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North Hills Monthly

Franklin Park Mom Saves Monarchs while Encouraging Children’s Love of Nature

Apr 02, 2017 12:04PM ● By Shelly Tower Rushe

Photos courtesy of Michele Rice

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder... he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” 

—Rachel Carson

Michele Rice never intended to become an ambassador for bugs; she was a biochemist testing lab compounds in her previous life. Then the Rice family moved into their Franklin Park home which was surrounded by mature trees and native plants and wildlife.  

Their then 18-month-old son, Jake, became enamored with the bugs he found. “He literally hugged an earwig,” she remembered. “That’s how we found out that earwigs do bite.” 

Rice’s mission was to encourage Jake—who has since been joined by artist sister Sidney and bird-loving brother Nathan—in his fascination. As they researched the bugs they found, Rice learned about the plight of the monarch butterfly…and ended up helping to save a species. 

A little background first: Monarch butterflies cannot tolerate extreme cold so they migrate up to 3,000 miles to reach their overwintering spot. Monarchs in the western part of the United States tend to migrate to California; those in the Midwest and East typically head toward Mexico. 

Four generations of monarchs are born each year, but only one generation will migrate. The first three generations of a season, born late spring through mid-summer, are just meant to mate and lay eggs. Their average life span is only two to six weeks. The fourth generation, however, does not immediately mate and lives much longer; around eight months. This generation’s primary purpose is to migrate and start the process over in the spring. 

According to Monarch Watch, the monarch population has dropped more than 90 percent in just two decades. The main reason cited is the heavy use of herbicides that have destroyed the milkweed plant; milkweed is the only plant on which monarchs will lay eggs, and their caterpillars’ only food source.  Other significant causes are deforestation in migration spots and extreme temperature shifts and weather patterns throughout the continent. 

But why do these black and orange beauties matter? Like the headline-stealing honeybees, monarchs are pollinators. A decline in their numbers can mean a decline in plant diversity and human food sources. Monarchs are also food for those birds that can tolerate the poisonous milkweed in their systems. Less food for birds means less food for larger predators. It’s a delicate balance.

Once Rice learned that they could help with the monarch’s plight, she got to work. “We visited Beechwood Farms to buy Pennsylvania native milkweed and planted it in the backyard. My mom spotted a monarch on the plant and then we found babies,” she recalled with a smile. “One was eaten by a spider, which was why we began raising them inside.” 

Rice carefully brings the leaves containing eggs inside and places them on a wet paper towel. She places the towel into a plastic storage container with a lid. Here, the egg hatches into a caterpillar. “They shed five times and eat their skin and the milkweed leaf,” said Rice, adding that butterflies like milkweed because it’s toxic to most other animals and birds don’t like to eat them because of it. 

From the caterpillar stage, they gently curl into a motionless “J” shape, where they stay for several days. Then their skin suddenly splits and within 30 seconds, they leave the exposed chrysalis. 

Here’s where Rice’s love of biochemistry kicks in. “As a chrysalis, they actually liquefy and their cells completely change,” she said. Yep, you read that right: butterflies form from caterpillar broth where their cells re-differentiate into butterfly parts. From chrysalis to butterfly takes all of about 10 days. 

Since that first year, Rice and her family have raised and released hundreds of monarchs. Through Monarch Watch, they tag their butterflies with a small, lightweight sticker. As the monarchs make their way south, butterfly enthusiasts can help track their progress by entering the tag number into an online database. 

Monarchs aren’t the only species benefitting from the Rice’s passion: their backyard is now a Certified Natural Wildlife Habitat. They raise Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Snow Leopards, and Red Spotted Purple Caterpillars; they recently installed an owl box to attract migrating owls; and Rice is teaching a Bugs, Butterflies & Birds class at The Steam Studio in Wexford. The three-session class is for kids four years and older who will learn about bug defenses and life cycles, examine chrysalises, plant milkweed, learn birdcalls, construct nests and more. 

While Rice’s passion for bugs is evident, her joy clearly lies in watching her children’s love of nature bloom. “I just hope my children grow up to be environmentally conscious and appreciate the interconnectedness of all things—native plants, the caterpillars who need them, the birds who need caterpillars and so forth,” she said. “And that they always remain amazed by the things they find outside their backdoor.”