Monarchs find sanctuary with Guttenberg gardener

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No, that's not a pin accenting Rosalie Kickbush's top, but a newly-hatched Monarch butterfly. The Guttenberg woman has been using a "nursery" box to protect the species as it transitions from egg to adult stage. (Photo submitted)

By Shelia Tomkins 

It all began at a quilt retreat in Oelwein. Rosalie Kickbush of Guttenberg learned more than just new quilting skills, she also met a fellow quilter who arrived bearing boxes of caterpillars munching on milkweed leaves.

The woman explained how  the caterpillars would eventually emerge as Monarch butterflies after passing through the chrysalis (or pupa) stage. Meanwhile, she provided them a haven from predators and gave them a steady supply of leaves. 

"The lady had about 20-25 going in different stages, in six or seven containers," said Rosalie. "She was going to be gone for four days, so she brought them along to take care of them."

Monarch butterflies have seen alarming declines in population in recent years due to the loss of habitat — namely, the milkweed plant they depend on during all stages of their life cycle. In fact, the caterpillar ONLY eats milkweed leaves during its feeding stage. 

Her curiosity piqued, Rosalie checked out the milkweed plants at her property and found two caterpillars. "I decided I would try and see what happened," she said.

She has since become something of an expert on the life stages of the beautiful orange and black butterflies, and has advanced from sheltering caterpillars to identifying eggs and bringing them to a "nursery" box in her home. 

Using a clear plastic shoe box, she faithfully provided her first two caterpillars with milkweed leaves. "They each could eat a whole leaf in a night," she said. 

She watched as the two grew in length until they were ready for the next stage in their lifecycle. "They go up and hang on the top of the container as they form their chrysalis," she said. "First they form a little dot. That's what they hang on to. They form a "J" shape, and then they spin some kind of webbing and turn into a chrysalis." 

The chrysalis or pupa stage can happen rather quickly, she said. "One of them, I was surprised when overnight it went into chrysalis." They remain in that stage for a couple weeks. 

Next comes the final fascinating stage when they emerge as butterflies. "It sheds all that 'skin,' and then you have a butterfly," she said.

It takes a little time before they can fly. "They hang on for awhile, and eventually walk alongside the edge of the box. Then it was all the way around the container, then down on the bottom of the box. That's when I opened it. I was going to see if it would come on my hand, but it went down on the floor, and walked up my leg." There it rested long enough for Rosalie to photograph her butterfly "tattoo."

After they have rested, Rosalie takes them outdoors and releases them. Thanks to the internet, she has learned a lot about Monarchs and can even tell a male from a female by their markings. 

"The last one stayed on my shirt for two hours and hung on my necklace," she said. Even before studying the markings, Rosalie knew it was a female. "It hung on my necklace — she likes diamonds!" 

As of Aug. 9, she had released two butterflies and had five caterpillars that hatched from eggs she harvested found on milkweed plants. She looks forward to releasing them in time for their fall migration to Mexico.

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