Elizabeth McFarlane has released 30 monarch butterflies into the wild from her home on Chenaux Road near Haley Station. The final six were released over the weekend.
For the past five years, Mrs. McFarlane has been seriously collecting monarch caterpillars and raising them until they become monarch butterflies.
“I collect the caterpillars, feed them and release them when they are butterflies,” she said.
These caterpillars only eat milkweed, so Mrs. McFarlane has allowed those plants to grow in a few areas of her yard and garden to attract the butterflies, which will then lay larvae, usually on the underside of the milkweed leaves.
She became interested in raising monarch butterflies many years ago when her daughter Brittany was learning about the lifecycle of the butterfly in school. Nearby school teacher Arlene McLaughlin (now deceased) encouraged Mrs. McFarlane to save the butterflies.
Then life became busy and it wasn’t until five years ago she became interested again after hearing how the monarch butterfly may be put on the endangered species list.
“I’m helping them survive their natural predators -- birds, spiders, other bugs,” she said. “I’m providing a safe haven. I want to help more come full cycle and survive.”
Two years ago, she released almost 60 -- the most she has ever released, and decided to do something special – she had a monarch butterfly tattooed onto her inner left arm.
“So far this year, I’ve released 24,” she said.
She thought she was done collecting the caterpillars when she unexpectedly came across seven more in her garden. She put them into a clear, plastic container with some milkweed leaves.
“They eat a lot as they grow,” Mrs. McFarlane said.
It’s also important to clean the container, she said, explaining, “They shit like crazy when they are eating.”
It takes about 10 to 14 days to change from larvae to caterpillar and then the same amount of time to change from caterpillar to chrysalis.
When the caterpillars are nearing the time to change, Mrs. McFarlane explained they hang from the top of the container in the shape of the letter j prior to changing into the chrysalis, which when it happens, takes only four to seven minutes.
“If you watch carefully, you can see the body moves as it prepares to change. You have to sit and be patient.
“It took a few years for me to capture it on video.”
When the caterpillar is changing into the chrysalis, it starts from the head and goes upwards, because the head is at the bottom of the j. When completed, it looks like a green shell and is hard.
“It’s almost like it’s turning its body inside out,” she said.
Eventually the chrysalis becomes transparent and the beautiful monarch markings can be seen. As it begins to emerge as the butterfly, its wings are crinkly and wet.
After about two to four hours, the wings are dry enough that she is able to transfer the butterfly to her hollyhocks and they are able to fly away in about two more hours after the wings are completely dry.
“I love the whole process,” she said. “I don’t ever get tired of it.”
She has discovered these are the butterflies that make the 5,000 kilometre trek to Mexico. Then, over the next three years, their descendants begin the trek back. She noted they only go so far and as they reach each destination, they lay larvae, and then the butterfly eventually dies.
“This means that the ones that lay larvae here could be third or fourth generation of a butterfly I’ve released,” Mrs. McFarlane explained.
The Monarch Whisperer, as she has been fondly called, is also sharing her love for the butterfly with the individuals at Community Living in Renfrew where she works.
“Jennifer (Roche) let’s them sit there on her finger until the wings are dry,” she said. “She’s always doing research on the butterflies and has even taught me a few things.
“Jen loves watching the whole process. The chrysalis gets dark. Then as it gets closer to opening up as a butterfly, it becomes translucent and you can see the colours.”
To ensure she is capturing a monarch caterpillar and not a milkweed moth, she looks for the markings of yellow, black and white stripes. She begins checking underneath the milkweed leaves once she sees monarchs flying around. When she finds a caterpillar that is at least half an inch in length, she will pluck it from the safety of the leaf and put it into a container.
Mrs. McFarlane had already released 24 butterflies and thought she was done for the season when she came across seven more. It’s unfortunate, but the smallest one did not form into a chrysalis.
She admits the chrysalis is a mystery and “that’s part of the fascination. The changing is a wonder of nature.”
While she hasn’t come across any more caterpillars, she does admit any found in September may not develop.
She recalls that last year at this time, she was just starting to release the butterflies, while this year she’s finished.
“I don’t know why the difference,” she said
Connie Tabbert, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader