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Monarch Angel: Woodbury girl scout promotes butterfly conservation

When millions of Monarch butterflies migrate south this autumn, their number may include a few who were born and raised in Woodbury.

Rachel Drost, 16, can't get enough of the orange-is-the-new-black beauties. For several years, she's raised and released Monarchs at her Woodbury home.

Last year, she successfully hatched and released 13 butterflies.

She incubates them in deli containers covered with circles of screen window mesh. She started using the containers after experts at the Monarch Lab at the University of Minnesota told her that an old aquarium she had been using could harbor diseases that could harm the hatchlings.

"They don't need a lot of space to grow," she said."When they come out of their chrysalis I just take them out with my fingers and put them into the butterfly mesh. I put them in there so that their wings can dry fully for a few hours and then I release them."

A member of Girl Scout Troop 51437, Drost recently created Monarch "safe space" at Lake Elmo Park Reserve. With assistance from fellow scouts, friends, parents and master gardeners, she planted about 40 milkweed plants on a plot of land that had been set aside for that purpose.

Monarchs depend on milkweed plants for survival. They lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves; after the eggs hatch, the larva feed on the leaves until they reach the pupa stage. No milkweed, no Monarchs.

Drost worries about the continuing destruction of the Monarch's habitat as human development eats up more woodlands and wetlands. They're not just a pretty face — by acting as a pollinators, Monarchs also perform a vital link in the food chain.

"I just started this project because the thought of not having my own children know what a monarch is makes me upset," she said. "Their one source of food is being taken away."

The National Fish and Wildlife Commission is considering a petition for the butterflies to be classified as threatened.

"These butterflies are slowly getting closer every year to the endangered species list," Drost said.

Monarch enemies include pesticides, including some sprays used by homeowners to kill Japanese beetles, insect predators and weather.

In March, a Monarch colony was devastated when a heavy rains and high winds struck in their overwintering ground in Michoacan, Mexico.

As a little girl, Drost decorated the walls of her bedroom with butterfly stickers. She became interested in butterfly conservation when she attended the Washington County Fair in 2013.

"I was talking to a master gardener," she said. "She was saying how the butterflies weren't doing so good. Could I do something for my Girl Scout project?"

Raising Monarchs is relatively simple, she said, but people can help simply by planting milkweed in their backyard. It's hardy and spreads quickly.

Cora Lund Preston, communications specialist for the Monarch joint venture, works closely with the Monarch Lab at the University of Minnesota.

She said that people like Drost are a big help to the cause of Monarch conservation.

"That habitat loss is one of the biggest factors in their decline, Lund Preston said. "Planting milkweed and nectar flowers is a huge way that people can help."

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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