Phyllis Simon wakes up before dawn each morning to go check for caterpillars in her pollinator gardens.
The morning air is still cool in the summertime and plus, she can’t stop thinking about these creatures anyway.
She remembers seeing monarch butterflies as a child, but she didn’t realize they had disappeared from her view not because she grew older, but because of the rapid – and severe – decline in monarch populations. Once Simon discovered the plight, she set out to single-handedly save the monarchs.
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In 2015, the Hillsborough Garden Club approached the Town of Hillsborough’s Tree Board to become a certified Bee City USA, a recognition that helps spark conversation and awareness about the important role of pollinators. These insects, including bees, butterflies, wasps, moths, and many more, are responsible for sustaining more than 75 percent of the world’s plant species, and 90 percent of the world’s wild plant species.
In November 2016, Hillsborough was named the 35th Bee City USA.
The certification requires set initiatives to plant gardens in spaces around town and to annually celebrate these pollinators.
During the process in early 2015, the Town asked for volunteers to attend a four-day class hosted by the organization to expand knowledge on how to implement projects locally.
There, Simon met a woman who worked closely with monarchs at her home, growing milkweed, creating caterpillar and monarch nurseries, and releasing these butterflies from a safe place back into the world to start population growth.
“I was just overwhelmed with it,” Simon recalled. “I thought, ‘I need to do this – grandchildren are not going to see these magnificent butterflies.’”
Simon could not help but dwell on the thought of children missing out on the metamorphosis of a monarch, a process that to a child could only be described as ‘“magic.”
She set a goal to release 70 monarchs by the time she was 70 years old – a number of butterflies she has now far surpassed. In her first two years releasing monarchs, she released a total around 50. In this year alone she will release over 100.
“I wanted to leave a legacy or something that people would remember me by,” Simon said, beaming. “It’s what I call the ‘Monarch Magic.’”
This magic spreads around her house, with sprawling pollinator gardens and more in planning. She spends her mornings clipping leaves off milkweed plants if she spots a caterpillar or a butterfly egg. Collecting those, she brings them back to a nursery in her home, free of predators and pesticides that would stifle growth and reproduction.
Inside this structure, caterpillars grow from a quarter of an inch long into plump, 3-inch-long caterpillars. After two to three weeks, these caterpillars crawl to the top of the nursery and using silk, attach their rear ends to the ceiling, hanging upside down in preparation to form a chrysalis.
In this position called a “J-hook,” the black and yellow striped caterpillar hangs with its head curled up to form a “J.” In what takes only a few minutes, the arch then turns bright green and the caterpillar curls and twists into a chrysalis. Though the next 10 days of the chrysalis phase seem slow, it is a time of rapid change inside.
After this time, the monarch will emerge, slowly, and stretch its antennas and legs. The thorax, the middle portion of the butterfly, is filled with liquid that spreads and pumps up the monarch’s wings.
On a recent Wednesday, Simon and her husband Bruce Taggart prepared to release 23 monarch butterflies. They waited on me to do so, with the hopes to pass on the magic of a monarch.
Slowly, I let each monarch climb onto my hand, often dancing up my sleeve, and released them.