By Kevin Greer
Staff blogger
Lakeside Communications Manager

When Becky Donithan arrives in Lakeside every May after spending the winter months near Phoenix, Arizona, she finds time to relax with her husband, Randy, in their cottage, along with family and friends.

Well, sometimes.

Other times, Donithan is busy bringing life to the community — literally. She helps protect monarch butterflies throughout the summer, something Lakeside resident Mariann Dargusch introduced to her in 2019.

“I really have Mariann to thank for getting me into this,” Donithan said. “Although we laugh about it because we have a glass porch by my cottage, and we always enjoyed sitting and entertaining on it. Now come mid-July there’s probably 10 or 12 big butterfly enclosures and tubs. There aren’t too many places to sit out there.”

While Donithan considers it a “hobby,” it’s almost like a full-time job, starting with the first egg she sees in late May or early June. Looking for eggs isn’t a process that lasts only a week or two, they can be found on milkweed the entire summer. Milkweed is the only place monarch eggs are laid.

“There are times when it’s almost hard for me,” Donithan said. “Sometimes I say, ‘I’m not going to look for eggs today.’ You can get overwhelmed. I feel I’m doing my little part, but I don’t let it absorb my summer.”

Donithan takes a plastic container when going out on what she calls an “egg hunt.” The biggest patches of milkweed are near the Rhein Center and Wesley Lodge. When she finds an egg, she pulls the whole leaf, takes it home and cuts the leaf into about a 1-inch square around the egg. Then she makes sure all eggs are free from bugs or larvae. If one is diseased and gets put in a container with others, none of them survive.

Next, Donithan puts the leaves with the eggs on a wet paper towel in another container and closes it. She keeps watch for two to five days until they hatch into caterpillars. It’s important to keep them on the leaf after they hatch so they have something to eat. One caterpillar will eat almost a full leaf of milkweed a day.

Once they get bigger, Donithan moves them with the leaf into another container with a bigger leaf. Once they’re about 4-5 days old and it looks like they’re going to survive, she’ll cut a stalk of milkweed with several leaves, put it in a container with water and move it into an enclosure. She places the stalks upright to keep their environment as natural as possible. Donithan said they eat a lot and sometimes she has to put more leaves in before going to bed, especially in their last week as a caterpillar. When it’s quiet in the morning, she can hear them eating.

After about 14 days, the caterpillars climb to the top of the enclosure and form into a chrysalis, which is an almond-shaped protective shell, and the metamorphosis begins. It stays green for a week to 10 days, then it looks to turn dark, but the shell is actually clear with a butterfly visible inside. About 48 hours later, the monarch emerges and hangs for about an hour until its wings get elongated. Once the wings dry, which takes about four hours, they’re ready to fly. The entire transformation, from egg to butterfly, takes roughly 30 days.

“It’s quite a process, Donithan said. “I knew butterflies came from caterpillars, but I just never knew those little guys go through all of this. It’s amazing.”

Once they’re able to fly, the butterflies can be released. However, it must be on a clear day. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, Donithan continues to take care of the monarchs by feeding them fresh flowers, fruit or Gatorade.

Butterflies hatched early in the summer will stay around the area and lay eggs all season. Monarchs that hatch in the first or second week of August migrate to Mexico.

“Those are the very important ones, Donithan said of the late hatchers. “It’s just amazing that butterflies in Ohio make it all the way to Mexico.”

Donithan recalled when monarchs flew across Lake Erie from Canada made a stop at Lakeside a couple years ago. They hung in the trees near the Pavilion and the mini-golf course for about a day before continuing their migration.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Donithan said. “There had to be millions. The trees looked orange. It’s like they wait there for everybody. When they take off, it’s just like a cloud.”

Last summer, Lakeside Master Gardener Loretta Wilken asked Donithan and Dargusch to speak at a weekly Get Growing program about how they take care of the monarchs. They were a bit nervous. In other words, they had different kinds of “butterflies” before addressing the group.

“Neither of us like to get up in front of people,” Donithan said. “We were like ‘why did we agree to this?’ We were stressed over doing it, and it ended up going just fine.”

Donithan and Dargusch told those who attended it’s a big commitment, but there are ways way to help if you don’t have time. Donithan planted seeds at the beginning of May and had about 30 potted plants of milkweed she handed out to those who wanted to put some in their garden.

“The most important thing we tried to promote is growing milkweed,” Donithan said. “If we can get people just to grow milkweed, that helps butterflies. Another thing is to plant pollinated flowers. A lot of people were very interested, so we’ll see if more want to do it.”

Last summer was Donithan’s busiest as she released 52 butterflies. She said it’s important to take care of the monarchs because they are close to being added to the endangered species list.

“A big part of why numbers are down is because a lot of milkweed that grows along highways gets mowed,” Donithan said.

Donithan, a Wooster native, was a regular during Lakeside summers from when she was six weeks old until she moved to Arizona after graduating from Bowling Green State University. She and Randy are both retired and have been coming to Lakeside together for the past 11 years. Many Lakesiders know their adopted son, Marky, who has cerebral palsy. He will return for a three-week stay after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19. He’ll once again be seen riding around town on his scooter, while his mom continues saving butterflies.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Donithan said. “Sometimes I think ‘oh, this is a lot of work.’ But now I’m pretty invested in it. I enjoy it. It’s a really fun hobby. I think it’s an important one and a great educational one for kids.”