'We have monarchs' Woman raises, tags butterflies

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Marcia Nelesen
Saturday, August 26, 2017

JANESVILLE -- Ann Reilly croons to the monarchs she hatches in her home and admits she is tempted to stroke their velvety wings.

“These are what my husband refers to as my pets,” Reilly said.

“We don't have cats and dogs.

“We have monarchs.”

But Reilly has learned monarchs are not keen on human petting -- even from those who keep the voracious eaters supplied with fresh milkweed.

Reilly and her husband, Bob, live on a tranquil cul-de-sac at 406 Seminole Court. Her home, not surprisingly, is surrounded by milkweed, the monarch caterpillar's sustenance.

Reilly, 63, has been caring for and tagging monarchs for more than 20 years under the auspices of MonarchWatch.org.

A monarch she tagged in 2015 was found the next spring in El Rosario, Mexico, one of two major overwintering sites more than 2,000 miles away. The butterfly had died during a bad storm.

Raising and releasing monarchs is not an easy chore and can take several hours a day during high season.

Reilly first gathers the tiny white eggs by carefully examining the milkweed leaves. She has a butterfly and bee garden filled with milkweed and other flowers such as zinnias, butterfly weed and butterfly bush. Sometimes, she might find a tiny caterpillar with a body striped yellow, black and white.

Reilly's garden, in fact, is designated a Monarch Wayside by MonarchWatch.org, Number 220 out of more than 17,200 that supplement the monarch's disappearing habitat.

A hole in a milkweed indicates an egg has already hatched and a larva munched at the site. It breaks her heart because she knows she missed that caterpillar.

Reilly breaks off the stem that contains the egg and takes it inside for safekeeping. She puts it in a can with water in her nursery terrarium.

She moves the caterpillars from tank to tank as they shed their skins and grow. They are big eaters, and Reilly can sometimes hear them munching. She has at times had to search out other sources of milkweed in city parks.

Reilly has a specially dedicated hand-held vacuum to clean up the caterpillar poop, the amount of which is produced in direct correlation to how much the caterpillars eat.

Finally, the caterpillars spin into bright, lime-green chrysalises bordered in gold specks.

Reilly raises upwards of 25 caterpillars at a time as she waits for another dozen or so to emerge.

There have been some great escapes through the years, and Reilly has periodically found monarchs that have hatched outside her terrariums flying about her house.

When the monarchs emerge, she waits until their wings dry and releases them to the wild. If they fail the initial flight, she keeps them safe until they can take off.

“What are we going to do with you?” she asked one male monarch she recently tagged. He had drifted downward instead of powering up. She tucked him under an awning to rest until he found his wings.

Reilly raises the monarchs all summer but starts tagging them now because this is the generation that will head south. She also wields a mighty net and tags any she captures.

Just how do you tag a monarch? Very carefully.

Years ago, the tags were affixed over the top of the insects' wings, but naturalists realized the tags impeded the butterflies' aerodynamics. Now, a tiny sticker is placed on the flat part of the wing, the glue specially developed for a monarch's wing, Reilly said.

Reilly by now is an expert on all things monarch. She noted how they rear their heads at loud noises. She recalled the first time she saw the caterpillars doing laps around the bottom of a terrarium and thought they had gone crazy. Instead, they were just preparing to spin their chrysalises.

Reilly figures she's tagged a total of 825 monarchs and counting and raised more than 1,200.

Monarchs this year are doing very well, she is happy to report.

More people have become aware of monarchs and their disappearing habitat, and that's a good thing, she said.

Reilly raises the butterflies because she considers herself a naturalist. Her goal is to save the babies from predators and give the species a better chance. She is partial to all butterflies. They are beautiful, and she likes the idea of them living outside in her garden.

But she figures she is also making amends for a past wrong.

Reilly recalled how, as a young child, she once caught butterflies and kept them in a coffee can. When she checked on them later, they had died.

The image stuck with her.

“Maybe I am just paying my debt,” she said.

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