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Helping butterflies spread their wings

MaryAnn Oakland, of Clarkfield, has introduced thousands of Monarch butterflies in the wild over the years. Her love for butterflies dates back to her childhood. Photo by Ida Kesteloot

MaryAnn Oakland, of Clarkfield, has introduced thousands of Monarch butterflies in the wild over the years. Her love for butterflies dates back to her childhood. Photo by Ida Kesteloot

Being a good friend, doing a good deed when the opportunity offers itself, working hard, and spreading kindness are just a few of the beliefs that keep MaryAnn Oakland’s world turning. However, at the top of her life affirming feelings is the notion that, just one person that is willing to put in the time and effort can indeed make a difference and have an impact on the world around them.

Oakland recalled that her love of butterflies reaches back to her childhood when she was mesmerized by their fragile beauty. However, her burning desire to ensure that the Monarchs would not slip into extinction matured in 2007 when she and her husband, Steve, moved to their rural home east of Clarkfield.

“I remember as a child there use to be a lot more milkweed around the country and that is where I would always find the cool striped caterpillars, and sometimes I would put one in a jar and wait to see what would happen. But as the years passed farmers began to spray the weeds and that has had a drastic effect on the Monarchs.

“As an adult I began to read about all butterflies, and the more I read, the more apparent it became that their numbers were dwindling at an alarming rate, and I just felt moved to do whatever I could to help them. I also learned that many become prey to more and more types of parasites.

“Only one out of every 10 eggs makes it to the second to fifth instar. That is a stage that ensures an egg will have a chance to hatch and become a tiny caterpillar and eventually form a chrysalis or cocoon and become a beautiful butterfly. Just like the bees, the butterflies are pollinators and do a huge service by pollinating many crops that we rely on. They are not just beautiful creatures; they are very hard workers and play a very important role in the balance of nature.

“The Monarchs’ numbers dwindle as the number of predators climbs. If you think about it, almost every farm had a large pasture where cows or horses were kept, in those pastures many plants grew and were allowed to thrive so long as they remained out of the crop land. When you drive through the country side now there are really very few pastures or wild lands where plants like the milkweed is allowed to grow. Add to that the common use of herbicides and the minuscule eggs have very little chance to make it,” said Oakland.

The Oaklands have certain acres set aside for the milkweed plants, and MaryAnn spends many hours out checking plants for the small eggs that are hanging onto the underside of the leaves, even though they are smaller than the head of a stick pin. She will carefully remove the whole leaf from the parent plant and under her care, the little white egg will hatch a very little caterpillar in two to three days.

“I place each egg in its own separate jar so it will not be disturbed. I have around 300 fruit jars all over the house. Many kids will take the metal lid that fits on a jar and use a nail and hammer to make a hole so air can get in, I know that is how I did it as a kid. Now I take a paper towel that is two or three layers thick and I place it on the jar opening and fasten it with a rubber band, it is safer for the caterpillar. They do move around and can get injured on the sharp edges on the lid that has holes poked in it. It is also very important that the jars are cleaned well after each use. I sometimes have a bathtub full of jars.

It takes me about two hours a day to do my caterpillar chores. Most people think all you need to do is catch a caterpillar and wait, but they have needs. Some of this time is spent collecting fresh leaves for the caterpillars to feed on. Even the newborn caterpillars give off waste, which is called frass; it falls to the bottom of the jar in the form of tiny black balls. They also need fresh milkweed leaves to feed off of every day. Caterpillars have big appetites and need a fresh supply of leaves. They also get the moisture they need from the fresh leaves. As the caterpillar grows you can see how much of the leaf it eats every day. I use wooden tongs like you would use to remove toast from a toaster; it has no sharp metal edges. I very gently remove the leaf the egg or caterpillar is attached to and dump out all the little waste balls, I then put in a fresh leaf for food and replace the egg/caterpillar. It is really quite amazing to see a tiny caterpillar emerge from the egg, and they grow quite fast. A caterpillar can become parasited at any stage and that is one reason it is important to keep them separated,” said Oakland.

She labels each jar with the date the egg was collected. On the fifth instar it begins to make a chrysalis and in nine to 11 days, one can observe it becoming completely closed up, and it hardens.

“When a caterpillar pupates into the chrysalis it hangs in a J shape for a day or so then it pupates to the chrysalis, which is an amazing process to see. At first the chrysalis is a light green color, and most of the time, it attaches itself to the paper towel covering the jar opening. As it matures it turns a darker color and that is when I very carefully remove it from the jar and pin the towel to the netting of the pavilion (a soft bug cage made of very soft netting which allows the butterfly to open its wings without become injured) and then they are released. As it begins to emerge from the chrysalis the body is quite plump, but the liquid in the body is miraculously transferred into the wings as they unfold and the size of the body shrinks,” said Oakland.

She begins looking for eggs in May and keeps looking until early September. She orders thousands of zinnia seeds from the Wild Seed Farm in Texas, as zinnias happen to be one of the Monarch’s favorites. She even traveled to Fredericksburg, Texas, to visit the seed farm once.

“If you do not want milkweed or the other ornamental weeds that host butterfly eggs it is helpful to at least walk through the plants and check for eggs before mowing them off. There is a butterfly flower that many gardeners buy and plant. It is called Asclepias tuberose or simply butterfly bush/flower,” said Oakland. “Many people don’t want to worry about milkweed taking over their place, and it would be better for the butterflies if instead of a few houses having large patches of milkweed that each house had just a couple of plants tucked away somewhere. The butterflies will find the plants. If they are worried about ending up with a lot of milkweed all they have to do is break off the seed pods before they can mature and break open and spread the seed,” said Steve.

“There are a few butterfly houses to visit like Sertoma Butterfly House in Sioux Falls, S.D. I was invited to go to one in the Cities and was given the opportunity to bring one of the Monarchs I had hatched and tag it and release it there, which was nice.

“It is has been on the news and published in many places, but people are still surprised to hear that the Monarch has become close to being placed on the endangered species list. That could be good and not so good; it would place a lot of restrictions on someone like me who is doing the best they can to help. The government is trying to help by doing things like planting a stretch of road ditch along I-35 in Texas that is planted with milkweed. Butterflies actually pollinate with their wings. A caterpillar looks almost the same from one end to the other; it has antenna on both ends, but the front or head end has the large set of antennas. Monarch caterpillars are black and yellow stripes and smooth, not fuzzy,” said Oakland.

Since beginning the egg collecting and butterfly hatching project in 2007, Oakland has to date released 2,771. “In 2011 I had a real good year and released 839 that summer, and when I release all the eggs I have collected so far this summer, I will have released over 3,000 of these beautiful creatures. Anyone can help these beauties, and there is a great deal of information out there. There are even kits to help anyone get started. I do lose a few, and it breaks my heart a little every time that it happens, but the number of healthy Monarchs I have released makes me feel so good. I know I can’t save them all, but I can make a difference,” said Oakland.

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