LEESBURG — In a house just west of Tippecanoe Lake, dozens of caterpillars in chrysalises lay in wait to transform into monarch butterflies, marvelous creatures well-known for their annual migration from the northern United States to more southern and warmer areas.
The monarch butterfly population has rapidly declined in recent years, but one local woman is doing her part to help the butterflies while also enjoying one of her favorite hobbies: raising caterpillars.
Kay Allen Pylant, Leesburg, started raising monarch caterpillars in 2016. This year, she currently has more than a dozen of the creatures in various forms, from caterpillars the size of a pinhead to chrysalises black and orange in color, soon to hatch a butterfly.
“It’s like the caterpillars go from the size of a newborn baby to the size of a three-story building in 10 to 12 days,” said Pylant. “It’s absolutely remarkable.”
Unfortunately, the unpredictable weather has put a damper on the number of eggs and caterpillars Pylant has found this year. Last year, Pylant raised and released more than 500 butterflies. However, this year, Pylant has cut back on her numbers due to the overall workload and other summer commitments.
“It really does take quite a bit of work to make sure they’re well fed and to monitor them properly,” said Pylant.
Pylant’s setup for caterpillar-raising involves mesh pop-up hampers for the caterpillars to reside in, as well as clothespins and tulle to act as a type of barrier for the hampers.
This year’s group is in one hamper with a couple of jars containing milkweed plants and small caterpillars; one with green chrysalises hanging from secure strings and metal hooks; and a final hamper placed outside where chrysalises in their final stage can hatch, allowing the butterflies the opportunity to dry off their wings and take to the skies.
“The caterpillars can go through a leaf of milkweed a day, so there’s a lot of times where I’m going out and getting fresh leaves for them twice a day,” said Pylant. “Sometimes, when it’s really quiet at night, you can hear the caterpillars just munching away.”
The common milkweed plant is one that can be typically found on the sides of roadways or near fields. But Pylant grows various types of the plant in her gardens, including asclepias. She looks for their eggs, which are the size of a toothpick tip, and picks the plants they’re on to begin the process of supervising their growth.
Toward the end of the raising cycle for the year, Pylant tags her last batch of monarch butterflies with stickers from The University of Kansas for “Monarch Watch,” which focuses on tracking the migration patterns of the butterflies. The stickers are placed on the sturdiest part of the monarch’s wings and don’t inhibit flying capabilities since their wings are durable for migrating.
“Less than one out of 10 survive,” said Pylant. “The monarchs are losing forests in Mexico and along their way…they’re losing all of that globally, not just locally.”
Pylant recommended that anyone interested in learning more about monarch butterflies or raising them should attend the Fort Wayne Monarch Festival, which is taking place this year on Sept. 8, at Eagle Marsh Preservation. She also said that milkweed plants that aren’t invasive can be purchased at any Lowe’s store.
“The whole raising process is so fascinating, I really don’t think I could pick a favorite part of it,” said Pylant. “Every time I see a caterpillar making a chrysalis or emerging from one, I just stop and watch them. It’s very relaxing.”