When Debbie Hickok taught kindergarten and first grade, she always searched for milkweed and caterpillars to bring into the classroom. Her interest in butterflies blossomed and she began attracting, tending to and releasing monarchs.
Debbie lived in Florida 12 years before returning to Cedar Falls last winter. There, she had six months of warm, sunny weather – releasing 50 monarchs in one year! The northeast Iowa cycle proves to be much different; this year, Debbie released six monarchs over a period of one month.
Nurturing the monarch’s transformation from egg to butterfly includes tending a garden that contains the common milkweed and butterfly weed, using simple equipment, and providing the right food. Debbie said, “It’s nice to leave monarchs to live naturally in a garden, but they have many predators that include wasps, birds, spiders and aphids.”
During the summer, she monitors the milkweed for the presence of tiny white eggs. When the caterpillars (larvae) emerge, they’re as small as the lead of a pencil and dine exclusively on milkweeds. She places them in a small bug box with a milkweed leaf and continues to feed them leaves as they grow, always keeping their box clean of waste. When the caterpillars are larger, she places them in a small butterfly cage where a single caterpillar might eat six to eight leaves a day from the butterfly weed over four to seven days.
The caterpillars then transform again. At the top of the butterfly cage, they form into a green chrysalis. After one or two weeks, you’ll know the monarch is about to emerge when the chrysalis becomes clear and you can see the black lines of the monarch inside. It’ll emerge wet and will need several hours to dry and strengthen. Debbie then releases the monarch.
Before migrating south, Debbie said monarchs may enjoy the nectar from pentas and zinnias in her villa garden or from asters, liatris (blazing star), coneflowers and other local prairie flowers. Debbie released her last monarch of the season on Sept. 17.
If you would like to help increase the monarch population, beginner kits are available and butterfly weed can be purchased at local garden centers. Taking photos and keeping a calendar of their development is also helpful. A wealth of information can be found online and Debbie particularly likes MonarchButterflyGarden.net.