By K. Woodzick, Editor
Kerry Bloedorn, Director at the Pioneer Park Historical Complex, has been rearing Monarch butterflies in the Northwoods for several years.
The Monarch enclosure is located just inside the main entrance of the Pioneer Park Historical Complex. At its busiest, the enclosure is home to 40 Monarch caterpillars. A bottle of milkweed rests in the center to feed the caterpillars before they shed their skin for the fifth time, a process called an instar.
The caterpillars will then find a place to hang and start building their chrysalis. Kerry likes to call the process of wandering to choose their new home a “walkabout.” Once they have found their perfect spot, they use silk from their mouth to create a pad called a “button,” from which they hang from their tail, or cremaster. As each butterfly exits the chrysalis (a process known as an eclosure), Kerry documents each one. This summer, he’s up to 73.
“The chrysalis goes from green to clear as the butterfly forms” Kerry explained. There are even jewelers on Etsy who have tried to replicate the delicate jade form with gold accents.
The chrysalis comes from inside of the caterpillar. As the caterpillar hangs in the “J” position, the back of its skin splits open and the caterpillar then starts to squeeze it to the top of its tail to form the chrysalis.
“The organs of the butterfly are the only thing that are inside the chrysalis, and it begins to rebuild itself into a butterfly from the organs up,” Kerry shared. “It’s really amazing.”
Occasionally, a chrysalis needs a little extra help hanging. Kerry has a New Glarus Brewing
Company Spotted Cow beer bottle that holds a stick stabilized by clips that house the chrysalises that need a little extra love. He calls it his “Chrysalis Holder.”
Kerry can tell that the season is winding down by the lack of Monarch eggs on milkweed plants. The butterflies will soon migrate to Mexico, where millions of Monarchs spend their winters in huge pine forests. The migration process starts over again next year in Mexico, when the butterflies begin their journey north, following the milkweed. It takes two to three generations from their ancestors in Mexico for the Monarchs to end up in the Northwoods.
While in northern Wisconsin, the butterflies go through three to four generations before they start to head back to Mexico.
“These butterflies are genetically predisposed to live shorter lives through the summertime,” Kerry shared. “Then, around this time of the year, the eggs that turn into caterpillars that turn into chrysalises that turn into butterflies, those butterflies will then start again to be genetically predisposed to live longer…Their wings are a little bit longer, a little bit bigger sometimes, a little bit more aerodynamically tapered, so that those butterflies can make the migration back to Mexico. Which is a huge distance. It’s almost unfathomable how far these butterflies go.”
The generational migration of the Monarch is one of the most fascinating aspects of this whole process. Their DNA guides them from Mexico to Wisconsin and back again from generation to generation.
Female Monarchs typically lay one egg per milkweed plant. After hatching, each caterpillar eats their own eggshell. There are seven milkweed varieties in Wisconsin, and the common milkweed grows abundantly in the Northwoods.
Kerry used to collect the caterpillars from milkweed plants when he first developed an interest in Monarchs. During that time, he had roughly an 80% success rate for Monarch releases. As his process has evolved, now he will collect the eggs from the base of milkweed plants and gently wash them in a bleach solution to give them the best chance of reaching the caterpillar stage. This new process has led to an increase in his success rate in Monarch releases, which now rests at 95%. Over the past five years alone, he estimates he has released 500 butterflies.
“I try to stay clear of saying that I raise butterflies because I don’t. I really just supervise their life cycle. They raise themselves,” he emphasized. “The reason I do that is because less than 10% of Monarch butterflies go from egg to butterfly – because it is a hard world out there for a Monarch butterfly.”
Monarchs face challenges from forces ranging from parasites to pesticides. Kerry hopes that bringing the caterpillars to the Pioneer Park Historical Complex enclosure helps to spread the word about these insects.
“It’s just a great place, because kids and families love to come to the museum, everyone loves bugs and butterflies, and it’s a great educational opportunity for me. People get to hold a caterpillar, see a butterfly take off, and all of that is a huge factor in protecting these insects moving into the future.”
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recently released good news about Monarch habitat in the state. Over 100,000 acres of new or enhanced Monarch habitat has been reported, most of it on DNR State Natural Areas. These efforts have been led by the Wisconsin Monarch Collaborative, which was founded in 2018. This organization also provides advice and resources on how to create and maintain Monarch habitats locally.
Cultivating pollinator habitats is a crucial aspect of supporting Monarch butterflies: “Equally as important as milkweed (food for Monarch caterpillars) is wildflower habitat for butterflies in general,” Kerry said. “And not just Monarch butterflies, but any number of butterflies, bees and other pollinators that we have here in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.”
There are local examples of pollinator gardens at the Oneida County Courthouse and ArtStart Rhinelander. The Oneida County Land and Water Conservation website has many resources for those interested in learning more about Monarchs, pollinator gardens and more.
Monarch Watch is a great resource for those looking for more information about supporting Monarch butterflies. Kerry encourages folks to reach out to him via Facebook or in person at the Pioneer Park Historical Complex if they have questions or need help.
Kerry is grateful to those committed to supporting Monarch butterflies and looks forward to seeing these efforts progress. “The Monarch numbers have gone up, in the last five years, especially. I really hope that continues.”
K. Woodzick is a life-long theatre artist and has over a decade of experience as a non-profit marketing professional and writer. They live in Woodruff with their silver lab, River.