Downtime: Mother of Monarchs

Mother of Monarchs

Fate seems to always show itself when you least expect it, and always in the least likely places. Such is the case of our client, Rosemary Miller. In June 2017, Rosemary accompanied her husband, Don, to a program put on by the local library about indigenous plants.

According to Rosemary, the event itself was interesting and informative. But the most interesting part of that program wasn’t learning about Wild Gingers or New England Asters. It was the four sample tropical milkweed she and Don received following the conclusion of the program. For those that don’t know, milkweeds are the plant of choice for monarch butterflies, who use them to feed and most importantly lay their eggs. She would have never guessed at the time the impact these plants would have on her.

Just three years later, Rosemary had released nearly 25 monarch butterflies into the wild that she helped raise, with more to come. You see, raising butterflies has become a passion for her. But let’s pause and rewind.

Just one year prior to this program, Rosemary’s mother who lived with her family for 7 years, passed away at the age of 95. As you can imagine, the loss of a loved one is absolutely devastating. It’s enough to put down even someone as positive and jovial as Rosemary herself. When such tragedies occur, the best cure to cope is always keeping busy. Now, let’s fast forward to that fateful day in June 2017, where she picked up a necessary and upbeat distraction.

Rosemary had always known that milkweeds attract butterflies—but had never considered purchasing one due to its unsavory moniker of being a weed. And on top of that, she wasn’t sure if they were worth having if only to draw in butterflies. But that whole perception changed in early July after she had seen her first monarch butterfly in 25 years. Her interest was now piqued. It was soon after that she discovered two eggs planted neatly on one of the milkweed’s leaves. Butterfly eggs are no bigger than the head of a pin and if you didn’t know any better, the naked eye would dismiss them as no more than small specs of dirt.

“They’re pretty hard to see, but once you know what you’re looking for it becomes easy,” said Rosemary in reflection.

She ended up taking the eggs in to raise caterpillars in hopes to witness their transformation. It was here that a long process of trial and error would ensue—recording notes, researching, closely monitoring, and finding new methods on the website, to efficiently raise these spectacular insects. In her first trial run with the two eggs, one of them didn’t end up making it. However, she did manage to follow the first one all the way through, heavily leaning on her due diligence. An interest would then become an obsession, making a habitat of milkweed for monarch butterflies on her deck and keeping a close eye on it—even if there’s company.

“My family thinks I’m a little nuts,” laughed Rosemary. “I will trip over myself to go outside if I see one!”

The following summer, Rosemary had prepared herself to take on even more eggs. A useful fact to keep in mind here is that a monarch butterfly can lay up to 300 eggs. But on average, these eggs suffer from a 3-5% survival rate, meaning it’s very rare for these eggs to see themselves become caterpillars, and even more rare for them to see themselves emerge into a gorgeous, radiant butterfly. Essentially, Rosemary is dramatically elevating those low chances of survival for each egg she takes in, saving them from predators. However, just because they made it into the house doesn’t mean they’re home free. In one instance, her husband Don accidentally posed a threat to their survival, throwing away the leaf they were resting on without realizing they were there. Ops! This would be the last time she’d leave the eggs out.

Instead, she now puts them straight into a Tupperware container labeled “eggs” to ensure they stay safe. But she didn’t stop there. There are two additional Tupperware containers, each assigned to the specific stage of the cycle the egg progresses through, with the third one being the “nursery” where the miniscule caterpillars grow until they are easier to see and transfer to a stem in a habitat.

Overall, the process takes about 28-32 days to complete. By the time they emerge from their chrysalis, it takes them about 4 hours to dry their wings to be released. Despite it being long and tedious, it’s all worthwhile to Rosemary, who says her hobby has made her faith stronger and her appreciation for nature greater.

“It feels like I’m watching God’s amazing creatures… it doesn’t look like evolution,” said Rosemary. “You can’t see it as anything other than God’s handywork. It leaves you speechless.”

She discussed further how eye opening her experience with her hobby has been, saying that it was amazing to gain perspective on the natural world and its specific functions, which is something that she believes our society has become widely desensitized to.

These butterflies and their life cycle have had a tremendous impact on Rosemary and her life. But it is not an experience she wants—or does—keep to herself. Anyone is welcomed to her deck to see her monarchs. In fact, at one of our many client appreciation events, she actually invited another one of our clients, George Houk, with his wife and granddaughter, to the deck to watch the most recent batch of monarchs take flight.

But the thing that she’s gained from this that’s even more valuable to her, is that it has allowed her to stay connected to her mother and has helped her move forward. This past Mother’s Day, her children gifted her with a stone that read “Butterflies are angels’ messengers from heaven.”

“When I was grieving, my mom would’ve told me to get busy,” said a happy and content Rosemary. “This has gotten my hands and heart busy”.

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