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Wings on Her Shoulders

The Monarch's Angel of Mercy

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By Susan DeGrane

Pat Haynes walks into Java Express, a coffee shop in Beverly, carrying a small portable cooler. She wears a T-shirt with a picture of a monarch butterfly and silver butterfly rings on her fingers. From the cooler she pulls a large, widemouthed glass jar. Two butterfly chrysalides hang like fluorescent green gems from the silk webbing at the side of the jar, and two more dangle from the scrap of cloth secured at the top with a rubber band. In a smaller pickle jar, four tiny caterpillars are busy devouring milkweed leaves. My backyard contains several milkweed plants, the only food developing monarchs can eat, and Haynes has brought me these to watch over and eventually release.

A school social worker, Haynes has helped raise nearly 600 monarch eggs and caterpillars in the last decade. With its orange and black markings, the monarch (Danaus plexippus) is among the most widely known butterflies; it lives in the city or the country, wherever milkweed grows, though it migrates to warmer regions for the winter. Unfortunately, global warming has caused severe weather changes and unusually cold weather in Mexico, one of the monarch's winter habitats. Urban sprawl is eliminating areas where the native prairie plant is allowed to grow, and pesticides and lawn-care treatments kill the monarch. Recent studies indicate that monarch caterpillars are killed by pollen from corn that's been genetically engineered to survive the corn-borer moth.

"Remember there was the freak snowfall in the mountains of Mexico, in the winter of '95?" asks Haynes. "The news showed monarchs all over the ground. I knew then I really had to do something to help." The following summer she began to devote her school breaks to adopting and raising monarchs. This year, as of August 24, she's found 347 eggs and caterpillars while scouring milkweed plants in alleys, along railroad tracks, and in supermarket parking lots. When she stops in at the Jewel-Osco, she'll carry her leaves and eggs with her in Ziploc bags to prevent them from overheating in her car. She purchases large quantities of Vlasic dill pickles because the jars are perfect for raising monarchs. "I have at times dumped the pickles into other containers, just so I could use the jars." Fortunately her husband likes dill pickles.

Haynes rises early and checks several prime locations: near the Metra station on 91st, on 101st near Saint Barnabas School, around the edges of the Edna White Century Garden at 111th and Homewood. In a notebook she records when and where the eggs and caterpillars are found, when each egg hatches, when each caterpillar enters the chrysalis stage, and when and in what stage the developing monarchs are placed with families. The glass jars holding the creatures are labeled with the same information, and Haynes provides her caretakers with detailed instructions and her phone number. So far this summer she's enlisted 43 families in her mission--44 including mine.

About 30 to 35 days after the monarch egg has been laid, the chrysalis darkens and becomes transparent, which means the adult butterfly is about ready to spread its wings. "The butterfly will emerge droopy and sort of wet," Haynes tells me. "His job is to hang, let the fluid go into his wings. Once he's ready to move a bit, you can take a stick or your finger and let him grab on. Then put him gently on a bush; let him just sit there and pump his wings."

In nature the monarch has a 10 percent survival rate. The eggs are no bigger than the head of a pin, and the young caterpillars measure one to two millimeters in length, so they're easy prey for spiders, earwigs, and parasitic wasps. "Spiders suck the juice out of the egg," says Haynes. "Earwigs eat the eggs. The parasitic wasp implants its eggs in the monarch caterpillar, so it may hang for a day, waiting to go into the chrysalis stage. It seems like nothing is happening, and then you'll see all these grubs fall out of its body. It's really gross." Aphids consume milkweed, and black ants, milking the aphids for food much as we milk cows, help themselves to the monarch eggs as well.

But Haynes has reversed the odds: of the 347 eggs and caterpillars she's collected this summer, only 37 have died, about half from parasites and the other half from neglect or mishandling. "I always know people are being truthful because it's usually such a thrilling experience to release them," she says. "This year I learned that it's really better not to give them to people who don't have easy access to milkweed. One family had to hunt for milkweed. Nine caterpillars were released into the wild where there was no milkweed. Those were surely fatalities."

Once when she found some Hispanic gardeners clearing away weeds at the Edna White garden, Haynes delivered a lecture in broken Spanish and pantomime, pointing to the butterflies on her shirt and repeating the word mariposa until the gardeners agreed to spare the milkweed. A relative of the tropical rubber plant, which many people consider an attractive houseplant, milkweed bears fragrant pink blossoms the size and shape of tennis balls. "It's unfortunate that people think this looks like a weed," says Haynes. "Maybe that's because it can grow anywhere, but it's really beautiful." Once the monarch is full grown, that early diet of milkweed helps keep it alive. Milkweed contains substances similar to those found in foxglove; when a monarch butterfly is consumed by a bird, its skeletal tissue is toxic enough to stop the bird's heart.

Haynes places the monarchs with friends, neighbors, and fellow churchgoers. "You really can see the gold on the chrysalis," she told seven-year-old Rosa Gallagher one Sunday morning, after a service at Beverly Unitarian Church. "The dots look like 14-karat." Rosa's father, Ed, agreed to take four caterpillars and two chrysalides for Rosa and her nine-year-old brother, Lukas. "Fortunately," he joked, "the place we live in has every species of plant native to Illinois."

All of the Gallaghers' monarchs were released successfully. "I liked it when they were caterpillars," says Rosa. "They were kind of cute. But I actually didn't know they ate so much. I gave them three leaves one evening and when I came home they were starving." The Gallaghers also found an egg in their backyard and raised it as well. "He used to be almost a dot. He chewed big holes in the leaves--giant for a baby caterpillar."

"This was a great year for them here," says Haynes. "I started seeing them around Mother's Day, and usually you won't find them until the middle of June. I call this the Monarch Millennium."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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