants in the environment.