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Helping monarch butterflies along their way

  • Published Saturday, Sep. 17, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Sep. 17, 2011, at 7:43 a.m.

When Sam McFarland was a little boy, his mother, Kristy, planted a butterfly garden where she showed him the phases of egg, caterpillar, cocoon and end result.

Now that Sam is 16, Kristy is the one who is playing outside. This week, her garden was a seek-and-find game.

"This is our first caterpillar stop," Kristy told me as we arrived at a stand of chewed-off fennel and butterfly weed. Her keen eye found creatures in all sizes and phases of the metamorphosis of a butterfly.

There were tiny pinpoints of eggs. Tiny caterpillars and munching caterpillars and large, about-to-cocoon caterpillars. There were empty chrysalises. And there were finally emerged, free butterflies, flitting everywhere.

"They found me this year," Kristy said happily. "This year I've just had an explosion of caterpillars."

People in our area are exultantly reporting monarch sightings.

"We had dozens of monarchs flying through our backyard this week!" one Andover reader e-mailed me.

Jan Hopkins, a science lab teacher at Seal Elementary School in Douglass, has had a project going with her third-graders, observing monarch caterpillars as they go through their life cycle.

"The little critters come in the mail the end of August, and I bring them common milkweed leaves to eat," Jan e-mailed me. "As our hot summer wore on I was concerned about finding milkweed for this project (from years of doing this I have my favorite patches) but have not had any difficulties in that area, and the milkweed is looking good.

"All fourteen of our larvae are now in the chrysalis stage, hanging in the various third-grade classrooms. As the adults emerge, I'll tag them for Monarch Watch and we'll send them off to Mexico."

Elsie Neumann, of Botanica butterfly fame, said she was worried about how the butterflies would fare on their migration because of the dry conditions in Oklahoma and Texas on their way to Mexico.

Disappearing habitat is one reason Monarch Watch at KU encourages people to put in waystations to help the butterflies along the way.

Kristy McFarland started doing it before it became a cause.

To encourage butterflies, pesticides should not be used in the garden, and plants that caterpillars eat — such as fennel and milkweed — should be included, along with colorful nectar plants for the butterflies.

One recent evening, Kristy counted 56 caterpillars on the ground, all crawling about seemingly aimlessly.

"It's been fun to find out where they go," she said.

Most head for the slew of fennel she planted, which now resemble twigs for all the feeding. (Last year when her fennel crop failed — she'd started it from seed and had failed to thin the plants — she ended up buying parsley from the store and putting it out for the caterpillars.)

Kristy is captivated by the caterpillars' faces, and has been photographing and videotaping them — most of them black swallowtail — munching the fennel.

"I just think it's so interesting to watch them grab it and eat it," she said.

And even though her son is a teenager who now "tolerates" his mother's passion, she couldn't resist texting him recently to come out and see a butterfly emerging from a cocoon near the garage — even though he was just inside the house, Kristy didn't want to leave her post to run inside and get him.

An uncle of Kristy's who was a farmer brought her some milkweed from the field about 15 years ago, and it's still in its original spot where it took off. But Kristy knows that asclepias is a wildflower that doesn't like to be transplanted, and she's waiting to see if a new stand she started farther out in the yard — the part that the sprinkler system is supposed to hit but that doesn't otherwise get any attention — will take.

"It looks kind of weedy, but I love it," she said of her neglected area.

That's because the butterflies love it.

Among the flowers in her garden that have been magnets for butterflies:

* Zinnias — the most popular.

* Asters. Her tall plants will soon be covered with flowers, and they'll be covered with butterflies.

"It blooms late, and it's glorious," she says. She divides the plants and now has them all over her large yard. She usually takes them with her to a friend's annual garden party where all the guests bring plants from their garden to share.

* Marigolds.

* Sunflowers.

* Hardy hibiscus.

* Blue mist spirea (caryopteris).

* Verbena.

* Butterfly bush (buddleia).

* Cosmos.

Hummingbirds have been frequent visitors, too, flocking to red cannas and cyprus vine. The latter has been choking out fragrant sweet autumn clematis, but since the hummers love it, it can stay.

This year, Kristy also has learned to hear a hummingbird, which she says has a chirp that sounds like "a flying little chipmunk."

"Honey, you're off your plant," Kristy says to one caterpillar that is climbing a non-food source.

She also keeps an eye out for spiders that attack the caterpillars.

"Maybe when it gets cooler I'll want to go someplace," she says. "Now I just want to watch the birds and butterflies."

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