×

The butterfly effect

Monarch butterflies sit on the hands of residents from Willing helpers Home for Women in Johnstown on Aug. 30. (Photo courtesy of Tammy Kruger)

JOHNSTOWN — With its colorful, burnt orange wings, highlighted with mascara-like black lines and tiny white dots, the monarch butterflies are a familiar sight in upstate New York during late spring and summer.

Then in September, the winged invertebrate begin to disappear from the landscape as they start their annual 2,500 mile migration south to Mexico, where the insects — which weigh about two-grams each when fully grown — have the astonishing ability to find the same Oyamel fir trees where generations before it spent their winters.

But, this familiar butterfly is in danger if changes are not made soon. According to the Center for Biodiversity, while efforts are being made to place the invertebrate on the Endangered Species List, rapid land development, increased pesticide use and climate change are escalating the rates of loss of the popular butterfly — almost 90 percent in the last two decades.

In its petition to list the butterfly as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, the organization notes that since the mid 1990s, 167 million acres of monarch habitat east of the Rockies — roughly the size of Texas — has been lost due to agricultural changes and development — a loss of nearly one-third of the butterflies’ total summer breeding range.

But for Tammy Kruger, director at Willing Helpers Home for Women, doing her small part in helping the colorful butterfly survive for future generations, has been a mission of love and faith. Besides ensuring the safe metamorphosis of the caterpillar into the butterfly, handraising and releasing the winged insects also brings joy to residents of the home.

Newly hatched Monarch butterflies cling to the netting at the top of the aquarium at Willing Helper's Home for Women in September. (Photo submitted)

“It really is a wonderful time,” said Kruger. “They have such smiles [when we release the butterflies].”

The process starts each year around the third week in August when Kruger sets out to find fields thick with the milkweed plant.

“I have a ‘honey spot’ I like to go to,” said Kruger. “This year I found 21 caterpillars in 20 minutes –it was crazy.”

She collects around 20 caterpillars — one for each resident — and brings them back to the home, where the insects are placed in an aquarium freshly stocked with milkweed — the only plant the black and yellow caterpillars feed on — until they grow large enough, usually about two-inches, to transform into a chrysalis — the stage they are in before metamorphosing into a monarch butterfly approximately 11 and a half days later.

Kruger became interested in the butterflies when her “other half” showed her the caterpillars’ change about 20 years ago.

A monarch caterpillar on a milkweed planted in Tammy Kruger's yard feeds on the leaves of the plant prior to becoming a chrysalis. (Photo courtesy of Tammy Kruger)

“He had found a monarch [caterpillar] and we brought it inside. It turned into a chrysalis and hatched out and I was just in awe of that,” said Kruger. “And then I thought, ‘I bet the residents would like that.'”

The following year, Kruger purchased an aquarium and went searching for the caterpillars and a tradition was born.

“We’ve been doing it every since,” said Kruger. “Every year I learn something new and every year I am in amazement of the whole cycle. And the best part is the residents love it — they are all smiles.”

Once she brings the caterpillars to the home and places them in the aquarium, the container is placed in a central location where the residents can watch the daily progress of the metamorphism.

“They will check on them every day,” said Kruger. “And some of the residents have actually seen them come out of the chrysalis and hang there as the butterfly. They’ll go and get the other residents and say, ‘They’re hatching, they’re hatching, come look.'”

Willing Helpers Home for Women resident Edith Thompson holds one of the Monarch butterflies on Aug. 30. (Photo courtesy of Tammy Kruger)

Kruger said when the newly-emerged butterfly first comes out of the chrysalis, its wings are small and compacted until they have time to expand with moisture.

“When they first come out, they look like little dwarfs,” said Kruger. “They’ll hang there and then their wings will drop and they will release the moisture and sometimes you will see a little bit of fluid from where the wings have dripped. Once the wings have dried, then they are ready to fly.”

Kruger admits there have been years locating caterpillars has been “quite difficult,” but that this year, it was a “banner year.”

“In years past, it has been so hard to find them, but this year, well it seemed to be a banner year for them,” said Kruger.

The Center for Biodiversity noted that while the number of monarchs vary from year to year, ensuring their longevity depends on the insect having enough numbers to survive a catastrophe.

From left, Willing Helpers Home for Women residents Trudy Yost, Marge Croucher and Alma Avery each hold one of the Monarch butterflies on Aug. 30. (Photo courtesy of Tammy Kruger)

According to its website, “The 2016 monarch count showed that over the past 22 years, these butterflies declined by 68 percent, with the population at 150 million butterflies — not the most devastating of declines, and wonderful news considering the truly alarming count in 2015 of just 42 million, the second-lowest ever since surveys began in 1993.”

A single storm in 2002 killed an estimated 500 million monarchs, the organization said.

“In February 2017 the annual ‘overwintering’ count of monarchs confirmed that butterfly numbers fell by nearly one-third from the 2016 count, indicating an ongoing risk of extinction for America’s most well-known butterfly,” the organization said.

Kruger took her own action to ensure the insects have a habitat to metamorphize into the butterfly, planting milkweed on her own property.

“I planted a form of milkweed at my house,” said Kruger. “I planted around 10 different plants and I had probably 30 caterpillars on those plants.”

Monarch butterflies are ready for release on Aug. 30 at Willing Helpers Home for Women. (Photo courtesy of Tammy Kruger)

She said while she didn’t take any of the caterpillars from her own plants — “They say they tend to come back to where they hatched,” — she does have plans to plant milkweed around the home’s property to encourage the caterpillars to nest there.

When it is time to release the butterflies, Kruger holds a small ceremony on the back deck of the home.

“I give each resident a butterfly,” said Kruger, who cups the fragile butterflies in her hands before placing them onto the fingers of the residents. “Sometimes they take right off flying and other times they land on their heads and other times they just hang around and just sit on their hands for five, 10 minutes.”

It is a tradition she plans on continuing, said Kruger.

“The residents seem to really like the evolution of a not-very-pretty caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly that emerges — you know, just going through the whole transformation,” she said.

The life cycle of the monarch

The life cycle of the Monarch butterfly has four stages and four generations. The stages are egg, larvae, pupa and adult butterfly, and the four generation means four butterflies passing through these four stages within a year. 

The previous generation’s adult butterfly lays eggs on the milkweed, when the stage one of the first generation starts. Within 4 days, the eggs hatch to form a caterpillar or larva, the second stage. At this stage, the larvae eat the milkweed on which it lives. 

Within two weeks, it attains full growth and attaches to some place like a leaf or stem by discharging silk, and undergoes the process of metamorphosis to transform into a pupa or chrysalis. 

In the next 10 days, continuous process of metamorphosis transforms the old body parts of the pupa into the beautiful parts of the future adult butterfly. The adult butterfly will emerge in the mid-morning time and fly away in search of food and a mate. 

They live a short life that ranges from two to six weeks. Within this period, it will lay eggs for the second generation. The second generation flies roughly one month after the migrating monarchs arrive and reproduce which would be anytime from May through July.  It lays eggs for the third generation in July or August. The fourth generation process is almost same except one point. 

The fourth generation eggs are laid in the month of September or October, but they live more than eight to nine months. This fourth generation butterfly also has a specialty; it migrates to the warmer regions of California or Mexico.   

Courtesy of SaveOuurMonarchs.org

Willing Helpers Home for Women board member MaryJo Argotsinger talks to the residents prior to releasing the Monarch butterflies on Aug. 30. (Photo courtesy of Tammy Kruger)

COMMENTS