ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — When Wendy Waddick first noticed a monarch caterpillar gut-crawling on a milkweed plant at her Campton Hills home, it sparked her curiosity about the colorful insects.
"I was just fascinated with the whole (evolution) process," said Waddick, 54, a retired probation officer who has joined conservation efforts to keep the species' population from declining.
Waddick's 1-acre property has butterfly-friendly plants and trees and is a designated "Monarch Way Station" -- among more than 1,500 scattered throughout Illinois. She's raised monarch butterflies for nearly five years, releasing 86 so far this season, and is nurturing about 98 caterpillars in the chrysalis, or pupa, stage, poised to emerge.
Waddick raises them from eggs found on the milkweed plants in her garden to adult butterflies in a house specially built by her husband, Dave. She tags the butterflies so the nonprofit Monarch Watch can track their annual migration.
"I usually raise, release and tag over 100 monarchs each year," Waddick said. "For some reason I'm finding a lot more eggs this year. If all survive, my numbers are 387 at this point. A very good year."
The monarch butterfly is Illinois' state insect. Its life cycle has four stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa and adult. The female monarch lays eggs solely on milkweed plants.
Eggs hatch within a few days into the larval stage. The newly hatched caterpillar eats the eggshell first, then "hairs" on the milkweed leaf, and then the plant's leaves, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Monarchs travel nearly 2,500 miles from their summer habitat -- east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and southern Canada -- to overwintering grounds in Mexico, breeding and laying eggs along the way. They can be found statewide in weedy areas, prairies, roadsides, pastures and marshes, according to the DNR.
Though not an endangered species, conservation groups are working to get monarch butterflies listed as "threatened." Their population has declined significantly; in the winter of 2013 there was a severe dip with monarchs covering a bit less than 0.6 hectare (approximately 1.5 acres) of land in Mexico.
"People started to really pay attention at that point," said Angie Babbit, spokeswoman for Monarch Watch, a group dedicated to research, educational outreach and advocacy for the monarch butterfly, its habitat and fall migration. "The (population) trend has been going downward. In the winter of 2017-18, they covered 2.48 hectares."
The largest population ever counted was 18.19 hectares of monarchs in the winter of 1996-97, she said.
Wendy Waddick tags her butterflies to keep track of their migration. The tag is a sticker smaller than the size of a dime, allowing scientists to find out valuable information on each insect.
Wendy Waddick tags her butterflies to keep track of their migration. The tag is a sticker smaller than the size of a dime, allowing scientists to find out valuable information on each insect. - Brian Hill ' Staff Photographer
Monarch Watch has been tagging butterflies since 1992 and its Monarch Way Station program has been around since 2006, doubling in size the last two years, Babbit said.
Of Illinois' 1,526 way stations, more than 1,000 were registered since January 2014. Successful way stations offer an abundance of milkweed and other nectar-bearing flowering plants for migratory monarchs to feed on.
"People are starting to really realize that (their) yards aren't feeding anything except maybe some grasshoppers," Babbit said. "In order for us to feed the wildlife -- from pollinators all the way up to the birds that eat the caterpillars -- we have to start growing native plants and other flowering plants in our yards.
"Without the milkweed plants the monarch cannot use your habitat for rearing its young. States are working hard to remediate the loss of milkweed. A lot of states -- Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Illinois -- have state monarch plans."
Monarch Watch sends tagging kits to way stations, sells milkweed plants, and gives them away for free to schools and nonprofits with an educational purpose.
Enthusiasts like Waddick are key to the species' survival. She eagerly is awaiting the next batch of caterpillars to emerge as butterflies.
"As a kid you used to see them everywhere, and now you hardly see them," Waddick said.
"This is a really critical area for the migration path. ... It's exciting that I can be part of it. It's my tiny contribution."