When serious health concerns forced environmental educator Lynda Asher to give up her work in the Caribbean and Latin America, she found a new calling without having to venture from her Burns Park home: she raises and releases around 200 monarch butterflies every summer.
For thirty-five years, the master gardener and former organic farmer tended a pollinator garden on her property. (“When my neighbors complained, ‘You grow weeds in your garden,’ my education program literally began at home, explaining that these native plants support our bird, butterfly, and insect populations.”) Then, while recuperating from an organ transplant, she spent countless hours watching butterflies and bees pollinate her garden.
“I saw fewer and fewer chrysalises,” she says–the cases caterpillars spin for shelter as they transform into butterflies. Knowing that the monarch population has diminished here by more than 90 percent, she decided to help.
Starting in May, she collects minute caterpillar eggs from milkweed leaves and raises them in test tubes. Within a month, she releases healthy full-grown monarchs into Ann Arbor’s warm summer breezes.
“It is truly magical to see the transformation,” she says. “Monarchs are fragile. Parasites and bacterial infections can weaken the gene pool. This is a time-‘intensive process if it’s done right.”
Ironically, Asher grew up in Manhattan, where she was never allowed near soil as a child. Her life changed radically when she and her (now ex-) husband moved to Ann Arbor in the 1970s to attend graduate school and run an organic farm. She changed her academic focus from music history to environmental policy and education, and, after earning her degree, spent two decades working with nonprofits in economically disadvantaged countries.
When illness changed her plans, she says, “I considered this an opportunity for growth.” As she recovered, she watched winged visitors feed in her garden. Seeing an “environmental project and an opportunity for education I could do in my own yard,” she set out to help their offspring survive.
She fills the test tubes, which have the monarch eggs, with a milkweed stalk that she replenishes daily. (“The stalks die ridiculously fast, and the poop must be removed.”). Safe from predators, the eggs become larvae (caterpillars), the larvae transform into chrysalises (“a beautiful jade green form that looks like The Hulk, but with yellow dots–I’d love to have a piece of jewelry that looks like it”), and chrysalises become monarch butterflies. This fall, the biggest and healthiest will migrate 3,000 miles to a forest outside Mexico City.