By Toni W. Riley
Each spring, Susan Chiles gently examines the leaf of a tropical milkweed plant and, with her experienced eye, detects a tiny white speck that is a monarch caterpillar — or a “cat” as she calls them. Susan collects the caterpillars all summer at her Trigg County home and raises them through each stage of development until they become the regal monarch butterfly.
Her efforts with the monarchs don’t stop at raising them but continue through the end of summer when she and her granddaughter, Lauralynn, tag the butterflies as part of the Monarch Watch program, an initiative through the University of Kansas that tracks monarch migration.
Susan and her husband, David Chiles, are both well-known, retired Christian County Public School teachers and naturalists, known for their concern for the environment. Susan became interested in developing a habitat for monarchs after meeting other naturalists who grew milkweed and enjoyed watching the butterflies.
Susan immediately thought “I can do that” and began researching milkweed plants with David for their garden. She discovered that milkweed is in the genus Asclepias and is the only plant the monarch caterpillar uses for food. She also found that monarchs prefer tropic milkweed to the other varieties.
As monarchs and other butterflies float through her garden, Susan delights in talking about her project and newfound passion.
“I taught school for 28 years and that was my passion,” she said. “Now this is my passion. I love sharing what I have learned and introducing others to the fascinating world of the monarch butterfly.”
The life cycle begins when a female butterfly lands on a leaf and deposits its eggs. In about four days a tiny “cat,” or monarch larvae, will emerge on the underside of the leaf. Susan collects the caterpillars and raises them in monarch sanctuaries that resemble a 3-foot-tall, mesh laundry hamper. She provides fresh milkweed leaves and cleans the sanctuaries twice a day.
It takes the tiny caterpillars 10 to 14 days to grow into the easily recognizable yellow and black striped caterpillars that are ready to pupate. When the caterpillar is ready to transform, it crawls across the top of the container and hangs in a distinctive “J.” It will then turn itself inside out and become a green, gold-flecked chrysalis. A monarch butterfly will emerge in another 14 days.
Considered the “king of butterflies,” the monarch has a distinctive orange and black pattern. Early American folklore says the butterflies were named monarchs and even called “King Billies” by early British settlers in honor of King William, who was previously the Prince of Orange.
The life journey of the monarch butterfly is driven by an inter-generational GPS system that brings them back “home” each year. It’s the only species of butterfly that migrates from south to north in the spring and then from north to south in the fall.
Many of the monarchs that stop at the Chiles’ home migrate to southern Canada in the summer and Mexico in the winter. Susan explains, the monarchs leave Mexico in late February and head to Texas where they lay eggs that will develop into caterpillars, butterflies and then move northward. The monarchs Susan raises from late spring until mid-summer wing their way to southern Canada and lay eggs there.
Regardless of their location, all monarchs born in late summer and early fall instinctively know they are born to “fly” and spend their time fattening up for the trip south. Susan and her granddaughter will tag these so they can be tracked back to Mexico.
Unfortunately, habitats for monarchs are disappearing because the list of plants preferred by butterflies are considered weeds and have been removed from cropland. However, there can be a balance between food production and nature with individuals, such as Susan, providing habitats for these pollinators. Susan said developing a monarch habitat is not difficult, and all a person needs to provide is a caterpillar host plant, a nectar plant as “butterfly fuel,” water and shelter.
Susan is ever ready to share her knowledge through programs at Jeffers Bend, where she and David have developed a certified Monarch Way Station. She provides cats and chrysalises to curious children, adults, classrooms and a local assisted-living facility. Currently, three teachers at Trigg County Primary School are raising monarchs from Susan. Once the butterflies emerge, she will help the teachers and students tag them for release.
In mid-August, the tops of the three sanctuaries in Susan’s living room are covered with chrysalises. By mid-September, she is ready to start tagging the final generation of butterflies that have been born since late August. Tagging is the culmination of this labor of love and a project she relishes because it gives her the opportunity to nurture her granddaughter’s admiration of the monarch.
As they share this experience, Lauralyn carefully removes a butterfly from the sanctuary, identifies it as boy or girl (male monarchs have a small, dark dot on their hindwing), hands it to “Grandmama,” who places the tag, records a series of data and returns the butterfly to the sanctuary.
To apply the tag, which is a small water-proof disc slightly larger than a pencil eraser, Susan carefully holds the monarch between her thumb and index finger. The tag goes on the butterfly’s discal cell, which is a large mitten-shaped cell on the hind wing. As tiny as it is, the tag is labeled with a web address, the words “Monarch Watch” in red letters, a phone number and the tag number.
The sanctuary is then taken outside where Susan and Lauralyn have the joy of releasing the butterflies together. They say their goodbyes, wish the monarchs a safe journey to Mexico and look forward to the day when one of their tagged butterflies is found.
Susan doesn’t hesitate to explain why she loves raising and tagging monarch butterflies.
“From the elderly at our local assisted-living facility, to my carpet cleaner, to my dentist, I have yet to meet a person who wasn’t amazed at the metamorphosis and incredible journey of this beautiful butterfly,” she said. “It makes me so very happy to be sharing my experiences and what I have learned with others.”