If you’re seeing more monarch butterflies this year on the Old Mission Peninsula, you can thank Connie Sargent, a.k.a. “OMP’s Butterfly Nurse,” for some of those colorful creatures.
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From her home in the village of Old Mission, Connie searches for tiny butterfly eggs on the milkweed plants in her garden and around the neighborhood. She keeps a close eye on the eggs, and when the larvae or caterpillars emerge, she carefully puts them and their milkweed leaves into jars, where their journey to winged victory begins.
My husband Tim and I stopped by Connie’s house, learned some fascinating facts about monarch butterflies, met some of her tiny brood, and had the honor of helping to release some butterflies.
“They start like this right here,” she said, pointing to a milkweed leaf on her counter with a tiny speck on it. “He just hatched today from an egg.”
In their protective jars with plenty of milkweed sustenance, the caterpillars grow and eventually attach themselves to a horizontal surface, hanging down in a “J” shape.
They then molt into a blue-green chrysalis, and during this stage, the adult butterflies form inside. As the chrysalis’ become transparent, you can see the butterflies’ characteristic orange-and-black wings become visible.
When they’re ready, the butterflies emerge from the chrysalis and hang upside down until their wings are dry, at which point Connie carefully releases them onto flowers in her garden. Luckily for them, she’s also a Master Gardener with a huge assortment of flowers planted specifically for them.
Connie says her love of butterflies harks back to when she was a child. “I’m of the generation where we grew up with a lot of monarchs,” she notes. “I remember that, and I’ve always loved monarchs. So I learned more about them and developed a passion for encouraging their growth.”
In Kalamazoo, where she lived and worked as a surgery nurse at Bronson Methodist Hospital prior to moving to the Old Mission Peninsula, she attended several talks on monarch butterflies and learned more about the process of raising them.
Monarchs that emerge in early to mid summer typically live for two to five weeks. It’s only the monarchs that emerge in late summer and early fall that make that long flight to Mexico for the winter. According to this MLive.com story by Emily Bingham, monarch migration has already begun.
Connie’s been shepherding monarch butterflies to adulthood for about five years, but notes that she hasn’t seen a lot of bigger caterpillars in the wild this year. “I can find lots of eggs and little guys, but not anything bigger.”
In fact, she says less than 10 percent of monarch eggs and caterpillars make it to adult stage in the wild, for a number of reasons, including viruses, predators, pesticides and herbicides that kill milkweed, which they feed on in order to grow.
She provides her growing caterpillars and butterflies, which can number up to 60 at any given time, the very best conditions for growth, an environment with some similarities to nursing. “I try not to touch the caterpillars or the monarchs,” she says. “I wash my hands a lot, and I’m very respectful of viruses.”
She adds that as the caterpillars get larger, they become ferocious eaters (and poopers!), so it’s important to clean the containers and make sure they have enough food.
“They might be on a leaf that dries out quickly, and I encourage them not to stay on that leaf by cutting away the dry leaf and giving them a new fresh leaf. They want the juice and the moistness of the leaf.”
A Rich Old Mission History
Connie’s roots run deep on the Old Mission Peninsula. Jessie Hicks was her mother’s first cousin, and Connie inherited the Hicks property in Old Mission, where she and her husband Don began vacationing in 1990. Connie’s grandmother, Bertha Marshall, married Miles Gilmore, who built the house on the corner of Ladd Road and Center Road for her, now owned by Old Mission Flowers‘ Ginny and Lew Coulter.
When Miles Gilmore died, Bertha sold the farm and moved to Traverse City, where Connie’s mother, Nellie Gilmore, and uncle, Miles Gilmore Jr., were raised. Bertha later acquired a house on Mission School Road, just north of the Old Mission General Store, and in 1939, donated the land where the log church replica was later built. A plaque on the log church is inscribed with that note.
Also, Connie’s great-grandparents, Thomas (1825-1908) and Mary Jane (Jenkins) (1835 – 1930) Gilmore lived on Smokey Hollow Road, in the white farmhouse with the barn, on the hill heading up towards Ladd Road, near 2 Lads Winery.
At one time, they also lived in a log house at the bottom of that hill on Smokey Hollow, catercorner from where Wrightwood Terrace Drive is now. Connie has a photo of the family, including nine kids, in front of that cabin. The Jenkins’ came to the Old Mission Peninsula from Ireland and established a farm here.
Connie’s husband Don passed away in 2012, but he loved vacationing at their cottage on the OMP. “He loved it up here,” says Connie. “He boated and scuba dived, and helped to maintain the Lighthouse trails.”
There are two memorial benches in memory of Don – one on the Lighthouse trail and one at Haserot Beach near the boat launch.
So the next time you see Connie, thank her for helping to keep the monarch butterfly population thriving on the Old Mission Peninsula! At this writing, she will have raised at least 111 monarch butterflies on the OMP (she’s given a few to others to raise).
5 Tips to Help Monarch Butterflies
Nurture the milkweed. Monarch caterpillars feed solely on milkweed, so avoid cutting it in your yard and flowerbeds. In fact, Connie plants milkweed seeds to ensure that the eggs and caterpillars have plenty of leaves on which to feed and grow. “I will always have a section of my garden for milkweed,” she says. If everyone grew milkweed around their house, especially in zones along the monarch’s flight to Mexico, it would go a long way to saving these beautiful butterflies.
Ditch the nets. While sending the kids out with a butterfly net might sound nostalgic, it’s disastrous for the butterflies. Avoid catching butterflies with nets. Instead, learn more about monarch butterflies with your kids and spend time exploring for them in the wild.
Create a butterfly sanctuary. Plant flowers around your house that butterflies love, including purple and yellow cone flowers, sunflowers, marigolds, poppies, cosmos, salvias, asters, coreopsis, daisies, verbenas, zinnias and butterfly bushes (buddleia).
Avoid harsh pesticides. While most of us don’t consider the beautiful monarch butterflies pests, they are, in fact, insects, which means they will die if sprayed with insecticides. Avoid spraying your yard, and learn more about organic gardening. Here‘s a good place to start.