The master of monarchs

14-year-old Sam Epperly has transcended his classroom teaching as an expert on raising butterflies

When other sophomores at St. Louis Park High School are playing football, Fulton resident Marion London said her son, Sam Epperly, is in the woods collecting bugs. "He’s always had an interest in nature," she said.

London said her son enjoys all "unusual and sometimes scary" bugs, but raising and nurturing monarch butterflies has been his focus since he was 6 years old.

Now 14, Epperly has nearly perfected the art of raising the fragile creatures in a milkweed patch behind his Fulton garage. His parents said as soon as spring hits, they find Epperly out looking for butterfly eggs to raise, a sort of ritual.

Epperly said he’s gone from raising just a few butterflies each summer to 23 this summer. His fascination with monarchs themselves and their physical transformation is apparent as he describes their attributes and habits while trying to keep one poised on his finger.

An experimental spark

He said his interest in monarchs began at home when his father, a Minneapolis Public Schools teacher, brought home a science experiment from his class.

Jim Epperly has taught in Minneapolis for 30 years, mostly fifth- through seventh-graders. He said many years ago, he went to a workshop at the University of Minnesota for teachers interested in having students raise butterflies.

"You get larvae when they’re 2 or 3 millimeters and raise them through the whole metamorphosis," Jim Epperly said.

He said the best part is release day, once the butterflies have emerged from their chrysalises and are ready to be set free.

Karen Oberhauser, director of the Monarchs in the Classroom program and a professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology at the University of Minnesota, said the program started about 10 years ago. At first, it just gave schools supplies, but then added workshops. "Last year, we distributed over 53,237 eggs and caterpillars in Minnesota and Wisconsin," she said.

Oberhauser, who’s been studying butterflies for 20 years, said the monarch butterflies are a perfect teaching tool because of their incredible migration to and from Mexico and their interaction with their host plant — milkweed– the plants off of which butterflies live.

Sam Epperly said throughout the years he has developed his own system of seeking out larvae and eggs. "He knows some things we never did in the course," said Jim Epperly.

Oberhauser said that’s the goal of the program: to inspire kids such as Sam to go beyond the workshops.

The nurturing ritual

Sam Epperly said when spring comes around, he knows when it’s time to start searching for larvae and eggs in the milkweed patch in the alley behind his house. He finds the eggs on the underside of the leaves, and he said he knows which plants to search, because he finds tiny bite marks in the leaves from hungry caterpillars.

"The egg is the size of a grain of sand, and when it’s just about to hatch, the top of the egg gets black," Sam Epperly said.

He said when he finds eggs, he picks the carrier leaf and places it into a small film container with a bit of water. Once the caterpillar larvae hatch and begin eating leaves (which Epperly supplies), he said it only takes about 18 days for them to get plump.

The milkweed plant is much more than the food of choice for caterpillars, Sam Epperly explained; it provides protection from predators such as birds.

Although they’re tiny in size, caterpillars are good eaters — Sam Epperly said a caterpillar can eat one large milkweed leaf a day, and four or five caterpillars could destroy a whole plant. Sam Epperly said he keeps the chubby caterpillars in a cage, feasting on milkweed and safe from their predators.

He said he likes watching the pudgy creatures, though it isn’t all fun and games. If caterpillars get too close to each other, they bite each other. They also poop a lot, so he has to continually change the paper in the cage.

He said it’s important before touching caterpillars to wash your hands to avoid spreading bacteria that can jeopardize their health.

After 18 days, Sam Epperly said caterpillars climb up high and hang themselves into a J-shape, and about eight hours later they begin building their chrysalis.

They’re in the chrysalises, which looks like a smooth green casing before they emerge as butterflies. Sam Epperly said when the chrysalis becomes transparent and you can see the butterfly inside, he knows it’s almost ready to emerge.

"I like watching them develop," he said as he inspected the nearly 12 chrysalises he has in a small cage.

After the change

Once they come out, he said, it takes a while for their wings to dry, so he usually lets them flutter around the house, coaxing them to drink from watermelon and cantaloupe slices using their "proboscis"– a straw-like appendage as thin as a strand of hair.

London said sometimes her son plays jokes on her and leaves a drying butterfly on her shoulder. But Sam Epperly said drying is really a very important stage because if monarchs dry incorrectly, they could end up with a damaged wing and be vulnerable to predators.

As he inspected the wings of a few butterflies he has in a special container — made from metal pie plates and mesh — he pointed out that large black dots on the lower portion of the wings indicate that the butterfly is a male. Sam Epperly said the females are usually smaller with darker coloring.

When it came time to set the butterflies free, he goes to his backyard and gently tosses them in the air (near the milkweed bush) one at a time. This time, Sam Epperly had to keep one as a pet because the monarch’s wing was deformed and it’d be a target for any hungry Southwest bird.

Once he lets them go, he said he doesn’t try to track them; he just begins a search for some new ones to raise. Oberhauser said a group of citizen scientists called the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project do monarch counts weekly to keep an eye on their population.

For more information on the monitoring group, check out their Web site at http://www.mlmp.org.

For more information about the University of Minnesota monarch lab and teacher workshop program, check out their Web site at http://www.monarchlab.umn.edu or call Karen Oberhauser at 624-8706.