The butterfly effect: KU’s Monarch Watch brings nature’s wonders to community

A monarch butterfly feeds Aug. 28 at the Butterfly Garden at Foley Hall on the KU campus. There will be an open house at the garden from 8 a.m. until about 3 p.m. Saturday

We are so fortunate here in Lawrence to have connections with Kansas University. While you can live much of your life here and not get involved with KU at all, that would a true shame. After all, life is about connections, and the university offers many opportunities that foster greatness, even in gardening.

One of the most community-friendly arms of KU is the Monarch Watch program, spearheaded by the gregarious and wise Chip Taylor. Taylor is a bit of a Lawrence celebrity this time of year as the monarchs start their show of orange and black.

The dance of the monarch butterfly attracted him more than 17 years ago, and through work with the departments of ecology and evolutionary biology, Taylor has been able to extend his learning opportunities.

“We need to pay more attention to the connections out there,” he says. “We are dependent on pollinators; we have to be aware of our connections. The Monarch Way Station program is supportive of understanding this. We want this facility and garden to attract the community and help make those connections.”

Taylor organizes the annual Monarch Watch, which will be 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday at Foley Hall on KU’s West Campus. Every child who attends will leave with a monarch chrysalis that they can hang in a place of distinction and watch as it evolves into a butterfly. Open house visitors also will see the hoop house filled with a minimum of 100 monarchs plus at least nine other species of butterflies. Imagine the cluster of butterfly activity and the hundreds of pupa hanging like ornate jade and golden-flecked stones from the rafters. It will be a sight worth seeing.

My son and I take a private tour with Taylor, and we see many spectacular idiosyncrasies of the monarch. For instance, in the larva or caterpillar tent, hundreds of larva are hugging the milkweed when our tour guide sneezed. Plop! Dozens of caterpillars drop to the ground. We giggle.

“Watch this,” Taylor says. He adds “hello” in his deep baritone voice, and again dozens of caterpillars drop.

When we visit the Butterfly Garden, he spies a mama monarch who is just about to lay her eggs. She lands, and out comes a slew of little yellow eggs. She’ll lay 40 eggs a day and around 400 in her lifetime. Those eggs will take about a month to go from egg to larva (caterpillar) to chrysalis and finally butterfly.

The butterflies born now are lucky; they’ll live from eight to nine months, while their siblings born in the spring and summer will only live two to six weeks. Monarchs who are born in the fall leave the area because they are not winter-tolerant, thus extending their life spans. That fact right there is the true fascination with the monarch butterfly – it will make its phenomenal migratory journey to Mexico, where 25 million per acre will arrive, cascading and fluttering from limb to leaf.

While the Butterfly Garden is central to Saturday’s open house events, it is open to the public anytime. There’s far more to see than monarchs, too.

“This is a very mature, robust, enthusiastic garden,” Taylor says. “It is not your average manicured garden. It is made for pollinators. I’ll come out here at lunch and relish in the diversity that it attracts.

“I’m lucky to have met my friends at the Extension Master Gardeners,” he adds. “I would never be able to do this, it’s too much. Margarete Johnson is so nurturing in this garden – she gets things to become huge. She made a list of plants for me, and there are over 175 different plants she has brought into this garden.”

The garden is clearly marked with the types of plants and what butterflies they attract, as well as whether they are a host plant or a nectar plant. Some flora you will see include common milkweed, common buckeye, zinnias, phlox, Joe Pye weed, monarda and Gloriosa daisy. Then there’s the spice bush, which attracts the spicebush swallowtail; the wafer ash, which attracts the giant and tiger swallowtails; cleome, which is a host plant for the cabbage white butterfly, and alfalfa, which is a host for the sulfur butterflies. They have host plants for many swallowtail butterflies, paw paw for the zebra swallowtail, pipevine for the pipevine swallowtail, and rue, fennel and dill for the black swallowtail. This garden boosts hundreds of butterflies in all shapes and sizes, hundreds of plants and caterpillars galore.

Biology led to Taylor’s own migration to the study of the monarch. “When I first came to KU I was studying butterflies, then I became allergic to them,” he says. “So, I had to quit. I went to African bees, otherwise known as killer bees, then in the ’90s I realized the honeybee work I wanted to do wasn’t going to work out, and I found the migration of the monarch interesting, and I knew I wasn’t allergic to them.”

Luckily for the Lawrence community, Taylor’s autoimmune system is selective, so his programs allow us to connect, however briefly, with this amazing part of nature.