Pelican Marsh residents accidentally learn how to raise butterflies
Stuart Wisong and Ryan Hadlock started a new hobby a couple of years ago — by accident.
The Pelican Marsh residents, who are avid gardeners at their north Naples condo, purchased some cassia plants for their backyard garden without realizing cassia is a host plant that attracts butterflies.
This spring, Wisong read about a United Nations report that raises concern over the decline of pollinator animals, such as butterflies and bees. According to the report, two in five invertebrate species of pollinators are in danger of extinction.
The statistic poses concern beyond ecosystem biodiversity because much of the human food supply relies upon the services provided by pollinators. One of the factors contributing to the decline of pollinators is that farming practices have eliminated the hedgerows at field edges where butterfly host plants once grew.
Individual people can help stop the worldwide pollinator decline by planting those host plants in their own yards or in pots on patios or balconies to increase the food supply needed by the butterflies. Check with the local plant nursery for recommendations as to what to plant for butterflies.
Also, check to make certain that the plants haven’t been treated with pesticides, such as the neonicotinoid that the U.N. report cites as a particular threat to pollinating insects.
Monarch butterflies, in particular, are in jeopardy, so Hadlock sought out milkweed at the Driftwood Garden Center in Naples to add to the garden, since it’s the monarch caterpillar’s host plant.
The call about his order came in a little sooner than he expected, though, and the nursery employee said that not only had the plants come in but they also were already loaded with larvae (caterpillars). Hadlock wanted to give the larvae every chance of surviving to maturity.
“We didn’t have a place for them in our garden yet, so we put them into our entryway because it is screened,” he said. “We got three plants with 15 or 20 larvae.”
Over the course of a month, the caterpillars munched on the milkweed, formed chrysalises in the makeshift nursery and then transformed into adult butterflies that could then be released into the backyard, where they had planted lantana, the adult monarch’s favorite flowering nectar plant.
Things got a little crazy with that first batch of butterflies flapping in the foyer, and their empty chrysalises that still hang high out of reach from the screens near the ceiling.
“We had a 99 percent success rate raising them, but that got to be a little messy so we went to the terrarium to raise the others,” Hadlock said. “So far we’ve released just under 80 monarchs.”
A retired schoolteacher, Hadlock knew where to mail order an indoor butterfly farm kit from a school science project supply business because he had raised butterflies with his students in the classroom.
Wisong said that raising butterflies at home would make for a great educational hobby project that families could do together.
“A lot of children have been so far removed from nature and they’re only viewing it occasionally, so something is missing in our souls,” Wisong said. “This makes you more satisfied and calms you down to see these fluttering ‘flowers’ moving around. Knowing that they have a journey to make in their very short lives brings you pleasure, and it’s something that a family can do together and talk about at dinnertime. Seeing butterflies in our garden makes us feel more identified with the processes of nature.”
They use the butterfly farm kit to raise the caterpillars on their lanai. The netted enclosure stands about the size of two stacked milk crates and holds the milkweed plants that the larvae climb on and eat.
A second, smaller enclosure with no plants serves as a resting place for the newly emerged adults to try out their wings prior to release outdoors.
Hadlock and Wisong had the following advice for people who also would like to raise monarch butterflies. After obtaining the net enclosures kit, the next step is to buy a couple of milkweed plants that come potted in one-gallon containers.
“When you buy the milkweed, look under the leaves for tiny black specks — very small — and those are the eggs that will become larvae,” Wisong said. “If you look for the plants with the specks, you don’t have to buy the larvae.”
If the plants don’t have eggs or larvae on them, larvae can be ordered from the enclosure supplier. At least two plants are necessary so that they can be switched once the caterpillars have eaten all of the leaves from the first plant.
So long as the plant is switched before the larvae eat the stem, it will grow new leaves if placed in full sunlight. The caterpillars have to be moved gently onto the new plant. Wisong said he prefers using a leaf to carry them to the new plant.
“You have to watch because they can go through a plant very quickly,” Hadlock said. “They prefer the leaves, but they will eat the stem. The larvae are eating machines.”
Hadlock removes the host plant from the enclosure for a few minutes every day to vacuum the caterpillar droppings from the bottom of the cage. After the larvae have eaten milkweed for nine to 14 days, they will climb to the top of the net cage to form chrysalises for their eight- to 13-day pupae stage, in which they undergo metamorphosis.
He mists the chrysalises daily to keep them moist.
“When the chrysalis gets to the end, it goes from this beautiful green with gold dots to black,” Hadlock said. “They’re not dead — it’s part of the process. You can actually see the wings through the chrysalis at that point.”
Once an adult emerges from its chrysalis, it excretes liquid from its body as it stretches its wings.
“When the adult comes out, it is very important not to touch it because it’s wet and it has to stretch its wings and dry out, so we leave it in (the plant enclosure) for a day, and then we move it to (the smaller cage),” Hadlock said. “We let them set for another day, and then we take them by their wings very gently and put them onto the nectar plant.”
Additional butterfly-raising tips Hadlock and Wisong gave included keeping a fan on in the room for good air circulation and keeping the enclosures out of direct sunlight. The butterflies do have a natural pest, so Wisong said to be sure to squish any small flies that might appear in the enclosure.
Wisong and Hadlock hope to encourage their neighbors in Pelican Marsh to become butterfly gardeners. They have experience with promoting animal-welfare projects via their book “Angel Come Home,” a novel inspired by their Maltese dog.
They raise money for animal charities through the sale of the book. By applying the knowledge they gained from promoting the book, they hope to teach others how to nurture butterflies.
Connect with this writer: @LauraTichySmith (Twitter)
What: Butterfly farm kit from Educational Science
What: Wisong and Hadlock’s website