There is a certain magic about the monarch butterfly, Gordon Martin says.

The Friends of the Monarch Butterfly founder has been blown away by the community’s interest in the group’s campaign to increase the local butterfly population.

The project had “exploded” after the group gave away more than 1100 swan plants, the staple food for monarchs, last November, Mr Martin said.

“The whole thing has been far too successful,” he said.

“The interest in it has blown me away.”

Carefully does it . . . Gordon Martin transplants a monarch caterpillar on to a display of swan plants on Harbour St. PHOTO: GUS PATTERSON

If Oamaru could provide enough food for caterpillars, the monarch butterfly population would multiply in each generation, coming to the North Otago town in cycles, he said.

At present, most were at the same stage of the life cycle – the chrysalis stage.

Mr Martin turns 90 this year, and has been very busy leading the project. Most days, he has been working about nine hours.

“This will be my last project, I think,” he said with a laugh.

This summer, Mr Martin kept 400 swan plants at the Oamaru Public Gardens, and has spent the summer picking up caterpillars from project members who did not have enough swan plants to feed them, bringing them back to plants at the gardens.

He brought about 700 caterpillars to the Oamaru Public Gardens before Christmas and, in the past few weeks, he picked up more than 2500.

Others in the community had been dealing in caterpillars and swan plants through Facebook.

Hungry caterpillars . . . Monarch catterpillars feast on swan plants before they enter the crysalisis stage of their lives. PHOTO: GUS PATTERSON

It had become Mr Martin’s passion project and it had attracted several volunteers over the summer.

“All the people I have met, [their] willingness and enthusiasm has brought the community together.

“It has really captured people’s imagination.”

The introduction of swan plants in Oamaru’s Victorian precinct had also been popular with visitors from all over the world, he said.

It had been a year of learning for those involved in the project. Friends of the Monarch Butterfly members would meet in March to discuss the challenges and opportunities of the project.

The magic of the monarch butterfly had also captured the hearts of a lot of Oamaru residents. Many had become actively involved in the project, and noticed a huge increase in the number of monarch caterpillars on their swan plants.

Lyn Dunlop, who grew swan plants when she lived on the West Coast, decided to rekindle her interest when she heard about the Oamaru project.

In December, Mrs Dunlop started with four swan plants at her home, but had since expanded her operation to 60.

Ingenious . . . Lyn Dunlop has been transplanting the chrysalises onto this freezer crate. PHOTO: GUS PATTERSON

“I thought if I got 20 monarchs released I would be chuffed, but it’s probably over 150 now,” Mrs Dunlop said.

“It’s like looking after a kindergarten sometimes.

“They are time-wasters. I had a big tarpaulin inside the lounge with 10 to fifteen swan plants on it at one point.”

The appeal of the project was in observing the life-cycle, she said.

“It’s part of nature; it’s absolutely a wonder.

“[Watching] it is humbling, I suppose.”

Life cycle of a monarch butterfly

  • Monarch butterflies go through four stages during their life cycle: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and imago (adult butterfly).
  • Butterflies breed throughout the warmer months of the year.
  • The onset of colder weather triggers diapause, which means the butterflies stop breeding, similar to hibernation.
  • Once the warm weather returns the butterflies breed and the life cycle continues.

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