Two Augusts ago, my eagle-eyed 8-year-old spotted a green chrysalis attached to our family’s crabapple tree. We carefully removed it and kept it in a jar on a shady windowsill.
It sat there for just over a week with a crown of tiny dots that looked like 14-karat gold. Then the green began to darken one morning. Within an hour the darkness turned to transparence and the telltale orange, black and white markings of the monarch began to show through.
Seeing it emerge almost miraculously with moist wings and gently escorting it outside a few hours later rank among our family’s favorite wildlife experiences — and we didn’t even leave our back yard. The butterfly sat on our fingers for a few minutes, seemingly unafraid and content until it was ready to spread brand-new wings. Then it lifted up as light and fluttery as a breeze.
For butterfly fans, this year brings good news after last year’s plunge in the number of monarchs.
“We’re actually seeing a bounce-back,” said Karen Oberhauser, director of the University of Minnesota’s Monarch Lab. While counts from early this summer aren’t considered high, “I can say we’re cautiously optimistic, that we’re seeing a rebound in the population.”
Monarch sightings should be peaking by mid- to late August as newly hatched monarchs join the population and begin gathering on trees and plants in clusters by the end of August into September.
The great-great-grandchildren of monarchs that arrive in the spring will ultimately make the 1,000- to 3,000-mile journey south — butterflies living east of the Rockies will travel to Mexico, while those west of the Rockies will head for California.
Besides the gathering monarchs, now is also a great time to look for common milkweed and the cottony puffs of seeds for fall planting. The monarch’s admirers also might consider enhancing their gardens with butterfly-attracting perennials including pink-flowered swamp milkweed, orange-flowered butterfly weed, joe pye weed, red bee balm, purple coneflowers and wild purple asters.
Restoring milkweed, though, is most important for monarchs, and there are grass-roots efforts to expand this essential habitat in back yards, public spaces and parks so the butterflies have more places to lay their eggs. Milkweed also serves as a way station for feeding and resting as the butterflies make the huge journey south.
According to the University of Kansas-based Monarch Watch, the United States loses about 6,000 acres of wildlife habitat to development per day, or about 2.2 million acres per year — more than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Genetically modified crops and ditches sprayed with herbicides and roadside mowing also reduce available milkweed.
For our family, milkweed came with our yard. Whether it was placed intentionally or not, the ever-present plant has caused some debate with its gangly and sometimes weedy-looking patches. If you’re like me, you may find that your spouse is itching to pull it out.
It’s fine to control milkweed — especially if it’s starting to take over the yard — as long as you leave a few plants standing, said Oberhauser, before adding: “I’m seeing more and more milkweed in people’s gardens.”
Join butterfly watches
If you find yourself fascinated by monarchs and want to be more than a casual observer, there are many ways to get involved in boosting their numbers and bolstering research.
The University of Minnesota’s Citizen Watch program (www.mlmp.org) has volunteers that monitor milkweed for larva at more than 900 sites across the United States, Canada and Mexico.
If you spot eggs, they typically hatch within three to six days depending on the weather, Oberhauser said. The iconic yellow-, white- and black-striped caterpillars spend nine to 14 days making their way across the milkweed, eating, growing and shedding their skin about five times to fit their growing size.
The final step is the green chrysalis, which protectively blends in with leaves, keeping the creature safe for the eight- to 14-day transformation into a butterfly.
“When the colors are really vivid, they’re ready to come out,” Oberhauser said. The just-hatched butterflies break the chrysalis open using their legs for leverage and carefully emerge. It can take four to six minutes for wings to expand and four to six hours before they’re ready to fly.
If you find a monarch caterpillar and want to put it into a container for safekeeping and to witness the transformation, it’s important to keep it stocked with fresh milkweed leaves each day.
“It’s not that hard to do,” Oberhauser said of keeping the caterpillar. ”The odds are, you’re saving their life. But more importantly, you’re making the connection with kids and adults with that amazing metamorphosis.”
Lisa Meyers McClintick (www. LisaMcClintick.com) is a St. Cloud-based freelance writer and photographer.