When he was 8 years old, Jacob Elegbede started raising and releasing monarch butterflies.
Now 15 and a sophomore at Century High School, he’s setting personal records for the number released, with 220 monarchs raised from eggs since the beginning of the summer. Jacob expects that number to climb as high as 300 before the monarch season ends in mid-September.
“Pretty soon this is going to be known as the butterfly house because there are so many around,” Jacob’s father, Wale Elegbede, said.
Raising monarchs has become Jacob’s annual summer project, and he’s been at it so long that the rest of his family, which includes his mother, Audrey, 16-year-old sister Zarah and 5-year-old brother Idris, have caught his enthusiasm and joined in.
“It’s become so much fun to watch this process,” Audrey said.
How to raise a butterfly
Each of the 220 butterflies Jacob has released his year were raised from eggs that he collected from milkweed plants growing in his neighborhood.
Starting out as tiny white specks clinging to the pale undersides of the leaves, it only takes two weeks for them to grow into boldly striped caterpillars that could be as long as 2 inches.
While they’re growing, Jacob keeps the caterpillars in plastic tubs covered with breathable cheese cloth and with the topd of the lids cut out to keep the caterpillars from suffocating or escaping. At any one time, he might have as many as eight of these tubs stored in his family’s laundry room.
Eight may sound like a lot of bins, particularly when each might be holding a dozen caterpillars, but Audrey said they’ve sometimes felt it wasn’t enough.
“There were times this summer when we felt a little overwhelmed, and we had eight of these bins.”
Later, after the caterpillars grow to full size, they’re moved to one of two netted laundry hampers to finish growing and eventually form a chrysalis. These bright green pods are attached by silk streamers to the tops of the hampers, as many as 30 or 40 of them at a time. The monarchs stay inside them for 10 to 14 days, completing a process called metamorphosis. After about two weeks, they emerge as butterflies.
Both of the hampers sit in the kitchen, where Jacob and his family can observe the final process more closely. Depending on the time of day, they can look inside and find half a dozen newly emerged butterflies testing their wings after breaking free from their chrysalids.
“It’s just a beautiful process to watch,” Wale said.
The Elegbedes keep a careful record of the number of butterflies they release as well as the number of males and females. These, as Jacob explains, can be identified by the markings on their wings. He’s an expert at finding the two small black dots on the lower pair of wings that set the males apart.
Those dots, he explained, are scent glands, something the male butterflies use to attract mates.
“It’s like butterfly cologne,” he said.
Mouths to feed
It takes a lot of work to raise that many butterflies, particularly due to the amount of milkweed the caterpillars eat. Even caterpillars smaller than a fingernail will munch their way through milkweed leaves at an incredible rate. The fully grown ones chow down even harder in preparation for creating their chrysalis. Twenty to 30 full-sized caterpillars could munch through several dozen leaves overnight, leaving nothing but the hard stem.
“We have to collect new leaves daily,” Audrey said.
That responsibility largely falls to Jacob, who typically harvests from neighbors’ backyards. The Elegbedes are starting their own milkweed patch in their backyard, but it’s not enough to keep up with the demand.
“We’re very fortunate to have moved into a neighborhood that has a lot of milkweed,” Audrey said.
Monarch season in the Elegbede household starts early in the summer, in June or July.
“When Jacob comes home having seen an egg, that’s when I know the season has started,” Audrey said.
And once they’ve found one egg, Audrey says it doesn’t take long before they’re finding more and more. Even this late in the season, Jacob can still find new eggs when he goes out to collect new milkweed to feed his hatched caterpillars. Neighbors will also bring over eggs if they find any.
“It’s busy,” Jacob said. “Busy like a bee, or maybe like a butterfly.”
This year is unusual for the Elegbedes, who in past years have averaged only 20 butterflies per summer. Before moving to Rochester from La Crosse, Wis., last November, they had released as few as five or as many as 40.
They’re not sure what the difference is this year, but Audrey said they’re not the only butterfly-raisers in Rochester who have noticed the uptick in monarchs.
“Everyone has been saying there are a lot more,” she said.
A butterfly guru
Although his whole family is involved with the butterflies, raising monarchs was originally Jacob’s idea and he remains the reigning expert on the life cycle, habits and anatomy.
“He’s really an amateur entomologist,” Audrey said. “I knew nothing before Jacob started teaching me.”
Jacob learned the basics from a neighbor back when the Elegbedes lived in La Crosse, but has taken off on his own since then and is full of facts and information about monarchs. After seven years, he can still produce a piece of butterfly trivia his parents have never heard before.
Now, if you visit their house while Jacob is checking on the monarchs, you might hear him and his mother exchanging questions like “Are these in three or four?” or “Are any of these in ‘J’?” That’s the kind of caterpillar shorthand the Elegbedes have created to refer to the different stages of the monarchs’ transition from egg to butterfly.
Audrey and Wale would like to see Jacob sharing his monarch knowledge with others in the community. They’ve already talked about helping him set up a table at the Rochester Farmers Market next year, where he could sell packets of milkweed seeds or even chrysalids so people could watch the final metamorphosis themselves.
“Lots of kids and parents want to do it (raise monarchs),” Wale said. “To see someone older who still enjoys it, maybe that will help them get started.”
“It’s fun,” Jacob said of raising the butterflies.
And, as his parents can testify, anyone can do it, no matter how little they know about monarchs.
“You just need the patience, the time and a lot of milkweed,” Wale said.