Monarch hatcheries rely on Milkweed

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Only one or two out of 100 monarch butterflies that hatch in our area of the country survive. There is increasing concern about the fate of the monarchs because they are losing their food source, milkweeds, according to Nancy Dugas-Gilmore, who has monarch hatcheries at her home in Bella Vista.

“We’re not losing monarchs per se,” Dugas-Gilmore said. “What we are losing are the food sources for their caterpillars, which must have milkweed to eat. Milkweed is very hard for them to find. It is not on the roadsides like it used to be. Milkweeds are not found in a lot of areas due to pesticides and development.

“So, I’m promoting that people plant milkweed and pollinator plants for the butterflies to have food after they have hatched. Some good ones are our black-eyed Susan and brown-eyed Susan. Right now, zinnias are in bloom. Zinnias are a good plant. It is also a good idea to plant types of plants that bloom earlier in the spring and summer like coneflower. Encourage the monarch to come visit your garden. Once she sees milkweed, that’s where the female will lay eggs because it’s the only food that the butterfly caterpillars will eat.”

If there are only a few small milkweed plants and many caterpillars, there won’t be enough food for many to survive to turn into butterflies. By creating a cage for a hatchery, caterpillars and the chrysalis can be protected until the magic transformation into a monarch butterfly. Dugas-Gilmore said in the cage, if you don’t have enough milkweed for food, and the caterpillars are large enough, they will eat butternut squash.

She encourages planting six milkweeds plants in the garden as a starting point.

“If you have only one or two, you may be in trouble,” she said. “A monarch can lay anywhere from 100 to 400 eggs. Not all will be viable. But that’s a lot of eggs.

“Milkweed plants can be clustered together. I plant them in a row. The swamp milkweed grows taller so I put them on the back row. But I do plant them in a general area all together and then have pollinating plants around or in front of them.”

Starting a hatchery can greatly increase the number of butterflies that survive. Dugas-Gilmore said it is not expensive, but can be very time consuming.

“I enjoy what I do,” she said. “I devote a lot of time to my caterpillars. It takes about three weeks from egg to release. I have a disclaimer. I’m not a professional, but I’m learning and I love to share. There is more information at my Facebook page, ‘All about rearing monarch butterflies with Nancy G.’ I’ve been doing pretty much a day-by-day blogging. If I don’t have the answer, I definitely have a lot of resources.”

You can use different size cages for different sized caterpillars. She uses a sandwich size container with a lid for the incubator. That is where the caterpillars will stay for four or five days. Then they graduate to a bigger area.

“Don’t overcrowd,” she said. “Have different cages for different sizes. Keep the larger versus the smaller ones separate. I use mesh cages so flies and wasps can’t get into the cage. Those two are horrible predators.”

The caterpillar from the time it has hatched to the time it goes into its chrysalis grows a thousand times, which would be compared to a baby growing to the size of a school bus in ten days’ time. From the time it becomes a chrysalis to butterfly is ten to 14 days depending on if they are reared inside or outside where it is cooler.

“I like to release them when it is not too cold,” she said. “They are pretty spoiled.”

Dugas-Gilmore said her booth will show how the hatcheries can be put together inexpensively including with mesh hampers that can be purchased for a just a few dollars. You can put mosquito netting over the end of the hamper attached with clothespins.

This is her third season to hatch monarchs and the largest amount that she has released. She has released 76 and still has quite a few left to hatch. They will hatch until about mid- October.

There is a nationwide Raise The Migration effort to raise monarch butterflies to release for fall’s annual monarch migration. While small scale rearing such as Dugas-Gilmore advocates can be beneficial, she said some professionals oppose large scale rearing of monarch because of concerns it can spread disease and interfere with nature. But raising milkweed and pollinator plants in your garden is highly encouraged by experts.

“Most of the milkweed needs six to eight hours of full sun, if possible,” Dugas-Gilmore said. “I have also found that container planting works just as well as planting in the ground. And last year, that is what sustained me. I had fifteen small pots of milkweed that, when I would run out of the big ones, I would bring in those little pots and let the caterpillars strip it.”

While there are a number of native milkweeds, Dugas-Gilmore also likes the tropical milkweed because they grow so abundantly. Those aren’t recommended in southern locations where it doesn’t freeze, but are okay for colder climates in the U.S.

Dugas-Gilmore will have a booth explaining how to give the monarch a helping hand by establishing a hatchery at the 2nd Annual Native Plant Fair on Saturday, Oct. 13, from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. at the Eureka Springs Community Center.