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From Milkweed to Monarchs

By Staff | Sep 11, 2019

BARB BARRETT/The Luminary Sammy Styer, age 9 of Lairdsville, keeps an indoor nursery for monarch butterfly eggs to hatch as they progress through their five stages of development. The shelter is free from parasites, predators, and herbicides. At the top a webbed net can be seen that was formed by the chrysalis stage.

LAIRDSVILLE-The wonders of nature have captured the keen interest of a 9-year-old boy who lives along the outskirts of Lairdsville in rural Pennsylvania.

Two years ago, Sammy Styer, son of Susan and Keith Styer, decided to join the Monarch Watch when he realized that milkweed plants were growing close to his home.

The incredible journey of the Monarch Butterfly became quite a hobby and beyond for young Styer as he gathered research and followed the life cycles of this unique creature of the world.

August is a good time to gather them according to Styer, and he has gone to great lengthswith the help of his dad, to build a nursery shelter for the cocoons. Taken indoors, he says he gets to keep a daily watch on their development. “They only lay eggs on the milkweed plant,” Styer said while pointing to a cluster of milkweed leaves in a shallow dish of water. Each of the leaves had a tiny egg, some no larger than a speck of sand, barely noticeable to the naked eye.

“One butterfly will lay 400 eggs,” Styer explained as he turned over milkweed leaves to show the various sizes of the caterpillars. “It takes 10 days to form from an egg,” he added. While indoors, under his constant watch, the cocoons and caterpillars will not have the risk of parasites or other harmful insects.

“The praying mantis is a predator that flies, and wasps especially are harmful.” He showed an example of a parasite that had already laid eggs on one of his captured caterpillars. “Sometimes the caterpillar eats the parasite eggs.”

He further explained, “The caterpillar will hang upside down before his wings come. He can’t be lying on the ground. There are five stages. They will hang out for about 24 hours before shedding their whole skin.” At this stage, it can move and feed on other plants. Young Styer said he likes this part the best, just as they become a full butterfly. He closely pointed to two of them that escaped from the box and were hanging above the doorway leading to his family’s living room. He did not want to disturb them and they will stay there until they can fly.

From now until about the first week in November, Sammy Styer, who is home-schooled by his mother, will keep a close watch on his monarch population. Watching for the milkweed also is important. “The milkweed beetle will eat the milkweed,” Styer said, while his mother added that herbicides are also killing the plant. Seed pods come from a purple flower that develops on the plant in late fall. Often the plants get mowed down, destroying the caterpillars and monarch eggs.

From visiting the website monarchwatch.org, the Styers learned that the Monarch Butterfly will travel to a forest in Mexico “where they get counted.” The forest has a perfect environment. “They don’t freeze there,” he said. The journey can be fatal with many obstacles from traffic to insecticides and bad weather. But once there, they stay for four or five months forming large clusters that can number more than 50 million butterflies. In the spring, they will fly north and again seek out the milkweed to mate and lay their eggs.

After his caterpillars reach their final stage, Styer will delicately tag them with a small sticker on their wing. As of late August this year, Sammy has released 41 monarchs. Last year he released 140. He identifies the males by having two black dots at the end of their wings, whereas the female doesn’t have any. He said he counted more males last year in early August, but towards the end of the season, he counted more migratory females. Meanwhile, the monarchs will continue to lay eggs until the end of October, and then they will start to migrate.

Young Styer hopes to get more of his friends and others to help capture the little eggs and caterpillars and grow the milkweed. His mom said he gets his friends to help him try to find them. Laura Diguiseppe, Sammy’s aunt in Maryland has been a big influence, as she is also trapping and tagging the monarch for their wondrous journey. They have been sharing photos on Facebook. “He’s so dedicated,” Laura said about her nephew. “It’s a lot of work. And he gives them milkweed.”

Susan Styer commented that the populations are increasing after a sharp decline according to measurements taken in Oyamel Fir Forest in Mexico where the monarch colonies are found. “It started low but populations are getting higher each year,” she said.

“I really like releasing them and tagging them,” Sammy said, adding, “Maybe they will bring me a dish from Mexico.”

He keeps a daily record and submits his tagging data on monarchwatch.org.