Local woman nurtures monarch butterflies

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published September 12, 2017

 Alisa Audet sets up mesh cages to house monarch caterpillars and chrysalises in her home to protect them from predators.

Alisa Audet sets up mesh cages to house monarch caterpillars and chrysalises in her home to protect them from predators.

Photo by Kristyne E. Demske

ST. CLAIR SHORES — It may be the circle of life, but a local woman is working hard to make sure monarch butterflies have the best shot at a life without being eaten by ants, spiders or other predators.

“The butterfly population, it’s been down in recent years because people use pesticides on their lawn or flower garden,” said Alisa Audet, of St. Clair Shores. “People don’t understand that the milkweed plant is the only plant that a monarch butterfly will lay eggs on. Without milkweed, they would die.”

Audet began paying more attention to the life cycle of butterflies more than a year ago, after she was in an auto accident that canceled a 10-day trip she and her husband had planned to Tahquamenon Falls. 

Instead, she recalled, “My husband said, ‘Let’s take a ride.’ We went out to Ray Wiegand’s Nursery (in Macomb Township). We picked up a couple of milkweeds, and he planted them for me.” 

The accident left Audet homebound and unable to work, but she said that helping to propagate the butterflies has been helpful to keep her mind off the pain she experiences.

“It’s giving me a purpose, feeling like I’m contributing somehow and helping nature at the same time,” she said. “It’s fun, and I love science.”

Audet grows plants and flowers in her garden that attract butterflies and also the milkweed that the monarch butterflies lay their eggs on. When a mother lays her eggs, Audet trims the stalk of milkweed off and brings it indoors, where she has a half-dozen mesh containers set up in her back room for the caterpillars to live in while they feed on the milkweed, create a chrysalis and then emerge as butterflies.

“You have to have enough milkweed to feed these guys. I cut the stems off and put them in a little container,” she said. “They will eat about a leaf an hour about two days before they’re ready to go into chrysalis.”

Audet also makes sure to clean all of the mesh cages to keep the caterpillars healthy, and said she shares her work with the children in the neighborhood. 

The first summer after her accident, Audet’s husband bought a terrarium so she could watch the entire process as the butterflies went from egg all the way up through caterpillar, chrysalis and then finally into butterfly form. The entire process takes about a month, she said, depending on the temperature outside.

Monarch butterflies have four generations per year, and the current generation is the last in Michigan for the summer. The butterflies that are in chrysalis form at Audet’s house now will migrate back to Mexico, where they will hibernate during the winter and start their entire life cycle over again. She said she plans to tag her butterflies to help researchers identify from where they have come.

“It’s a really rewarding thing to do and just takes you back to your childhood and science class,” she said. “You watch the miracle of nature.”

Jackie Stepanski, manager at Greenhouse Gardens, 21807 Greater Mack Ave. in St. Clair Shores, said that they often help gardeners find the right plants to help the butterfly population; they even have butterflies lay eggs and hatch from chrysalises at their store.

“Because we have a lot of flowers, we get the adult butterflies coming in and they lay their eggs. Through the course of the season, we can walk by and see various stages,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

She said milkweed is obviously for the monarch butterflies, but the majority of swallowtails will lay eggs on parsley or fennel, so getting an herb garden growing is a great way to attract butterflies to your yard.

“We have had numerous people come in now looking for feeder plants for them,” she said. “The easiest thing to do is take the plant itself and put it in a cage.

“For people who want to help them out, all they need is to grow herbs. Believe me, they will find them.”

Greenhouse Gardens owner Brian Sroka said that using all-natural products to combat pests is the best way to help butterflies and other pollinators. To attract pollinators such as bees, hummingbirds and butterflies, he said butterfly bushes, coneflowers and sunflowers work well.

“Perennials typically attract more pollinators to the garden than annuals do,” he said.