There are moments when Doug Conner watches the jerky air dance of a monarch butterfly and wonders, “Is that one of ours?”
Whether at work as a line and communications technician at Platte-Clay Electric Cooperative in Kearney, Missouri, or sitting on his porch at home, Conner says the tiny creatures take up a large space in his life.
He and his wife, Cindy, devote countless hours to the care and upkeep of monarchs and other butterflies. This summer, they released more than 85, each raised from a milky dot of an egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf to a strong adult capable of flying a thousand miles or more.
But for most of the 29 years he’s served at Platte-Clay, Conner’s passion for butterflies has been a secret—or at least a subject he refrained from talking about at work. A reserved man by nature, he occupies himself with fixing meters, working jobs at substations, and helping crews with underground cables.
“The employees had no idea [about Conner’s love of butterflies] until we began the process of planning and planting a monarch garden at our office in 2017,” says Becky Pendleton-Meek, the co-op’s marketing director.
That year, Platte-Clay joined hundreds of organizations on the Interstate 35 corridor between Minnesota and Texas that have set up conservation gardens to counter the decline in monarch populations. I-35 bisects America along the same flyways that monarchs have used for millennia in their annual migrations to and from the highlands of central Mexico.
“Our office is directly in the path of their migratory route, so it felt like the right thing for our co-op to do … as a way of showing our commitment to the environment and the community,” Pendleton-Meek says.
Already well aware of the plight of monarchs, Conner was quick to join the co-op employees who planted some 600 flowering plants on the co-op grounds that spring, which included—most importantly—stands of milkweed.
Until they can fly on their own, monarchs depend on milkweed leaves for shelter and food.
As the co-op’s garden took root, sprouted, and flowered, Conner’s reputation as an expert in the ways of the monarch blossomed too.
“He is our resident expert. The year after the garden was planted, Doug even took our employees out to the monarch garden on several occasions to show us what the eggs looked like and what the chrysalis looked like,” Pendleton-Meek says.
Conner says his fascination with monarchs was kindled two decades ago as he was falling in love with his wife, who was already something of a citizen scientist, dedicated to growing sanctuary gardens to attract butterflies, bees, and other pollinators.
His interest ignited in early 2010 during the quiet and monotonous days spent recovering from major heart surgery.
“Making sure we had the right plants in place for these monarchs was and is my therapy,” he says.
It begins with the preparation of containers and beds of wildflowers and, yes, making sure the milkweed is thriving. You cannot begin to really understand monarchs until you appreciate their total dependence on milkweed, Conner says.
A rugged, stalky plant with lush pink flowers that attract up to 450 other insects and pollinators, the woody milkweed, with its poisonous white latex-like sap, is also regarded as a pesky invader of croplands, construction sites, lawns, fencerows, roadways, railroads, and utility rights-of-way. It is often targeted for eradication with chemical pesticides.
But milkweed wasn’t always an enemy. During World War II, 11 million pounds of the soft, shiny floss within each seed pod was grown and harvested to fill lifejackets for U.S. sailors and air crews.
In late August, Conner harvested some of the co-op garden’s milkweed for the ravenous caterpillars he and his wife were raising in their nurseries. A couple of weeks before, they had moved some threatened monarch eggs to the safety of the nursery, and he was getting low on supply.
From those pearly, almost microscopic eggs hatched yellow-and-black-striped caterpillars, growing from a creature barely larger than a comma to about 2 inches long, feasting on the only food it can eat: milkweed leaves.
After about two weeks of the feeding frenzy, the pudgy caterpillars attach themselves upside down on a milkweed leaf or any other safe place they can find. The body of the caterpillar then transforms into a jade-colored, cocoon-like chrysalis with bright golden dots.
Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar’s body liquifies into a green goo that morphs into a butterfly when it is born again in 10 to 14 days.
“You can actually hear the chrysalis crack as they come out and their wings can stretch out,” Conner says. “It is always a miracle to behold.”
He never tires of it.
“You can kinda see how easy it is to humanize them. It’s like having kids, giving them what they need, watching them grow, worrying. I often wonder what it must be thinking,” Conner says. “You can see why I call them mine.”
Know someone RE Magazine could profile for our “Front Lines” column? We’re looking for co-op operations and member services staffers, from meter readers to lineworkers to engineers, who make things work at electric co-ops nationwide. Contact us at email@example.com, or you can reach writer George Stuteville directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.