Senior community serves as nursery for butterflies

After watching their life cycle from tiny white eggs to caterpillar, chrysalis, then butterfly, Joanne Niswander and the other residents at Maple Crest Senior Living Community in Bluffton place them in the flowers outside the community’s Family Room (left). When they’re ready, the infant butterflies fly away. (Photo by Jeannie Wiley Wolf)

Staff Writer

BLUFFTON — A new addition was born Friday morning at Maple Crest Senior Living Community in Bluffton: “It’s a girl,” resident Joanne Niswander told a visitor to the community’s Family Room.

The baby was a brand-new monarch butterfly.

“You can tell because there’s no spots,” she said, referring to the back of the butterfly’s wings. Males have a black spot on each hind wing, said Niswander, while the females have no spots.

This is the 11th year the senior community has served as a makeshift nursery for new butterflies. The nursery has also attracted the attention of residents’ and staff members’ children and grandchildren.

“It’s amazing,” said Niswander, 87.

“This whole process is just so wonderful. It’s so amazing. And then the fact that they leave here and they fly all the way to Mexico.”

The community’s first venture into raising monarch butterflies began in 2007 when Lynn Thompson, who was then administrator of the Mennonite Memorial Home, brought a few monarch caterpillars to Maple Crest, said Niswander.

“He and his wife used to do this,” she said. “He came in and he thought ‘Well, maybe we’d like to do that here’. I happened to be around and it sort of struck me. I like nature and so, ‘Yeah, that’ll be sort of fun to do.'”

The caterpillars were placed in a pie tin along with fresh milkweed leaves, which is the only thing they eat. Niswander and her crew raided the nature preserve at Bluffton University for more milkweed leaves as needed.

Niswander and her daughter also put together a poster explaining the life cycle of the monarch butterfly to help educate the residents.

That first year, four monarchs were born and released.

Joanne Niswander greets a newborn monarch butterfly at Maple Crest Senior Living Community in Bluffton. The senior community, where Niswander is a resident, has served as a makeshift nursery for butterflies for 11 years. (Photo by Jeannie Wiley Wolf)

Niswander said many of the residents “were hooked” on the process. In 2008, nine butterflies hatched, then another eight in 2009. That same year, Niswander transplanted a few milkweed roots to her raised garden. Those roots now provide leaves for the project.

There were 10 butterflies in 2010, but only two in both 2011 and 2012. No eggs were found the next year, she said, so that summer they raised black swallowtails instead.

“Swallowtails, when they come out of their chrysalis — theirs is called a cocoon — they’re ready to fly right away,” said Niswander. “It’s pretty hard in here (inside the building) to try and manage that.”

They released another four monarchs in 2014, then jumped in number to 20 in 2015. Last year’s total was four butterflies.

This season, Niswander anticipates 33 butterflies hatching.

Niswander said the process begins when butterflies lay tiny white eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves.

“You usually don’t start looking for eggs until about the time the milkweed starts to flower,” she said.

The eggs hatch into what will become green-and-white-striped caterpillars that feed on milkweed. This stage takes at least two weeks. “But I think it depends on how much food they eat, what’s happening to them, what the temperature is,” said Niswander. “Some of them seem like they’re way big enough and they stop eating, and then they still just sit and don’t do anything.”

At a certain point, the caterpillars will attach itself with silk to a leaf or branch and hang head-down in a “J” shape for about a day, she said.

“When they’re ready to go into chrysalis, instead of the ‘J,’ the ‘J’ gets more like an ‘I,'” she explained.

The caterpillar sheds its skin and forms a hard shell called a chrysalis.

“They hang there, usually 13 days. But this one came early,” Niswander said of the butterfly born Friday. The insect wasn’t “due” until Aug. 27, she said.

Niswander checks the nursery several times a day, and she keeps careful track of when they form a chrysalis and when they’re expected to hatch.

“I’m here every hour on the hour when they get like this,” she said.

The next butterfly is expected to arrive around Saturday. Niswander said they normally emerge early in the day.

“They have to hang a period of time for their wings to dry,” she said.

It takes about an hour and a half for the drying process, then Niswander places them on the flowers in front of the building. The butterfly that hatched Friday rested on a pink begonia.

“She’s going to sit there a while yet, I think,” said Niswander. “You never quite know.”

When the insect is ready, it simply flies away.

“Somehow they know when their wings are strong enough,” said Niswander. “Then they just take off.”

Wolf: 419-427-8419
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