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Monarch Mamas: Raising Butterfly Babies

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Cita Breitnewischer, Susan Serbin, Vicki Piper

Proud Monarch Mamas (from left) Cita Breitnewischer, Susan Serbin and Vicki Piper love helping to create a welcoming and nurturing environment for migrating monarch butterflies and their caterpillars in their neighborhoods. (Photo: Jane Serbin) 

You probably know someone who’s fostered cats or dogs. But these Buzz residents are proud foster parents for caterpillars and butterflies.  

Meet Vicki Piper and her friends Cita Breitnewischer and Susan Serbin. The trio is happily transforming their Southside Place and West University yards and neighborhoods into welcoming and safe places for monarch butterflies to visit on their spring migration from winter hibernation in Mexico to their summer homes in Canada.  A pleasant pit stop for monarchs to sip some refreshingly delectable flower nectar, lay their eggs on native milkweed (monarch caterpillars’ delicacy of choice to eat after they hatch) and then flutter away from the Lone Star State on their merry way to the Land of Maple Syrup. 

Monarch Mom Vicki said “Butterflies are like life - you go through changes before you become something beautiful. Monarchs are fascinating creatures to me because of their migration and metamorphosis.” 

Just planting native milkweed and flowers in your yard is a huge help and most natural way to aid the monarchs. Vicki, Cita and Susan took an extra step to put the eggs into mesh enclosures to protect the eggs and caterpillars from predators like wasps and lizards. 

Vicki said, “We did ‘pet-sitting’ for each other, cleaning up and providing adequate milkweed in enclosures. None of us have grandchildren yet, so we call the caterpillars ‘grand cats.’ We shared midwifery duties when one of us was out of town - a few needed help emerging from their chrysalis.” 

Monarch butterfly

This happy monarch is enjoying some delicious lantana nectar in the Mandell butterfly garden. (Photo: Sonnet Mandell) 

Erin Mills, Entomologist and Director of the Houston Museum of Natural Science Cockrell Butterfly Center said, “Monarchs have been steadily declining the last 20 years but this year there’s a large increase in their population. Monarch scientists are cautiously optimistic. A lot of their success depends on what happens now, while they are on their way back to Canada.” 

Around three million monarchs will be passing through Texas this spring, explained Erin, meaning they need lots of milkweed. “The more people who plant native milkweed, the more food will be available, and the more returning monarchs can reproduce successfully, ensuring plenty of butterflies in future generations.”
Erin said planting milkweed and other pollinator friendly plants benefits the butterflies as well as the gardener. “It opens up your world and allows you to see, observe, and interact with some of the most amazing, beautiful, and important creatures on earth. They also bring beauty, color, and purpose to your yard, garden, or patio!”

Sonnet Mandell

Sonnet Mandell releasing a recently hatched butterfly into the family’s backyard. (Photo courtesy of Sonnet Mandell)

About 15 years ago, Ember Mandell was traveling through Bandera, TX during peak monarch migration. “It is impossible to describe the experience, as it was absolutely awe-inspiring. I stood outside and was enveloped in thousands of butterflies. They landed all over me. The sky was filled with these magical bright orange and black beauties, and [it was] such an intense moment. I became infatuated with monarchs even more!” 

Ember’s beloved great grandmother adored butterflies. Before she passed away, her great grandmother had told Ember that in the future, whenever she saw a butterfly, it would be her great grandmother coming to visit and look after her.  

“It was her way of comforting me, and letting me know she would always be with me. Throughout my life, when I have seen a monarch, I have felt her love.” 

Ember continued, “My brother died suddenly last year, and I vowed to do things that would cultivate peace and happiness. My nature-loving daughter, Sonnet, and I thought [designing a butterfly garden] would be a great project for us to work on together.”

Cultivating a butterfly garden is a “creative labor of love,” Ember said. “It requires learning about these amazing insects, and providing a place in which they can eat, rest, lay their eggs, thrive, and move on.” 

Ember and Sonnet, who’s 17, enjoyed their Westbury butterfly garden so much that last May, Ember was inspired to create the Facebook group, Houston Butterfly Gardening…BAM Chapter (Butterflies and More!). 

Eyes wide open and wings spread wide apart! Zina White’s four-month-old grandson, Wesley, gets some love from a one-day old monarch butterfly. (Photo: Lauren Rose White)

“I decided to start the Facebook group because I wanted a friendly resource for anyone interested in saving monarch butterflies to have a place all levels of expertise, from beginner to seasoned veterans, can share information to bolster the monarch butterfly population.”

Zina White, a member of Ember’s butterfly Facebook group, said she started her garden because she bought some milkweed to rescue caterpillars in her yard and started to care for them and their eggs. “It does take some time out of my day but it is so worth it to see the caterpillars transform into butterflies. It’s a wonderful thing when butterflies enter your life. My favorite part is raising and releasing them only to find them flying around my garden. I love the Facebook group because I get helpful hints, support and even met a friend to babysit my caterpillars when I took vacation.”  

Dania Turner, a Cockrell Butterfly Center volunteer for 14 years, really enjoys her butterfly garden as well. “It's so fun to watch the caterpillars make their chrysalises and then wait for them to emerge. I have butterflies almost year-round now. They seem to come back year after year. My grandkids know we can go out and find the life cycle of a butterfly almost any time. We find the eggs, the caterpillars, the chrysalises, and then the glorious butterflies! They love it and I love that they love it!”

Monarch caterpillar

This beautiful monarch caterpillar is enjoying his visit at Ember and Sonnet Mandell’s all-you-can-eat milkweed buffet. (Photo: Sonnet Mandell)

Christine Mansfield, a conservation biologist and Marketing and Development Manager for the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, said, “Raising monarchs can be fun, educational, and, if done indoors away from predators, may even increase the likelihood that a caterpillar will complete the transition into a butterfly. That being said, monarch caterpillars are voracious eaters, and we often get questions from concerned citizens about what to do when they run out of milkweed or what to do with outdoor caterpillars as winter approaches.” If you’re ever in this situation, she said, purchasing more (chemical-free) milkweed or bringing the caterpillars inside to raise are both great options if you have the time and resources. “If not, keep in mind that monarchs have been making this journey for thousands of years, and it is always ok to allow nature to play out.”

If y’all are inspired to show some Texas hospitality to our monarch “snowbird” visitors headed to the Great White North for the summer, the following resources can help you get started.   

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