MOORHEAD — Gwen Erickson, 97, started a new hobby a few years back that she wishes others would undertake.

The longtime Moorhead resident is raising and releasing monarch butterflies.

Last year, she raised 27 of the nation's most popular and endangered butterflies. This year, she's up to 61 with about six or seven more to go.

Some might think nature should simply take care of itself. However, one of Erickson's monarch books states that only about 10% of the insects survive the process in nature whereas those raised by humans have a 90% survival rate.

"I think there are bugs who eat the eggs," she said.

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Erickson's success rate has been spectacular.

"I don't think I've lost any," she said about the process that starts with collecting eggs off of milkweed leaves she grows in a small area of her backyard in south-central Moorhead where she has lived for more than 60 years.

Gwen Erickson is seen with her jar collection where she carefully raises monarch butterflies at her home in Moorhead.
David Samson / The Forum
Gwen Erickson is seen with her jar collection where she carefully raises monarch butterflies at her home in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum

After she takes the entire leaf off the milkweed plant with the tiny eggs on the underside of the leaf, she brings it inside and puts it in a glass jar with holes punched through the lid. The jars sit on a table in her living room with lots of natural light from south-facing windows.

Sometimes, the table is completely full, she said.

After about three to four days, the caterpillar emerges from the egg.

Two weeks later, the white, black and yellow caterpillar goes into a j-shape and forms a chrysalis, or a cocoon-looking green or jade bag, that hangs off the lid of the jar. If there was another enclosure besides a jar, the caterpillar would crawl to the top to form the chrysalis, she said.

In another 10 days to two weeks, the majestic growing butterfly emerges from the chrysalis that has turned black with the wings visible in the final stages.

 A monarch butterfly chrysalis turns translucent signaling it will soon emerge at Gwen Erickson's home in Moorhead.
David Samson / The Forum
A monarch butterfly chrysalis turns translucent signaling it will soon emerge at Gwen Erickson's home in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum

Erickson said the newborn monarchs usually just hang upside down on the lid that she likes to remove from the jar when the chrysalis forms.

When the butterflies are ready, she lets them loose outdoors and they take off on their first journey with wings flapping.

A few of those she raised can be found flying around her house. In fact, she thinks there's one inside her home currently that she can't seem to find.

Almost all wait to take flight until they're released outdoors.

Erickson said they seem to go over to a neighbor's yard where there are more flowers than she grows to drink the nectar and feed.

"I just think the process is fascinating," she said about the monarchs' hatch.

Erickson was hoping her grandchildren would enjoy it more when she first tried raising the butterflies years ago at their lake.

Instead, it's been her, she said, who finds the pleasure in raising butterflies.

Gwen Erickson lets a female monarch butterfly she raised fly free at her home in Moorhead on Wednesday, August 18, 2021.
David Samson / The Forum
Gwen Erickson lets a female monarch butterfly she raised fly free at her home in Moorhead on Wednesday, August 18, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

The former secretary for the Moorhead school library has a friend who's also interested in raising the endangered insects. That friend tried it this year, and so did Erickson's son who lives in Watertown, Minn.

Erickson said she usually doesn't like to talk about herself and what she does, but she did this time as she hopes others would take up the hobby and help the monarch population rebound.

She and her husband, Art, who passed away a few years ago, were able to visit the mountains of Mexico where the monarchs migrate and mate in the winter as they hang around on trees.

For this year, the egg-laying season in the north is over, so Erickson's hobby is winding down.

She's already looking forward to next June, though, when the process can start all over again. Her goal, she said with a smile, is to ramp it up even more and raise even more than the 68 this year.

"It's a good hobby, and it means something," she said. "Plus, it gets me outside."