Butterfly lady acts as mother to declining monarchs
By Ginna Young
Cornell is home to its very own monarch butterfly breeder, as Joann Jackson successfully raised 376 of the winged creatures this summer. With such success, one would think Jackson is a seasoned veteran at hatching the monarchs, but in reality, she only began raising butterflies this past June.
While she has always loved seeing butterfl ies flitting here and there on flowers, she didn’t know much about the process – until the Butterfly Man came to her TOPS group.
Holcombe resident Harold Guyette has raised monarchs for a number of years, and introduced the TOPS group to his hobby.
“I’ve been wanting to learn for years, and I latched onto him,” said Jackson.
Jackson kept asking Guyette questions, until one day, he stated that he was passing the torch to Jackson and the responsibility of helping save the monarch population.
With a loss in habitat, pesticides and people mowing down milkweed that feeds monarchs, only about 10 percent reach adulthood in the wild.
“I was just blessed to meet Harold,” said Jackson, adding her mentor says he is glad he found someone to take over for him.
Jackson started out with two Cool Whip containers with chrysalis in them, before Guyette gave her his “incubating” box, which consists of a wooden frame and fine mesh screen. Although she primarily found eggs on milkweed plants along roadsides, Jackson says a few caterpillars were also discovered.
To help her hobby along, Jackson’s friends search for monarch caterpillars while on walks and turn over their finds to her. As for Jackson, it sometimes takes as long as two and a half hours to gather enough milkweed leaves to feed her babies.
It’s a time consuming hobby, to say the least, as Jackson has to clean the box of waste twice a day and re-feed the ever-growing caterpillars.
Even with Guyette’s counsel, it’s been somewhat trial and error for Jackson, who lost the first 50 or so eggs because she kept her house too cold. And, yes, she does keep the monarchs in her living room, much to Guyette’s surprise.
“I said, no, they gotta come right in here with me,” said Jackson. “I want to watch their every move.”
And watch them she does, from starting out as an egg in a screen-covered bowl, to crawling in their incubating box. Once a caterpillar is full grown, it will spin a light green chrysalis around itself and hang suspended from the sides or roof of the box.
After 10-12 days, the chrysalis turns a dark color and a newly formed butterfly will emerge. Once its wings are dry, usually an hour or two, Jackson takes her baby outside to make it in the world on its own. All in all, it’s a 20 or 22day process from caterpillar to butterfly.
She may have released hundreds in her first year, but Jackson says it is hard to let them go, after nurturing and sheltering her babies.
As many as 130 hung in chrysalises at one time in the box, which Jackson loved.
“It was green everywhere,” she said.
Jackson truly is like a mother to the monarchs, as happy shrieks of “it’s a girl” or “it’s a boy,” can be heard from her home. It’s fitting that Jackson is now called the Butterfly Lady by those who know her.
She can often be found talking to the monarchs and waits to see if the newly hatched butterflies have the distinctive twin spots on the wings that will tell her if they are males, or the spotless females.
Perhaps her babies do think of her as one of them, as Jackson says they cling to her when she takes them outside to release, but not to her sister who came for a visit during the hatching period.
“Harold says it’s got to be because I talk to them all the time,” said Jackson.
After the monarch’s wings are hardened, it flies to parts unknown, but ultimately will wind up in Mexico, where it will lay eggs and die. The creatures fly from dawn to dusk, except when it’s raining, preferring to roost.
Jackson saw immense success in her first year’s hatching, but Guyette warned her not every year will be a good one, as she might not find many eggs on milkweed each summer. However, Jackson is staying optimistic and can’t wait for her next batch of babies.
“I actually hate to see it come to an end,” said Jackson. “Winter is going to be too long.”