Ali Wilson spends her days taking people through someone else’s house.
Sometimes it’s as many as 150 people each day, but the inhabits of the house don’t mind.
In fact, if you walk into the Butterfly House at Creekside Gardens, the more than 900 monarch butterflies flutter around like they’re almost happy to see you.
The Butterfly House, which was established four years ago, holds the entire life cycle of the monarch butterfly under one roof, or screen. Visitors who pass through can see butterfly eggs, caterpillars, the chrysalis (similar to a cocoon) and adult monarchs, many of which will land on your shoulder and tag along during a tour. Visitors can also feed the butterflies with a nectar stick as they walk along the lush house filled with plant species that attract butterflies.
“It’s a very relaxing, hands-on place,” said Wilson, who serves as a “flight attendant” or tour guide for Creekside. “Kids really slow down when they come in here. They know they have to be gentle as the butterflies land on them.”
There are several objectives behind the Butterfly House. Education is key as visitors can not only see all four stages of the monarch life cycle, but they can also learn about and purchase the plants that attract them.
But just as important, according to Sherri Kukuchka who owns Creekside with her husband, Kevin, is raising awareness of the plight of the monarch.
“Monarch populations are in trouble due mainly to a loss of habitat,” Kukuchka said. “We don’t see nearly as many in the wild as we used to, and other people are telling us the same thing.”
A big reason behind the monarch decline is the loss of milkweed, a native plant that the butterfly uses to lay its eggs. Kukuchka said female monarchs will only lay their eggs on milkweed, and the caterpillars that hatch use the plant as a food source.
Milkweed is disappearing from the landscape as a result of herbicide use and development, but it’s a trend that anyone with a backyard can help reverse.
“We really champion the monarch and educate people about the importance of planting milkweed,” Kukuchka said. “A lot of people, when they understand how important it is, will let it grow in an area.”
The connection between milkweed and monarch butterflies is demonstrated throughout the Butterfly House. Creekside employees harvest monarch eggs from milkweed plants three times each week, at night. The caterpillars are taken to a nursery area - there are more than 300 there currently, where they are raised to adulthood. Each caterpillar eats approximately 40 milkweed leaves in the two weeks it takes to reach the adult stage, at which time it is returned to the house.
Not only can visitors see the eggs on a milkweed plant, they can also see a smaller version of the caterpillar nursery and handle some of the vibrant black, yellow and white specimens. Next to the caterpillar section is a corkboard with dozens of chrysalis where visitors can watch adult monarchs hatch. The chrysalis is clear, which allows a clear view of the butterfly inside as it forms. The recently-hatched adults hang on the corkboard until their wings dry out before flying throughout the house.
In June, Creekside Gardens buys adult monarchs which they use to lay eggs and establish a summer population at the business. After that first batch of eggs is laid, all the butterflies are born and reared at Creekside.
“It’s a full life cycle here,” Kukuchka said.
Each summer, the Butterfly House raises three generations of monarchs. Adult monarchs live three to four weeks and the third generation is the one that will be released from Creekside for its winter migration south to Mexico — a journey that Wilson said is roughly 4,000 miles because the butterflies don’t fly in a straight line. Before the butterflies are released, Creekside employees tag each one with a small sticker that doesn’t inhibit their flight. Kukuchka said teams of butterfly watchers in Mexico report the numbers on the tagged butterflies each year.
“It’s the longest insect migration in the world — from mid-September to Thanksgiving when they arrive in Mexico,” she said. “Any butterflies that we produce are helping the monarch population because they all get released.”
The butterflies are released in September and the event attracts huge crowds of onlookers to Creekside. Last year’s release attracted nearly 4,000 people, Wilson said, adding that the event goes a long way toward raising awareness about monarchs.
“The release is kind of emotional because we’ve worked with and raised these butterflies all summer,” she said. “But it’s reassuring to think that what we are doing here in Tunkhannock is helping the overall population of monarchs. The population as a whole may be dwindling, but not here at Creekside.”