A Monarch Momma Helps Us

In Transylvania County, “monarch butterflies” are frequently paired in conversation with “Joyce Pearsall.” How many Monarch Waystations has she helped to get in the ground? How many state rest areas now have Waystations? How many caterpillars has she raised? These numbers may no longer even be knowable!

Monarch caterpillar on swamp milkweed ( Asclepias incarnata ).

Monarch caterpillar on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).

This past week at UUTC a number of plants were put into the ground as the Facilities Team works to realize their vision of a Fellowship Green. This vision is guided by a policy created by the Property Committee a year ago that reads: Stewardship of UUTC Property— When considering the stewardship of the UUTC property, those delegated the authority and responsibility by the Board to make decisions about the management and maintenance of buildings and grounds shall, whenever possible, minimize negative impacts on the environment through the use of natural and native materials, plants and products. As boots hit the ground, this meant that almost all the new plants put into the ground were native species, and six of them happened to be swamp milkweed.

Later in the week, checking to make sure that everything was moist and looking healthy, these six plants were discovered to be hosting baby monarchs!

Since the plants were not yet what we could call “established,” there was concern that the caterpillars would consume the plants to such an extent that the plants would not live to serve future eggs. So, our resident expert and UUTC member, Joyce, was called to see if she would provide nursery care for this first batch. Happily, she said she would!

The tips of the swamp milkweed were cut to carry the babies to Joyce’s nursery.

The tips of the swamp milkweed were cut to carry the babies to Joyce’s nursery.

In all, 14 caterpillars were discovered and taken to Joyce for safe rearing.

One huge advantage for these babies is that Joyce grows Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), which makes the caterpillars much more toxic to the things that would consume them. The survey flags shown in the first image in the gallery below show where Joyce has marked the milkweed as it has started to come up this spring. The patches of dirt show where she has let folks dig up some milkweed to take to their own yards.

Joyce has been rearing monarch butterflies for many years, and has recently moved to “individual” housing for the rearing process. This allows her to isolate caterpillars early on, keeping the possible biological hazards carried by one from getting to the others. The images in the gallery below show Joyce dispensing the collected caterpillars into their condos with an additional piece of milkweed leaf as necessary to get them through until morning, when she will replenish the leaves in every condo. Click the image below to advance through the images.

To learn more about raising monarchs and creating monarch waystations, visit Monarch Watch. Transylvania County is part of the corridor that this magnificent species uses as it migrates to Mexico (and returns) each year.