The good soil in Jesus’s parable of the sower is someone with a soft heart that remains in the love of God and yields much fruit. I share the following project with you this early winter because it was last year at this time that I began researching how to raise monarch butterflies in order to be prepared at our church the next year when they returned from Mexico.
There is one statistic that makes this project inspiring, especially if enough UCC churches and their neighbors work to increase the numbers of monarch butterflies who have been severely threatened as a species in recent years. Monarchs have a 9% survival rate when left in the wild, but if you bring them into a protective environment from when the eggs hatch to their metamorphism into butterflies you give them about a 75% survival rate. You can imagine if an initiative to protect monarchs is shared across our nation the difference it could make.
I will write out here the whole process and the learning we experienced last summer. We began by inviting a local retired school teacher that had been raising monarchs for over 40 years to teach a class for one of our church’s Wednesday faith formation sessions. He wore a black t-shirt with an orange monarch on it with the words “Monarch Whisperer.” We were blessed by his presence. Knowing at the time I did have an intention to write about this project to share with others. I explained that I wanted to his information to inspire other churches across the country. He replied, “This is what we want to see happen.” This is about putting the seed in the good soil.
I would go on to find large patches of the wild common milkweeds on which monarchs lay their eggs. I collected the caterpillars on milkweed leaves by plucking off the leaf from the plant and then putting them into mason jars with a mesh lid. I collected 40 caterpillars, and we ended up releasing 33.
If this inspires you, watch some YouTube videos on the process and invite in a local expert who has the experience to teach others. Some tips that we learned at our church are these:
- Make sure the caterpillars are feed with the milkweed leaves. They can go through a whole milkweed leaf in a day or two.
- Place a twig where you are keeping them so that they have an area to attach themselves when they decide to build their cocoon.
- To keep the caterpillars enclosed, we found that one can purchase large mesh encasements online.
- The wings are wet when they hatch, so you want to give them about a day to get used to their wings before you release them.
Something else I learned in doing this project is that the congregation really got into it. On one Sunday, when we had five hatch the day before, we released them during the children’s message and the whole congregation went outside to watch them fly off. Also, individual members of the congregation got inspired to plant milkweeds and raise monarchs in their homes. The last thing which we learned is that the monarchs themselves will give you some love when releasing them. Sometimes you need to offer a finger or a hand for them to get out of their protective environment, and they may sit on your hand for a while before taking off. You will feel an exchange of energy with you as they take flight.
Your church may already have pollinator gardens. This has been an important development for many churches. There is a two part reason why turf grass lawns are harmful for the environment. First, they remove an area where there could be native plants. Second, the chemicals that are used to take care of these grass areas are harmful to pollinator species.
There is a need for the Monarch migration route to have native plants for food along their way to Mexico. By having a pollinator garden with milkweeds, one will help ultimately help raise little angels. Let me explain: Monarchs take a little over a couple of months to migrate to central Mexico, and when they arrive, it is around the Day of the Dead and All Saints’ Day. In this mountain region of Mexico, the churches ring their bells in celebration of saints and angels returning from their journey. May your congregation experience the joy of making it possible for monarchs to fly home like angels.
Send me an email to let me know if your church raises monarchs. I want to track our collective efforts and their impact.
The Rev. Mitch Nelson is the Pastor of United Protestant Church UCC in Duluth, Minnesota.
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