Hobby takes flight

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Oliver Ludvik, 7, from Marquette, shows off the containers where he raises monarch butterflies. Filled with sticks and milkweed leaves, the enclosures provide habitat and food as the insects make their way from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis to butterfly. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

Oliver currently has a number of hungry caterpillars who, over two weeks, will grow and shed several times before entering the pupa stage. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

Oliver began raising and releasing butterflies two years ago. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

“It’s pretty weird how they transform,” Oliver said. “I like when I get to let them go.” (Submitted photo)

Oliver shows off a drawing he created demonstrating the life cycle of a monarch butterfly. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

Marquette boy enjoys raising monarchs

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Reaching into a glass enclosure littered with sticks and milkweed leaves, Oliver Ludvik carefully coaxes a monarch butterfly onto his fingertips. Observing the hind wings, he makes a discovery.

“This one doesn’t have a dot,” he noted, “so it’s a girl.”

The Marquette 7 year old has lovingly raised the insect since it was an egg—no bigger than a pin head—on the underside of a milkweed leaf. But it’s time for the butterfly to leave its enclosure and head into the wild, where it will hopefully lay the next generation of monarchs for Oliver to find and nurture.

Once a monarch emerges from its chrysalis, it must wait at least several hours before taking flight.

“The wings are wet at first,” Oliver said. “It’s like an orange blob.”

But slowly, you see the butterfly’s tail pump blood to its wings, making them bigger, stronger.

This monarch doesn’t need much encouragement. Within seconds, it flutters from Oliver’s hand, becoming one of the dozens he’s successfully raised and released over the past two years.

Oliver was introduced to the hobby by his grandma, Peggy Schultz. She lives in the country, in a location rich in milkweed plants, where monarchs lay their eggs. Milkweed is also the only plant monarch caterpillars can eat.

Beginning in June, she and her grandson enjoy scouring the milkweed for the eggs and baby caterpillars. Eaten leaves are often an indication the plant is home to the creatures. Pastures, fields and road ditches are some of the prime locations. Oliver looks everywhere he travels.

“They’re just teeny weeny,” Oliver said, so you have to look hard.

Pointing to one egg, he added, “That one’s black, so it’s about to hatch.”

The young entomologist also finds eggs and caterpillars in some milkweed patches on the bench neighborhood, in Marquette. The leaves provide sustenance to the hungry caterpillars he’s collected, who, over two weeks, grow and shed several times before entering the pupa stage.

“Through their whole life, they probably eat 30 leaves or more,” Oliver explained.

Earlier this year, Oliver received some milkweed seed pods from Alicia Mullarkey, director at the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre, so he could begin growing the plant in his own backyard.

When a caterpillar is ready to pupate, Oliver said it crawls and attaches to the top of the enclosure or container where it lives, then forms a “J.” Soon, it’s enclosed as a chrysalis. 

“They use thread,” Oliver said. “It’s like they’re wiggling into a sleeping bag.”

This stage lasts for eight to 13 days, at which time the monarch emerges. This is Oliver’s favorite part.

“It’s pretty weird how they transform,” he said. “I like when I get to let them go.”

Oliver also enjoys sharing his passion with others. He’s set up friends and acquaintances with their own caterpillars and taught them how to raise the insects. Some of the monarchs raised and released at the Wetlands Centre have come from Oliver.

“It’s fun to watch,” said Oliver’s mom, Miranda Ludvik. “His little sister is getting into it too.”

“It’s really going strong now,” she added. “When he first started, there were just a few. Now, they breed and continue to make more.”

Oliver likes that the hobby allows him to have fun exercising and exploring nature. 

He’s also helping the species, whose population has dipped dangerously low in the last couple decades. 

“We have to protect our pollinators,” Oliver shared. “They help things grow.”

Habitat has been lost where the monarchs winter, in Mexico. Milkweed has become more scarce where they live in the summer, due to herbicides and mowing. In the wild, they’re also more susceptible to predators.

“Ants eat the eggs, spray kills them, birds try and eat them,” Peggy noted.

Raising them, as Oliver does, increases the survival rate.

“Ninety percent of the caterpillars people raise survive,” she said. In the wild, that drops to just 10 percent.

Plus, said Peggy, “it’s educational for kids. They get to see the whole life cycle.”

Raising monarchs isn’t too difficult, or expensive, she remarked.

“You don’t need a fancy container,” she quipped. “Just a plastic jar works.”

Simply cover it with paper towel or mesh, then wrap a rubber band around the jar rim to keep the material in place.

As for Oliver, he doesn’t see himself tiring of the hobby.

“I want to do it until I’m at least 10,” he said.

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