OSAGE — A rural Osage family is providing shelter and food for monarch butterflies as they migrate through the area.
Josh and Colleen Byrnes have an acre of land planted with milkweed and flowers the orange-and-black butterflies love.
This habitat has been designated as one of the 26,058 official Monarch Watch waystations in North America.
Monarch Watch, based at the University of Kansas, is a non-profit organization dedicated to monarch preservation and research.
Waystations provide milkweeds, nectar sources and shelter to sustain monarchs as they migrate through North America.
For the Byrnes family, maintaining this habitat is a way “to give back to nature,” Colleen said.
Monarch eggs usually only have a 1 in 100 chance of making it to the butterfly stage due to predators, herbicides and the weather, she said.
This is why she and other members of the family collect eggs from under the leaves of the milkweed plants and take them into the house so they can hatch into caterpillars and go through their chrysalis stage.
After the butterflies emerge from their chrysalis, they are released outdoors.
“This is our fourth year and this is our most productive one yet,” Colleen said.
During their first year, the family only released 10 monarchs.
That number increased to 40 the following year, and to 80 the year after that.
This year the family has released 114 monarchs.
They recently released their final monarch for the year as the butterflies are nearly done passing through North Iowa on their way to Mexico, where they will spend the winter.
This is the first year Josh and Colleen and their two children, Noland, 17, and Scarlett, 11, have tagged the monarchs to help scientists associated with Monarch Watch track their flight patterns.
“We have them (the butterflies) climb on our fingers” so they can attach the sticky end of a tag to one of the wings, Colleen said.
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“It’s tricky,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a two-person job.”
Family members keep a log of each butterfly they tag. The enter the information themselves into the Monarch Watch database.
Josh planted prairie grass on an acre of land at their place five or six years ago with assistance from Andy Taets from Mitchell County Conservation, who provided the seeds.
Josh said that piece of land was always set and the conservation department said it was “a perfect spot” for prairie grasses.
Colleen said prairie plants have a long root system, which is good for water drainage, and also provide a great refuge for wildlife.
Once it was established, the habitat attracted rabbits, goldfinches and pheasant.
Then Colleen read a book on raising butterflies. This inspired the family to plant milkweed as well as zinnias and black-eyed Susans to attract monarchs.
The monarch eggs the family collects are placed in individual plastic containers. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars are still kept in separate containers until they are old enough to start the chrysalis stage.
These older caterpillars are all put in one cage where they are “busy munching on milkweed,” Colleen said.
“I like sitting at the dining room table and just watching them,” said Scarlett, who did a presentation on monarchs as a 4-H project that advanced to the Iowa State Fair.
Colleen said the family has learned many fascinating things about monarchs.
For example, the parents of the butterflies they have been releasing in late August and early September are no longer living, yet the new monarchs instinctively know how to get to Mexico.
You don’t have to have an entire acre of land for a habitat to attract butterflies to your yard and give them a helping hand during their migration, according to Colleen.
All you have to do is plant some milkweed as as pollinating flowers such as sunflowers, zinnias and cosmos, and use less chemicals on your yard, she said.
It’s “very soothing and peaceful” to be out in the habitat, where all is quiet except for the buzzing from the bees and the occasional cricket chirp, Colleen said.
“Our whole family loves it,” she said.