Her fascination with monarch butterflies began as a child. Now, with their numbers rapidly dwindling, Ann Oberski has expanded her passion into a crusade to save them.
For the past 10 years, the 61-year-old Wauseon resident has raised hundreds of monarchs every summer. Each day, she wades among the milkweed and nectar plants in her yard and harvests the eggs and caterpillars she finds to ensure they survive to the butterfly stage. It’s a labor of love for Oberski, who worries about the decline of the species.
She reels off disturbing statistics that show 90 percent of the monarch butterfly population has been decimated over the past 20 years due to pesticides, herbicides, and humans cutting into their habitat. Now placed in a “threatened” category, their population decreased in 2017 alone by nearly one-third.
“Every year, you read it’s worse and worse, so I do as much as I can. I’ll do this until I can’t do it anymore,” Oberski said of raising them.
She called them “flutterbies” as a young child, and spent hours watching them dart and bob around her. “I wanted to be a butterfly and fly, so I would run through the yard and flap my wings,” she said.
Around 2008, Oberski noticed the monarch butterflies laid their eggs on the milkweed plants in her yard. She observed their hatchings but didn’t interfere. “I let nature take its course,” she said.
Then one day she noticed about a dozen monarch caterpillars on a milkweed plant close to the house. But each time she passed it through the day she would notice some caterpillars had died. After stopping to observe, she discovered the reason: they were being attacked by a wasp, one of their predators.
“I could have let it go, but it made me feel bad seeing them getting attacked because they’re vulnerable,” she said.
So Oberski bought some netting to place over the leaves. When wasps managed to penetrate it she shopped for small “critter” cages at a local pet shop. She removed the caterpillars from the plant and placed them in protective custody with milkweed, their staple food, so they would survive.
Since then, she has developed a system that involves rescuing both monarch caterpillars and eggs and placing them with milkweed in shot glasses, where the caterpillars can thrive and the eggs can hatch after two weeks. After the caterpillars mature and shed their skins several times she relocates them to the cages, where they hang upside down from inside the lid. Each forms a chrysalis – or butterfly pupa – to incubate in for about two weeks before emerging as a monarch butterfly.
The newly-formed butterflies then transfer fluid from their bodies into their wings – a process called eclose – to make them grow. When fully developed, Oberski frees the butterflies into her yard.
“They love sunny days. They fly around, all over,” she said. “On a sunny day with no wind, there will be dozens, floating and flying, maybe sipping nectar.”
She will have raised over 500 new butterflies this summer, adding to thousands over the past decade. Each lives three to eight months, and in September or October they begin their 3,000-mile winter migration to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico.
Unfortunately, what was once a vast habitat there has been cleared by loggers. Only four square acres remain for the butterflies.
A retired Wauseon Middle School teacher, Oberski took monarch caterpillars to her classes between 2009-12 so the students could raise them as well. A butterfly garden she established outside the building still exists.
In January and February the butterflies begin their journey north, stopping in Southern states to lay eggs that will survive them along the path.
“So the ones that left Mexico in January, February, by the time they get here it’s probably the grandchildren of the ones in Mexico,” Oberski said.
They do return each May to her home, attracted by the milkweed and the Joe Pye nectar-based weeds in her yard. They’re often joined by other butterfly species such as tiger swallowtails, black swallowtails, red admirals, and painted ladies. Because butterflies are attracted to the colors blue and purple, Oberski has decorated her garden with blue wine bottles.
She said her purpose is to propagate the species. But because of predators, only one monarch egg out of 100 in nature will survive to become a caterpillar. The eggs and caterpillars also face danger locally in the form of city and county mowing along Wauseon’s walking trail and along county roadsides, where milkweed thrives. Oberski was concerned enough that she placed a sign around milkweed growing in a ditch near her home: “Monarch Habitat.”
She spends an hour each day caring for the specimens she has rescued, and another hour looking for more among her garden. She has thoroughly researched the life cycle of monarch butterflies, and has picked up her own knowledge along the way.
“It’s gradual. You learn as you go,” she said.
Oberski said with help and encouragement from her husband, Rob, she’ll continue the fight for monarch butterflies as long as she’s physically able.
“I didn’t know I had a fascination with monarchs until I started, and then you can’t stop,” she said.
For more information about raising monarch butterflies or for free milkweed seeds, contact Oberski at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.