Master Kentucky gardener raises, releases 500 monarchs

Published 5:01 am Sunday, December 19, 2021

This past summer, Owensboro master gardener Glenda Burke raised and released more than 500 monarch butterflies, which she said was not only a therapeutic process for her, but a small way she was able to help nature prosper.

Burke began raising butterflies about four years ago, releasing 89 monarch butterflies her first year.

This past summer, however, she was able to raise and release 512 with a 95% success rate.

Typically, she said, only about 2% of monarch butterfly eggs make it to adulthood, which is why the monarch butterfly continues to decrease in population and is currently recognized as a threatened species, although it is not yet listed on the endangered species list.

“Most insects lay many, many eggs because they face similar life expectancy. Most of the eggs don’t make it,” she said. “Monarchs, like honeybees, like many other insects, are decreasing rapidly in numbers.”

In the last 20 years, she said, the population of monarch butterflies has decreased about 80%.

At Burke’s home in Breckenridge County, she has created a butterfly haven, her garden being one of two certified butterfly waystations in the county.

A waystation acts as a butterfly habitat for Monarchs, providing nectar sources, milkweed and shelter needed to sustain the butterflies and other pollinators as they migrate south.

Waystations not only attract butterflies, however, they also attract other pollinating species, such as several species of bees, moths, etc.

Differing plants in a waystation can attract different butterfly species, according to Burke.

She said she mostly tries to attract monarch butterflies and so she plants lots of milkweed, which monarchs will lay their eggs on beginning around late-June. The eggs then hatch and the larvae will feed on milkweed, specifically.

Once fully grown, however, the monarch butterflies are able to rely on nectar from multiple food sources.

Burke said with a large yard at her home, she felt responsible to dedicate some of that space back to nature and help wildlife flourish in whatever small ways that she can.

“I do think we have a responsibility to be conscious of and take care of the world around us to some extent and so I just think it’s kind of a way to … respect creation and the nature around us if I can help it out in this particular circumstance, if I can help this one species,” she said. “We have taken away a lot of their natural habitat. Every time a mall goes up or a parking lot goes in, or a big yard … we take away habitat for wildlife.”

Although Burke has grown her garden in the past several years since beginning the process, the increase in pollinators, and butterflies in particular, also means an increase in their predators.

Burke said she has seen more spiders in her garden this year than in any other year, as well as praying mantis, snakes and frogs, all of which use butterflies as a food source.

“There are a lot of diseases and predators that are out there in nature,” she said. “Everything has a predator. One of the reasons I continue to bring them into cages is, because I have called in the monarchs with all my flower beds, I have also increased the number of predators out there.”

Monarchs, and butterflies in general, she said, are delicate creatures with not only a lot of predators, but also a low survival chance during migration as even a bad storm could knock out a significant number of the population.