monarch caterpillars

Monarch butterfly caterpillars perch on a milkweed leaf in the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club garden. 

As the eastern monarch butterfly begins its long southward migration to the oyamel fir forests of Michoacán, Mexico, Hyde Parkers are taking stock of their efforts this summer to collect and count the milkweed that the insect population depends on. 

The University of Chicago Service League began its milkweed project last fall, after Marilyn Rauch Cavicchia, who maintains a Monarch Waystation at the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club (HPNC), gave a presentation on the importance of the plant. In short, monarch larvae and caterpillars can feed only on milkweed, and its disappearance in recent decades may have caused a corresponding decrease in the butterfly population. 

The Service League group set itself the goal of figuring out where in Hyde Park milkweed grew, and taking it off the hands of gardeners who may see it as an intrusive or ugly presence. They also aimed to raise awareness of black swallow-wort, an invasive species that resembles milkweed. (Monarchs can mistakenly lay their eggs on the plant, starving the larvae that subsequently hatch.)

Those plans were hampered somewhat by an injury that Cavicchia sustained at the beginning of the summer. Still, she noted, the group was able to make a good start.  

“We’re continuing to meet a little bit on Zoom and then a little bit in person, which has been fun,” she said. “We took a guided tour of the Nichols (Park) wildflower meadow. They showed us what they have growing there. That's been one of the biggest successes, is kind of getting a sense of who else is working on similar things and connecting a little more.”

This weekend, the group is planning a tour of the Cornell Oasis, 4850 S. Cornell Drive, where volunteers are catching migrating monarchs in order to put stickers on them that will help track the insects during their travels and after their arrival in central Mexico. (A full count of this year's monarch population usually isn't available until next spring.) 

Cavicchia’s waystation garden at the HPNC also grew significantly after donations from neighborhood residents. “One particular person in Hyde Park dug up a ton of it. I thought very little of it could be salvaged, because once it grows to a certain height it's hard to transplant,” she said. “She brought me this huge amount of it and I thought, ‘Alright, I'll try it,’ and it survived.” 

Cavicchia’s attempts last winter to grow milkweed in milk jugs weren’t wholly successful, in part because she “cheaped out on the seeds…I went for quantity over quality and I want to go back to quality.”  

The Service League had also planned to take part in a survey conducted by the Field Museum this summer, which enlisted people from across the city to monitor milkweed patches in their neighborhoods. That ended up getting outsourced to HPNC summer campers, who kept track of a pair of milkweed patches around the building. 

“They're very small, six plants each, eight plants each,” said Sarah Diwan, an early childhood specialist at HPNC who organizes the summer camp. “They’re both next to classroom windows, so they're part of the kids' everyday life in the playground, which we wanted as well for them to be aware that there's this life that's happening all around them when they're playing.”

Each week, the children, who ranged in age from kindergarten to 6th grade, would canvass the patches and count the number of monarch eggs, caterpillars, other bugs and blooming plants. They also took part in different stations with adult volunteers, watering and weeding the patches and other parts of the HPNC garden, as well as putting together craft projects using items from the garden. Unfortunately, Diwan said, they quickly learned an unattractive lesson about nature, red in tooth and claw, when it came to the egg count.  

“We didn't find very many caterpillars. We really found eggs and then empty egg shells, the container, the outside of the egg, which was really sad, but it told us that someone was eating the eggs. Some other bug, probably,” said Diwan. “We only found a couple of caterpillars, actually, in the very early stages of development. I don't think we found any actual chrysalises.” 

This kind of low survival rate isn’t unusual — the nonprofit Monarch Joint Venture states that only a tenth, and perhaps even fewer, of monarch eggs end up becoming adults. 

“It makes you understand why a group like the Field Museum needs to be doing this, to see where they actually are successful in their reproduction and to kind of prove the point that they're at risk,” said Diwan. “So we tried to talk about that a bit, but these are young children and I’m not sure fully grasping that. But certainly for me as an adult, it drove it home.” 

And some of the eggs did survive, even if the kids didn’t get to see them. While I was sitting by Diwan on the grass next to the HPNC last weekend, another garden volunteer walked over to tell us about a monarch caterpillar she had just found. I headed over to Cavicchia, who was looking down at a long, segmented insect wriggling around on a piece of butterfly weed, a species of milkweed with bright orange clusters of flowers. She said that it looked as if it would soon be ready to drag itself into a more secluded spot and form a chrysalis, well on its way to becoming one of the season’s rare success stories. 

For this winter, the Service League group may look to do a book club about monarchs, and possibly try to arrange a Zoom meeting with some of the butterflies’ Mexican caregivers. Cavicchia is also still expanding her own faunal horizons, as she continues the work at the HPNC garden she’s been doing since 2004.  

“The monarchs are sort of a gateway for a lot of people, because they're pretty and people know about them and they're harmless. The more I'm here, the more I get into different kinds of bees and even wasps,” she said. “There are quite a few that don't actually sting unless you were to step on their nest — they're just here to drink nectar and I can reach over them and pick water and they don't bother me at all. I'm learning about them and the role that they play.

“There are people who focus so much on the monarchs that they'd be killing everything that's not a monarch, everything that's competing for resources or a predator. It's made me realize how connected everything is, and I think that's what we conveyed to the summer camp kids. There was one kid in particular who was really enjoying looking at wasps this summer with me.” 

For now, though, she’s still got her head in the skies, on the hunt for migrating monarchs until early October.  

“You tend to notice them up high -- this time of year I always look at the tops of trees,” she said. “You'll see one and several and then a whole lot. At night they sleep together in the trees, so in the morning when the sun starts coming out and it starts getting a little warmer you'll see them waking up, or you'll see them gathering together. You don't see it and you don't see it, but if you do it's a really incredible sight, and you're trying to tell everyone to run right over.” 


Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

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