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Heidi Shaffer, Published August 10 2009

Nuturing nature: ‘Butterfly Lady’ raises monarchs in Mapleton

MAPLETON, N.D. - With a wave and sometimes even a kiss, Carol Schmidt releases one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of monarch butterflies she raises each summer.

The retired 62-year-old Internal Revenue Service employee has spent the past 12 summers searching for and attending to the delicate needs of monarchs, from its first stage as an egg the size of a poppy seed that eats its way into a chubby 2-inch caterpillar that spins a chrysalis and emerges with its recognizable orange and black wings.

“This is just something I took an interest in instead of an ant or something else,” she said.

Schmidt’s unusual hobby began at a wildlife center near Alice, N.D., where she and her husband spotted a caterpillar feasting on a plant with which she was unfamiliar.

“Now I can spot milkweed from a mile away,” she said.

Schmidt took the caterpillar home and headed to local libraries to find every book she could on monarchs. She also went back to the fields near her home to find more. Now each May, her search for the eggs begins.

After finding her first caterpillar of the year, “I called my husband and said, ‘The jars are going to start clanging again,’ ” she said.

Providing a home

Each summer evening, Schmidt scours the fields and ditches near Mapleton for milkweed, the monarch’s only food source.

She collects the critters and returns home to put them in jars that then line the walls of her kitchen and back porch.

“The more I find, the more I take,” she said. “When they’re eggs I don’t really care to bring them home because they’re a lot of work … but I don’t dare leave them behind.”

She keeps the jars clean to prevent parasites or bacteria growth in the monarchs. When a caterpillar appears sick, Schmidt keeps a close watch on it, often bringing it with her on errands.

“Any time there’s something I’m worried about, I take the jar with me,” she said.

From egg to butterfly, the process takes up to four weeks, and the monarchs can be a lot of work.

But Schmidt said she doesn’t spend her whole day on their care. She balances raising her “babies” with all of the other things she likes to do, such as working in her garden and volunteering in the schools and community.

“In enjoy what I’m doing,” she said. “I wouldn’t waste my time on it if I didn’t … but I absolutely love it.”

Schmidt volunteers at West Fargo’s Sheyenne Crossings, where social director Melanie May has her bring butterflies to show residents, including one who refers to her as “The Butterfly Lady.”

Residents enjoy seeing each of the monarchs’ stages and being able to ask Schmidt questions, May said.

“I mean, how many different people do you know that have this as a hobby?” May said.

Learning as she goes

Over the years, Schmidt has become somewhat of a monarch expert from observing the behavior and visual cues from the monarchs.

If an egg turns black, she knows it’s about to hatch. If the wings are visible in the chrysalis, it won’t be long before the butterfly emerges. She can even tell the sex of the butterfly by studying tiny markings at the top of the chrysalis.

Schmidt keeps a written record of the numbers of eggs collected and butterflies released each day.

“At the very beginning, I used to keep more written details, but that’s the way I learned,” she said.

Starting in mid-August, Schmidt will start placing tags on the monarchs she releases as part of Monarch Watch through the University of Kansas, which monitors the butterflies’ migration.

Schmidt worried that she might be affecting the butterflies by raising them in jars. But after 37 of her tags were recovered in Mexico, her concerns were put to rest.

Chip Taylor heads the Monarch Watch tagging program in Lawrence, Kan. and said the most important thing Schmidt is doing is keeping the butterflies alive.

“She’s bringing them in, nurturing them and giving them the opportunity to make it to an adult stage,” he said, adding that about 97 percent of the eggs laid are killed in the wild from the removal of milkweed and predators.

Though up to 15,000 people volunteer to tag butterflies for Monarch Watch, most do not go as far as Schmidt, Taylor said.

“There aren’t very many people who raise them,” Taylor said. “That’s unusual, actually. If you decide to rear a lot of caterpillars … you’re taking on a lot of work.”

A monarch way of life

At first, Schmidt’s hobby was somewhat of a tough sell to her family.

“I didn’t think it was normal,” said her daughter, Michelle Schmidt, 30. “I had never heard of anyone going out and looking for butterflies.”

But eventually having the jars around just became part of everyday life at her parents’ house, Michelle said.

Now she occasionally joins her mom on the hunt for caterpillars, though it’s not a hobby Michelle plans to pick up anytime soon.

“I just like finding the caterpillars,” Michelle said. “I don’t know if I’d like to take the time to feed them or watch them.”

When Schmidt turned 60, she wanted a way to always have monarchs around and came up with the solution: a tattoo.

“I told my husband they’re going to my grave with me,” she said, examining the permanently perched butterflies on her forearm.

As the monarch season winds down in October, the time serves as a reminder to Schmidt that winter is coming, and it will be several months before she sees her winged friends again.

“When I let my last one go, I always say, ‘See you next year.’ ”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heidi Shaffer at (701) 235-7311