Raising Monarch Butterflies

Spring is just starting to really take hold here, but Marsha Kyle is already looking ahead to late summer when she will raise and release hundreds of monarch butterflies from the backyard of her Washington home. Earlier this spring, Kyle started several tropical milkweed plants from seeds so that come late August, when monarchs arrive in this area as part of their annual migration from Canada to Mexico, where they hibernate for the winter, they will have a resting place to lay their eggs.

That’s when she goes to work.

“If I see a monarch out there, I’ll just sit and see where she’s going,” said Kyle, who has many varieties of milkweed plants growing in her garden. “As soon as she has taken that little tail and shoved it up underneath the leaf, then I know.”

It’s time to check for eggs.

When she sees them — each egg is about the size of a poppyseed — she clips off the leaves they are on and brings them inside, where she places them in a plastic container lined with paper towels and some water.

“I call this the nursery,” said Kyle.

From that point, she sees the insects through their entire life cycle — to larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult butterfly.

Last year, Kyle raised around 300 monarchs this way. This year, she’s hoping to raise 400.

She is motivated by the need to help pollinators prosper, to protect them from predators (certain wasps, spiders and ants), but also by the beauty of the life cycle itself.

“To me it’s phenomenal, because I watch each and every one of these little caterpillars, and when they first come out of that egg, everything is so instinctual,” said Kyle. “And once you watch them long enough, you sit and think, ‘Oh, my gosh, isn’t that so cool that they do this,’ but it’s bred into them.”

Began in August 2015

It was August 2015 when Kyle first saw monarch butterflies flitting around her garden. When she noticed the tiny eggs under her milkweed leaves, she felt an urge to protect them.

“I had no idea what to do with these eggs, but I knew I had to protect them. I had read that much,” she said.

She brought them into the house and as she watched the life cycle unfold before her eyes, Kyle knew she had to keep going.

She began reading about the monarchs and how to help them through newspaper and magazine articles, blogs and online forums. She’s learned how other people raise monarchs and has followed suit.

Each year her operation has grown.

“After the first year, I was hooked,” she said. “I wanted to be ready the next year, so I planted more milkweed.”

Kyle has four varieties of milkweed in her garden today, but she started with the common milkweed, which she described as a monarch favorite because “it’s juicier.”

Her Process

Around the middle of August Kyle starts watching for monarch butterflies to appear in her garden. Once they show up, she begins checking her milkweed leaves for eggs.

“They are very bright white, and if you are looking up under your leaf, you’ll see them. If you’re in question if it’s an egg, you just rub your finger across it, and it won’t come off,” said Kyle.

After she clips the leaves and brings them into her house, where they won’t be eaten or killed by predators, it only takes five to seven days before the caterpillars hatch.

“You can almost set your clock by it,” she commented.

“When they hatch, they are minute. I have my cheaters on and a magnifying glass just to see them.”

But it doesn’t take long before she can tell where they are, because she can see the holes in the milkweed leaves where they have been eating.

“They are ravenous eaters, they really are,” Kyle remarked.

Once they get a little bigger, Kyle moves them into cube-shaped, tabletop-sized “tents,” which she puts outside on her deck in a screened-in gazebo area, with a stalk of milkweed inside for them to continue feeding on.

“I have to feed these guys two and three times a day, because when you’ve got 300 of them, they are all eating, eating, eating,” Kyle remarked.

It doesn’t take long though before the 300-plus caterpillars have consumed all of the milkweed she has, so she turns to friends who are farmers to ask them to bring her any milkweed they have growing in their fields.

“They put it in a bucket, and that usually sees me through,” she said.

Once the caterpillars make their chrysalis, Kyle takes them and hangs them around the screened-in area of her deck and waits for the new monarchs to emerge.

“You cannot touch the chrysales until they are probably 24-48 hours old when it becomes hard enough. Then I take dental floss, and I tie a knot in it and hang them,” said Kyle.

Monarch Watcher

After the monarchs emerge, the last thing Kyle does before she releases them is to tag them for MonarchWatch.org, a citizen science program based out of the University of Kansas that tracks monarch migration with small, round sticker-like tags.

The purpose is to better understand the monarchs’ migration process.

Each tag, which is about the size of a pencil eraser, has a unique six-symbol code number, which is how the monarch is tracked. There is a certain spot on the wing where the tag should be placed.

For more information on those details, go to monarchwatch.org/tagging.

Because of the unique six-symbol tag code, Kyle has been able to see where her monarchs end up after they fly away from her home. She has been notified that several of her monarchs were found in Mexico.

Encourages More People to Plant Milkweed

Kyle has a couple of friends in town who also raise monarchs the way she does. They get together to compare notes and lend a hand with the process.

“We always have said it would be nice to have a group or a forum in this area,” said Kyle.

She knows, however, that the lengths she goes to help the monarchs is not an option for everyone. Even though the work is not difficult, it takes time, something she has only had enough of since she retired from her career as a watercolor artist.

“It’s an easy process to do, but you have to stand guard on it, you have to be vigilant. Not everyone is up to it,” said Kyle.

The work is short-lived — about 30 days, really.

For people who want to help the monarchs, but don’t have the time, energy or interest in going to Kyle’s lengths, there is one simple thing they can do: plant milkweed in their yard or garden. Last year when Kyle was buying some from Hillermann Nursery & Florist, she found that several of the plants already had monarch eggs laid on them.

“If you plant milkweed, they will come,” she said with a smile.

Milkweed is the only plant monarchs will lay their eggs on because the juice that comes out of the leaves is poisonous to many bugs and birds, which protects them from many predators — but not all, which is why Kyle goes to such lengths to help protect them.

The good thing about milkweed, for people who want to have it in their gardens for the monarchs, is that it will come back every year. Kyle only plants more so she will have enough to feed the hundreds of monarchs she raises each summer.

Monarch Manor

To help make Kyle’s monarch efforts even more simple, she and her husband are in the process of building a screened-in structure in the backyard that will have a raised plant bed on one side where she will have milkweed plants growing and a workspace on the other side. They plan to call the structure Monarch Manor.

This will allow her to be a little more hands-on with the process, but still allow the eggs and caterpillars to be protected from predators.

Kyle’s garden and landscaping are quite elaborate already with lots of nectar plants chosen to help butterflies and other pollinators. She even has a hedge that she has trimmed into the shape of a caterpillar.

“We call it the therapy room,” said Kyle, speaking of their backyard garden filled with perennials.

Her work in raising monarchs was really the next logical step.

“It’s a labor of love,” she said.

“My husband and son look at me like, ‘What are you doing this for?’ And I ask myself that same question a lot. But I figure if I’m saving five, if I’m saving six, and those six lay 150 eggs, then eventually we’ll make a difference.”