Being fascinated by the beauty of nature led this Dodge County woman to raising monarchs, and she willingly shares her passion and knowledge with others.
Deb Pritchard retired in 2008. Since then, she has been busier than ever with her volunteering, her grandchildren, and helping educate others on the importance of the pollinators. She knows a lot about the birds and the bees, but says she is really ‘off to the races’ when anyone mentions monarch butterflies.
As a volunteer at the Horicon Marsh Education and Visitors Center, she has been able to assist in special events, work in the gift shop and help teach classes when there are large numbers of children arriving at one time. When 220 children come, it is all hands on deck for the classes, demonstrations and group tours.
She loves her work there, but it was her grandchildren and their visits that led her to continue her own discoveries. As they would all hike the prairie and learn about trees, birds and wildflowers, they also learned about the cycles of life.
“With today’s world of technology, especially computers, I think it is imperative that we show our younger generation that there is more to our world than just us,” said Deb, the grandmother of five. The best way to show that is leading by example. “If we can teach them respect for nature, and that everything has a place and a purpose, we are on the right track.”
Although she raises honeybees, and has for the last three years, it is the monarchs and their life-cycle that keep Deb and her grandchildren busy. They have been working with monarchs since 2008. Deb’s granddaughter, Lauryn, has been most excited about the process and has been learning many new things each year. Lauryn is now 15, but she has been raising her own monarchs for several years.
“I got interested because of my grandma,” said Lauryn. “She has taught me so much about monarchs and then I got to raise my own caterpillar from egg to butterfly. I know that when I get older, I would like to tell other kids about monarchs and raising them just like me and my grandma. I like watching them grow each day going from instar to instar and finally releasing them back into the wild. I really like seeing them fly for the first time and free.”
An instar is a developmental stage of arthropods. Monarchs go through five of them, molting as they grow. Lauryn has been learning all the stages since she started at age four. Since that time, she and her grandma have attended seminars together, including one on tagging through the University of Kansas.
Deb, her granddaughter, and friends and neighbors who have become interested use the method they learned during a Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin field trip given by Jessica Miller, Naturalist at Mosquito Hill Nature Center in New London, WI.
They start by finding the eggs the monarchs lay on milkweed. Deb emphasizes the need for milkweed—lots and lots of milkweed—for monarchs to lay their eggs. Caterpillars need milkweed as a food source once they hatch, so very efficiently, the monarchs lay the eggs right on the food source.
Deb insists that Lauryn is the real expert at spotting the eggs, no larger than the top of a stickpin. The whole process from egg to adult is just twenty-four to twenty-eight days. In order to increase the number hatching, and therefore increase the number of pollinators, collecting and caring for eggs is one way to ensure continuation of a healthy species.
Once the eggs hatch, all the caterpillars are kept in their own containers (#2 deli container modified for that purpose) to avoid diseases that can be spread from caterpillar to caterpillar. They are fed milkweed and the containers are cleaned daily until the butterflies emerge. So basically, they live from start to finish in their own container, protecting them from predators and harsh weather. “You can release them after they dry their wings and often within six hours, but I prefer to let them rest until the following day,” said Pritchard about her own process.
“Lauryn and I tag all the super generation through a program at the University of Kansas, Monarch Watch. You can tag ones you raise and ones you net in the wild. Tags are available each year starting in March. You purchase them and they are small tags that will affix to a special spot on their wing. We log the date of release, whether the monarch is male or female, wild or raised on location. If any are found by others along their journey south or in Mexico, the information is on the tag so it can be reported to the UK to track their migration,” explained Pritchard.
Pritchard encourages adults as well as children to get involved for the ideal of saving a species, but also for the joy of it. Monarchs are the only butterfly here that migrate, and they need to survive and return in order to continue the important job of pollination. “It is truly amazing when you think about it.” Deb adds, “I can’t find my way around Milwaukee and these guys find their way to the same trees in Mexico each year. Due to many factors, the numbers were declining in the past few years. But last year, the numbers in the ‘corn belt’ were the best in the past 25 years.” Something is working in their favor, and it could be the dedicated humans and their assistance.
If you want to invest a little time collecting milkweed and cleaning containers, you can experience being part of the process and part of the solution. As Pritchard puts it, “If you like to eat, you need to be concerned and consider helping this and all of the insects that pollinate our crops.”
As a tool to educate children, butterflies are the perfect start to get children outdoors, teach them responsibility, and give them skills that will be of value their whole lives. As a connection between generations, Deb and her grandchildren can attest to strengthening the bond in nature.
You don’t have to raise them to be a helper. Becoming a Citizen Scientist is another way to be involved. Documenting and reporting sightings help track the migration. Planting habitat in your own back yard, however small a space, helps as well. Milkweed and nectar plants like daisies, asters, and zinnias all will attract pollinators. Not using pesticides and harmful herbicides assists survival.
“We can’t save them all, but we raise them for education and awareness as well. Our biggest hope is to excite and involve the kids,” was Pritchard’s last and most important message. Seeing the big picture—the birds, the bees, the butterflies and the trees—is one way to keep the balance of life. When Lauryn said her grandma is always teaching her new things, that too is the continuum of life. Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar.