Marty Mead doesn’t consider himself much of an environmentalist or a conservationist.
The butterflies that thrive in his backyard, however, may think differently.
Mead, an officer with the Indiana State Police and his wife, Stacy, a preschool classroom assistant at Seymour-Jackson Elementary School, have been “raising” butterflies — specifically monarch butterflies — at their Seymour residence for years.
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It started when their two sons were in elementary school, Stacy Mead said. The boys would share the hobby with their classes, taking in the yellow, black and white striped caterpillars to show the other kids.
The caterpillars would eat and grow and then form their cocoons or chrysalis. Ten to 15 days later, they would emerge and unfold their wings to reveal their transformation into beautiful orange and black monarch butterflies.
Once they “hatched,” they were released into the wild by the students.
“It was sort of like an educational thing then,” Stacy said.
The oldest son, Logan, is now a student at Indiana State University, while Tanner is a senior at Seymour High School.
Although the boys aren’t taking the butterflies to school anymore, Marty and Stacy continue to provide a safe environment for monarch larvae to eat, reproduce, lay their eggs and complete their transformation before migrating to warmer climates for the winter.
“We just got more and more into it,” Stacy said.
The Meads are responsible for the successful release of thousands of monarchs over the years.
Marty Mead said he has spent time educating himself about the species through books, the internet and talking to other people to increase his yield of butterflies each year.
“I’m not a tree hugger, but at the same time, I’m the kind of person that thinks if I can do something to give back to the environment, if I can just try to do one little thing to help out the environment, then I should,” he said.
Monarchs are quickly disappearing and may soon be on the national endangered species list, he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge off U.S. 50 east of Seymour, estimates in the past 25 years, nearly 1 billion monarch butterflies in North America have disappeared. During the past 10 years, the population has dropped more than 90 percent.
The Meads track some of the butterflies through Monarch Watch, a national nonprofit organization based at the University of Kansas that focuses on protecting and studying monarchs, their habitat and their migration patterns and educating the public about the species.
To track them, Marty places a tiny white sticker on the butterfly’s wing, so if it is found, it can be traced back to him. He records information about the butterflies, including whether they are male or female, in a log and sends the information to Monarch Watch.
“Around here, I don’t know anyone that does this, but I think that’s because a lot of people don’t know about it,” he said of the Monarch Watch project.
The monarchs’ migration takes them south to Mexico, but because of the dangers of such a long journey, they often don’t make it. But some do.
“They pay the locals in Mexico to recover them, so that’s how we found out that five of ours made it to Mexico,” Stacy said.
Five out of the 700 butterflies he tagged is pretty impressive, Marty added.
“They usually only go out and recover maybe a few hundred, so getting five, I thought that was pretty good odds,” he said. “My goal was always to have at least one make it to Mexico.”
Using GPS, he estimates they traveled 1,485.55 miles.
“That’s a long trip,” he said.
Monarchs need to be observed because they are a vital indicator species that give signs of distress when something is wrong with the environment, Marty said.
Like bees, birds and bats, monarch butterflies help pollinate flowers and are a key part of the ecosystem and maintaining the food supply.
“It’s like a lot of things in life,” Marty said. “People take things for granted, and especially small things, you don’t think how important it is. Who cares about a butterfly or a bee and they don’t realize how important and what role they have in everything.”
During the spring and summer, the Meads’ backyard becomes a butterfly oasis, filled with different types of milkweed, including common, swamp and even tropical milkweed.
When the plants are blooming, they look more like colorful flowers than weeds. However, they are treated like weeds by many people and are destroyed.
Scientists are blaming loss of habitat, specifically the use of pesticides that destroy the milkweed plant, as one of the biggest reasons for the monarchs’ demise.
An adult monarch will lay eggs on milkweed plants in the spring. When the caterpillars emerge from their eggs, they consume only milkweed because it keeps predators from eating it.
No milkweed means no monarch butterflies.
The Meads’ backyard is even a certified and registered monarch waystation through Monarch Watch. Waystations are places that provide resources necessary for monarchs to produce successive generations and sustain their migration.
Marty sets up empty 10-gallon fish aquariums and places branches of milkweed inside them. He then collects caterpillars he finds in his backyard and elsewhere and houses them in the aquariums so they are protected.
When the caterpillars are ready, they crawl to the tops of the aquariums and form their chrysalis from the bottom of the lid. After “hatching,” he lets the butterflies get acclimated before releasing them.
Releasing the butterflies is a daily chore, but one that gives Marty great pleasure. Last year, he quit counting how many he had released when he hit a thousand.
Sometimes, they are releasing butterflies as late as November, he said.
The Meads say they love to be able to look out their kitchen window and watch the butterflies fluttering around from flower to flower. But they also like to share their hobby with friends and family and encourage them to plant milkweed, too.
“If people don’t want to go to this trouble, all they have to do is plant milkweed, and that’s enough,” Marty said.
There are opportunities and grants available for cities, counties, schools and farmers to get involved with butterfly conservation, too, he added.
For a long time, Marty said he didn’t really talk much about his interest in butterflies with others because of his fear of people laughing at him and not taking him seriously.
But now, he said he feels the need to share his knowledge with people in the hopes they will be interested in protecting and saving monarchs, too.
Marty was even able to release monarchs at a friend’s funeral last year. He’s interested in giving talks to the highway department about keeping milkweed planted along county roads and interstates.
“A lot of times, people just don’t know and don’t realize they shouldn’t mow the milkweed,” he said. “You can mow around it and leave it, especially on the sides. What’s the harm?”
He also would like to be able to partner with Muscatatuck in an effort to collect caterpillars at the refuge because only 1 to 3 percent of those in the wild make it to maturity, he said.
Whereas by raising them at his home, he can guarantee a minimum of 97 percent survival rate, he said.
But he isn’t bragging.
“I could be the Michelangelo of monarchs, but you’d never know it because I’m never out to tell anybody I’m an expert or anything,” he said.