Off the Clock: Library Assistant Saves the Butterflies

Posted: October 23, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Ryann Doyle

Elyse Becker, lending and borrowing assistant for the Interlibrary Loan Department in University Libraries, can frequently be seen wearing butterfly earrings and clutching a monarch butterfly folder. But her passion for the delicate creatures is more than superficial.

Becker has been raising butterflies for as long as she can remember. It all began growing up in Illinois. After checking out book after book about butterflies from the library, Becker learned that catching a caterpillar would be much less exhausting than chasing around butterflies with a net.

Monarchs feeding
Becker has been raising butterflies since she was a child.

She also discovered that vacant lots surrounding her house were filled with milkweed, the single host plant that monarch caterpillars feed on. But every summer these lots would be mowed, and all the milkweed and the caterpillars that called them homewould be destroyed. Concerned that the caterpillars would never become beautiful butterflies, Becker began to save them from the blades of the mower and raise as many caterpillars as she could.

This was Becker’s first experience with butterfly conservation, but it has continued to be an integral part of her daily life.

“I have read that 1 to 3 percent of caterpillars in the wild make it to becoming an adult butterfly because they have so many predators and things that can go wrong,” says Becker.

Monarchs in the chrysalis stage
Monarchs in the chrysalis stage.

In addition to the drastic deforestation that is destroying their habitats, caterpillars and butterflies are susceptible to parasites. The parasites can either infect the adult butterfly who then passes the parasites to their eggs, or parasites can directly infect the caterpillars. When a caterpillar is infected by a parasite, the parasite uses the caterpillar as a host on which to feed until the parasite kills it. Eventually the parasite emerges as a fly.

To save as many caterpillars as she can, Becker actively searches the milkweed plants that grow near her home in Burke, Va., by Royal Lake. She brings the caterpillars home and sorts them by size, as sometimes the bigger ones are aggressive toward the smaller ones. The caterpillars then crawl around in their enclosure for about two weeks, eating as much milkweed as they can until they crawl to the top of their enclosure and hang upside down in the shape of a ‘J’ to shed their skin and become a chrysalis.

Butterflies resting on a tree
Becker has nurtured 250 butterflies this year.
Photos by Elyse Becker

After metamorphosis, the caterpillars hatch from their chrysalises as beautiful butterflies. After the butterflies pump up their wings like a balloon and let them dry, they’re ready for flight. Becker sets every butterfly free.

This year has been a good year for butterflies: Becker has raised twice as many as she has in the past. In previous years in this area, she has never raised more than 80 butterflies in a single season. This season, from July to October, she has saved more than 250 caterpillars and seen almost every one become a butterfly. Her success rate is about 90 percent, as some caterpillars are infected with parasites before she rescues them.

“It’s great that I have had so many this season,” says Becker. “I love to see a monarch flitting by outside and know it might be one of my ‘children’! The world cannot have too many butterflies, and I’m doing my part to make it a little more beautiful.”

Write to at