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Flying free: Alexandria woman helps save monarch butterflies

Sarah Curtis picks up a monarch butterfly that she had released while residents watch at Nelson Gables in Alexandria last Wednesday. So far this year she has raised and released more than 230 monarch butterflies. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)1 / 7
Two monarch butterflies perch on flowers after being released at Nelson Gables in Alexandria. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)2 / 7
Sarah Curtis uses a toothpick to apply a sticker tag to the wing of a monarch butterfly before releasing it. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)3 / 7
A monarch butterfly clings to the top of a cage after recently emerging from its chrysalis. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)4 / 7
Sarah Curtis (left) shares the joy of seeing a monarch butterfly up close with Arlene Nack, a resident at Nelson Gables in Alexandria. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)5 / 7
Monarch caterpillars munch on milkweed in a cage before transforming into butterflies. Sarah Curtis collects them as eggs or when they are young to increase their chances of becoming adult butterflies. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)6 / 7
Sarah Curtis releases one of the many monarch butterflies she has raised. Butterflies released this fall will fly to Mexico for the winter. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)7 / 7

They say if you love something, you should set it free.

If that's true, Sarah Curtis of Alexandria must really love butterflies. So far this year she has released more than 230 monarch butterflies that she has raised from caterpillars and eggs.

As she watches each one fly away — up, up into the sky — you can see the delight in her face.

"I love it," Curtis said. "It's just kind of a little, fun hobby I do. It keeps me busy."

She first got involved in this hobby two years ago through a resident at Nelson Gables in Alexandria whose daughter raised monarchs. Curtis works there as a care attendant.

She started out last year by releasing about 50 butterflies. Although this year's total could be near 300, she expects to raise even more in 2019, when she plans to be living in a new home with more room.

"I only take in as much as I can handle, because it's work," Curtis said.

Some of that work includes collecting eggs that are laid on milkweed plants, which is the only food monarch caterpillars eat, as well as picking milkweed for hungry caterpillars that have already hatched. She also collects and brings home any caterpillars she finds on the milkweed.

Curtis estimated that between collecting plants, finding eggs and caterpillars, feeding, sorting and cleaning cages, she probably spends about two hours each day on her hobby.

The butterflies she is releasing now are the third generation here for the summer. The first generation flies north in the spring to lay eggs on milkweed plants. The caterpillars that hatch then eat the milkweed leaves — often a leaf an hour — for about two weeks, she said. While they are still caterpillars, they molt several times as they grow too large for their skin. These periods between molting are called instars.

The caterpillars then climb up on something they can hang from to shed their skin for the last time to become a pupa or chrysalis. After about 10-14 days, the caterpillar finishes its transformation into a butterfly and emerges from the chrysalis, Curtis said.

The new monarch then needs to be released within about 24 hours so it can feed, which at this stage is now nectar from flowers, she said.

Although the monarchs that first arrive here in the spring are the first generation to be in this area, according to the University of Minnesota Monarch Lab website they are actually second generation for the year. The first generation fly part-way north from Mexico in March and lay their eggs in the southern United States. After transforming to butterflies, these monarchs then fly north to lay eggs in this area.

The first two generations only live about 2-6 weeks, Curtis said. But the monarchs that are emerging now, which she called "super monarchs," will soon fly all the way to Mexico to spend the winter.

"It's an amazing thing," she said.

The transformation from caterpillar to butterfly is also something that can be related to everyday life, Curtis noted, in that we all have a need for continued growth and change. It's an experience she also likes to share with residents at her workplace, where she occasionally brings her caterpillars and sometimes releases butterflies.

"They just love it," she said.

However, it is not just watching the caterpillars transform that brings Curtis joy. It is also knowing that she is doing her part to help the species survive.

"The monarch was on the verge of extinction," she said. "I'm saving the monarch, and I enjoy doing that."

Monarch populations have reportedly been declining due to loss of habitat, pesticides and mowing practices.

Curtis noted that on their own, the caterpillars only have a 3-5 percent chance of surviving to become a butterfly. However, her efforts ensure that almost all of those she collects will become adult butterflies.

This fall, she is also tagging some of the butterflies she releases by placing a small sticker on the butterfly's wing. After submitting the tag numbers, she could then receive a certificate if researchers recover any of them in the future.

And even though fall is approaching, Curtis has not given up hope of helping more monarchs this season. While collecting milkweed she still finds a few caterpillars to collect. And every one she collects is one more that she can ensure survives to continue the monarch butterfly life cycle.

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