A graceful flutter and a landing on a nearby flower is a quiet yet delightful moment.
Is there anything as delicate and beautiful in appearance, yet such a strong force in nature as the monarch butterfly?
There’s good reason these particular insects could be considered the elegant rulers of the Lepidoptera family. After all, the butterflies have monarch in their name, and Melissa Houlette Black’s hobby is to keep them from going extinct.
For about the past five years, Melissa, of Scott Township, has done everything in her power to provide education about these pollinators, protect their existence and emphasize their importance in the environment. And it’s her mission to save the monarchs and make sure they don’t get placed on the endangered species list.
As a pleasant breeze made a hot August morning more palatable, the New Castle Butterfly Lady provided a basic A,B,C, instruction. That moniker is also a Facebook page Melissa created and it has its fans as does another page she administers with 26,000 members called “The Beautiful Monarch.”
According to this expert, the monarch is the most iconic and recognizable of butterflies with its distinct orange and black coloring, and black veins. The male monarch can be identified by a black scent gland on the hind wing.
As with all living things, there is a process. To simplify: First, milkweed must be planted, because it is the only host plant for the butterflies. In addition to the 30 or so milkweeds she has at her home, there are thousands of the plants at her family’s camp in Venango County, and she visits there several times a week to check on the status of things.
Behind her home, at her butterfly house, there are enclosures and a section where the female monarch lays its eggs mainly on the underside of the milkweed leaf. About four days later, the egg hatches into a very tiny caterpillar.
The caterpillars go through five instars, or growing periods, and then hang in a “J” formation before completing their chrysalis, where they will transform into a butterfly in about 10 days.
The entire progression from egg to butterfly takes about 30 days to complete.
One of Melissa’s main goals is to stop the use of pesticides so that pollinators aren’t killed off. It’s a purpose that really resonates with her.
“We need to have the available milkweed to sustain their life cycle,” she told me. “They sense milkweed from a mile away.”
Pollinators are essential in the natural world and agriculture because many plants, crops and trees would not be able to produce fruit if they were eliminated.
Melissa has what is called a registered monarch waystation. People can go online, look up the information and visit her location.
There are several variables to rearing butterflies. Weather is constantly a factor. Another is disease, which is always a threat. Melissa uses bleach and water on her milkweed to ensure that disease doesn’t strike. Absolutely no pesticides are used.
“You can’t guarantee that every egg and caterpillar will make it,” she said.
The crowning moment comes when butterflies are ready to be released. As many times as Melissa has done it, she never tires of the enjoyment.
About 30 were in a holding section and as she opened its door, some landed on a nearby flower and others slowly making their way into the environment.
“There will be butterflies until early fall,” Melissa said. “This will be our biggest year.”
Two years ago, she released 253 and in 2018, there were 352. She releases the monarchs almost daily and at various locations including a ceremony for veterans at a hors e show in Scott Township.
She has become an authority on monarchs and wants to do her part to protect them. Her fascination is with the whole metamorphosis of the butterfly and she is concerned about pesticides and herbicides, “which get into the air, and can settle and kill plants or caterpillars.”
The monarch’s importance as pollinators must be preserved, she explained, adding that as little as 2 percent of monarchs in the wild make it from the egg stage to an adult butterfly.
There’s no shortage of monarch-attracting flowers in her nectar garden including lupine, zinnias, coneflowers, shasta daisies, sweet william, delphinium, blazing stars, columbine and violets.
This has become a three-generation hobby. Melissa’s mom, Sandra Ehasalu, researched how to keep a butterfly garden, raised plants that appeal to butterflies, and got her daughter involved. Now Melissa’s daughter, Briella, is enraptured, too.
Before I left, Sandra handed me a program from a banquet where she spoke about butterflies. If offers a lot of wisdom in “Life Lessons From a Butterfly” — let go of the past, trust the future, embrace change, come out of the cocoon, savor the flowers and put on your brightest color. The front cover has butterflies and the words, “simple joy.”
Releasing a butterfly does provide a keen sense of elation.
Watching the butterflies flit from their temporary home into the air provided, for three women and a child, an abundance of pure joy. And magic.
Lugene Pezzuto is a former New Castle News reporter and columnist. Her weekly Cruisin’ column appeared from 1998 until her March 2019 retirement.
CNHI News Service