Raising Butterflies

By Linda May/Photography by Jamie Libstaff

Jamie Libstaff and her daughter Grace gave names to all 165 monarch butterflies they raised and released last summer and fallin their Clinton Township garden. The names all started with a J or a G. Jamie’s garden contains milkweed to attract monarch females who lay their eggs exclusively on that particular native plant. Milkweed is the only plant monarchs can use because it’s the only plant that can feed their offspring, the caterpillars.

“I’ve got it down to a science now,” she said. “I go out there in the quiet of the morning with my cup of coffee. I use the light to find shadows of the eggs and tiny caterpillars. I’m happy every time I find one.”

It started for the Libstaff family when attending the Libstaffs’ son’s golf tournaments. “We noticed there was a ton of milkweed growing along the side of the course and we spotted a monarch caterpillar,” she said. “We put it in a cup. I took a picture of it and texted it to my girlfriend who raised monarchs and she said,’ yes, that is a monarch caterpillar. We took it home and we were so excited. Raising them became a hobby for us that is more like a full-time job.

“My daughter is 12 and it gives us so much time together. I don’t know how much longer she’s going to want to be hanging out with her mom, but we are really enjoying it. I am savoring every moment I have with her and we love doing it. Hopefully this hobby will be passed on to the next generation,” she said.

The mother-daughter team finds the eggs and caterpillars either in their garden, or in fields when they travel around the county. They bring in the eggs and infants and put them in plastic containers with fresh, Pesticidefree milkweed leaves. Caterpillars are voracious eaters, and their habitat must be kept clean.

The containers go into a re-purposed curio cabinet with the glass removed and replaced with screens. The infants go on one shelf, the growing caterpillars on another shelf, and the mature ones about to make chrysalises on another. The egg-to-butterfly process takes about a month.

When the butterflies emerge from the chrysalises, Jamie and Grace christen and release them. “Last year, I bought my daughter a tagging kit for her birthday,” Jamie said.

A tiny numbered tag goes on the wing of a monarch born in the very late summer and fall and the number is recorded and reported. Scientists may then track its whereabouts and study the health of the species.

Tagged monarchs of the fall “super generation” (that live for eight or nine months) have been found in a particular forest in Mexico where millions of monarchs spend the winter. In the spring, most fly to Texas to mate and lay eggs. The monarchs that result fly northward as far as Canada. In the few weeks they live, they reproduce until they create the generation born in late summer and fall that make the journey to Mexico.

There are numerous Facebook pages and Web sites devoted to raising monarchs and other butterflies. Experts and amateurs cover nectar plants to attract them, milkweed to feed them, care of caterpillars and butterflies, diseases and enemies.

Man-made dangers for all butterflies – and other beneficial insects that feed the birds – include habitat loss and pesticides.

Caterpillar enemies include cleaners, pet flea treatments, lotions, hair spray, hand sanitizer, diffusing oils and candles, but without human help, 90 percent of monarch eggs laid in the wild would never result in a butterfly.

Besides maintaining her own wildlife garden and raising butterflies, Jean Persely of Armada is an MSU Extension Service master gardener and a past vice president of the Macomb County Master Gardeners Association. She raises different varieties of butterflies on Michigan native species plants because she enjoys it, but she reminds people that it’s ok if nature takes its course also.

“Any size yard can be used for butterflies. People who live in apartments or condos and don’t have large garden spaces can put host plants on a balcony and get butterflies. It doesn’t have to be a three-acre botanical garden; it can be a window box. Without host plants, there would be no butterflies.

“It’s fun to raise them but it takes a lot of work. There’s also something thrilling about spotting that empty chrysalis out in the garden and knowing somewhere a butterfly is flying around because of what you planted,” she said. Persely distributes two handouts, “Beckoning Butterflies,” which is about attracting butterflies to your yard by creating habita

t, and “Magical Monarchs.” Her colleague Brenda Sattler Dziedzic created the Southeast Michigan Butterfly Association. She wrote “Raising Butterflies in the Garden,” bringing awareness of butterflies and moths. Brenda’s Westland yard is a normal size subdivision property but with such a variety of plants that she attracts an amazing variety of butterflies.

Persely’s Facebook page is at facebook. com/BMOLogisticsGarden/ and her Web site is bmologistics.com/bmo-gardens/. She discusses the basics of butterfly raising and improving habitat for many species. Necessities include nectar and pollen sources, larval host plants and fruit; and shelter with places to raise the young among trees and shrubs, perennials and annuals of varying heights.

She leaves snags and plant material over winter, providing bee “hotels” and bare soil, and water with shallow spots with pebbles, like ponds and bird baths, especially those with moving water.

Success with butterflies of any kind depends on the right plants.

The Macomb County Public Works Office transformed two miles of the Sterling Relief Drain in Sterling Heights for wildlife. It was a drain and water quality operation that created a butterfly flyway and green zone with trees, bushes and milkweed.

“This spring, as last fall’s plantings come into bloom, we hope to see lots of butterflies making new homes,” said Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice S. Miller. “This project will greatly improve the quality of life for the residents by creating a beautiful new view filled with trees and the birds and other wildlife they will attract.”

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