Small Towns: The butterfly woman of Kaukauna

Experts believe the pollinator population has declined by 90% due to pesticides
Updated: Aug. 10, 2023 at 6:30 PM CDT
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KAUKAUNA, Wis. (WBAY) - Over the last couple of years, an Outagamie County woman has made it her mission to help the endangered monarch butterfly.

Scientists estimate the pollinator’s population has declined by as much as 90%, due to pesticides, and the loss of milkweed, which is crucial to their life cycle.

This week in small Towns, we visit a Kaukauna home where monarchs are thriving.

In Amanada Kostechka’s backyard, an exciting find on her potted milkweed plant.

“That’s an egg,” points out Amanda, excited to take it inside her house.

Amanda’s love for the Monarch butterfly dates to her childhood.

“When I was a kid, I remember them flying around and I’ve always loved nature, I always loved science,” recalls Amanda.

A few years ago, Amanda’s two children came home with a gift from her mother-in-law.

“A couple jars of Monarch caterpillars and it like brought me back to my childhood of being fascinated, how a small caterpillar can turn into a butterfly,” explains Amanda.

Amanda was excited to raise the caterpillars until they turned into butterflies and could be released.

To help guide the process, she went online.

“As I started researching more and more, I realized that they’re endangered and I just wanted to help them,” says Amanda.

So, she got serious, setting up a Monarch rearing system in her dining room.

The first step though, collecting eggs from milkweed, the only plants Monarchs lay their eggs on.

Amanda discovered it can often be a race against time.

“One time I was collecting eggs because they like to lay on very small milkweed plants, so I went to my little field, my secret field, and I collected 30 eggs and then two days later all those milkweeds were mowed down, so I felt like wow, I’m really doing something, I’m making a difference, I’m helping save the butterflies. Everyone I talk to I try to tell them Monarchs are endangered, don’t mow down your milkweed, leave the milkweed, plant milkweed, that’s the best way to help them,” says Amanda.

From the Monarch eggs emerge baby caterpillars...they grow fast.

“This guy here, I mean he’s getting pretty big, and then once they get big, they will spin, this is a gorgeous caterpillar, it takes about 14 days for the caterpillar to get to the point where it’s spinning its chrysalis and then it takes anywhere from 8 to 14 days for them to come out,” explains Amanda.

Once the caterpillars transition to chrysalis, Amanda, who’s a dental hygienist, uses dental floss to hang the silk pod. She spends about 3 hours a day caring for the soon-to-be butterflies.

“I love doing it with my kids, my kids help me a lot cleaning the cages, holding the caterpillars, releasing the butterflies, every time one takes off, we clap, I will say though I am more into it than they are, so I’m always like, oh my kids, it’s for my kids, but really it’s secretly I think for me. I just feel like the more we release, the more they have a chance, it’s sad because only 3-percent of the eggs that are laid make it in the wild, but if you raise a caterpillar, nothing is 100-percent, but most of them, it’s almost 100-percent make it,” says Amanda.

Two years ago, Amanda released 101 butterflies. The number jumped to 150 last year.

This summer, Amanda expects to release nearly 200, including one in her hands, a male she says, who’s ready to fly.

“Ok you ready,” says Amanda as the butterfly flies away.

Watching it land in a tree, Amanda smiles and says, “As long as they’re around I’m going to help try to make sure they stick around.”

In spending some time with Amanda, it is hard not to get excited about Monarch butterflies, and she’s hoping her passion for rearing them might inspire others to do the same.