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Muskegon Co. woman hopes plant tags can help save monarch butterfly

Melissa Eikenberry has been raising caterpillars into butterflies for years, and now she's giving other people a tool to do the same.

TWIN LAKE, Mich. — The September sun glistens on the quiet water of Clear Lake, and a family of American goldfinches serenades Melissa Eikenberry as she works in her garden. She’s clipping milkweed seed pods off the plant so that aphids and milkweed beetles don’t get a chance to destroy them.

The seed pods are very important to Melissa because they help give life to her favorite creature and the inspiration behind her creation, an educational tool called Hosting Butterflies.

“I hope to be able to educate people on the relationship between native plants, caterpillars and butterflies,” she said.

“What I discovered over the last several years was that there is an information gap. People understand the nectar and we understand the butterflies and how they partner with each other and how they need each other. But we don't really talk about or know much about the caterpillars or the host plant in that relationship."

Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants only. And because of agriculture and herbicide use, milkweed is becoming harder for butterflies to find. Internationally, the monarch butterfly was recognized as an endangered species over the summer.

“I started thinking, what can I do? Well, I can plant one milkweed. And then what if I get a whole bunch of people to do it?” Melissa said.

But that information gap Melissa mentioned was a road block. She says many people associated caterpillars with worms, when in reality they are young butterflies. That’s where Hosting Butterflies comes in.

“I came up with the idea to put the information on plant tags,” Melissa said.

The plant tags are put in the soil of potted milkweed at garden centers to let customers know what kinds of caterpillars and butterflies they can expect to attract when they plant milkweed in the fall.

“Come spring time when the migrating monarchs are coming back, your plants will already be ready for them versus planting them first thing in the spring,” Melissa said.

She’s also come up with a way to encourage people to plant milkweed. It’s called the “Million Milkweed Challenge.” When people plant milkweed, she’s asking them to register their plants on her website until one million milkweed plants are accounted for.

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