Oakwood Hills family raises monarch butterflies: ‘It’s a very easy pet’

Milkweed, a native plant with a declining population in Illinois, is key to butterflies’ survival

Annakate Wagner looks at a monarch butterfly on Friday, June 14, 2024, at her home in Cary. The family has a milkweed patch and raises butterflies in their backyard.

In Amy Wagner’s Oakwood Hills backyard, milkweed plants stand about 3 feet tall. Her 11-year-old daughter, Annakate, carefully turns over the leaves in search of tiny white dots that are monarch butterfly eggs.

For the past three years, Wagner and Annakate have been raising monarch butterflies in their home. Each year, the number of butterflies they raise and release grows, with last year reaching about 50, Wagner said. They plan to surpass that number this year.

“We just have become fascinated with them and their migration from Canada to Mexico that takes multiple generations,” Wagner said.

In their years raising butterflies, Amy and Annakate have created a seamless system. They keep milkweed leaves with eggs on them in a small plastic container until they hatch. Once they are big enough, the caterpillars are moved into a large mesh container that gets filled with fresh milkweed leaves daily until butterflies emerge and are ready to depart. The process takes about four weeks.

“It’s a very easy pet,” Wagner said. “It’s like ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar.’ All they do is eat.”

Their favorite part is releasing the butterflies. Wagner said she likes to think their butterflies let other butterflies know to come to their home to find the milkweed. Annakate said she likes to make sure their wings are strong enough before releasing them.

“I reach in, and they crawl on my finger,” Annakate said. “Sometimes they come out damaged, and I help them.”

Monarchs use milkweed for food and shelter. It’s the only plant the caterpillars eat, and adult butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves. There are various types of milkweed that can be planted depending on the size of the garden, said Sarah Michehl, a community ecologist with The Land Conservancy of McHenry County. Butterfly milkweed is a “short, well-behaved” type with bright orange flowers.

A monarch butterfly raised by Annakate Wagner on Friday, June 14, 2024, at her home in Cary. The family has a milkweed patch and raises butterflies in their backyard.

“Some of them are really aggressive for a small garden, but then others are not,” she said. “There’s different milkweeds for different situations.”

Sunlight, shade, wet and dry soil are determinants of what native plants would work best in a backyard, Michehl said. Other native plants that help butterflies and bees include coneflower, native asters and goldenrods.

The Land Conservancy is hosting Pollinator Week from Tuesday through Sunday with talks, walks and self-guided tours around McHenry County, including Boone Creek Conservation Area in Bull Valley and Glacial Park in Ringwood. Michehl is hosting a program at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Johnsburg Public Library on how to create the perfect pollinator garden for your yard that attracts butterflies, birds and bees.

“It’s really a fun experience, whether you are an adult or a kid, because it’s like a little science lab right outside your door,” she said.

Many municipalities have pledged with the National Wildlife Federation to support monarch butterflies, including Oakwood Hills and eight other villages in McHenry County. The monarch butterfly, Illinois’ state insect since 1975, is not quite endangered. But there aren’t as many as there once were.

However, five species of milkweed are on the endangered species list in Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The IDNR estimates that more than 167 million acres of milkweed habitat have been lost since 1996. One way to help the monarch population is to avoid using pesticides.

11-year-old Annakate Wagner helped raise 50 monarch butterflies with her mom, Amy Wagner, last year in Oakwood Hills.

Another easy and effective solution is to add pollinator-friendly plants to your garden, Michehl said. Or just let milkweed naturally grow in your yard, something Wagner said is almost too easy to do, as she picked baby milkweed plants that went rogue in other parts of her backyard.

“I didn’t have to do anything,” she said. “They just keep popping up.”

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