Wednesday morning Virginia Tech saw the birth of a monarch butterfly, with a dozen more ready to hatch in the next several days. The process has been unfolding for two weeks inside the front door of Cheatham Hall, home of the College of Natural Resources, under the curious gazes of students and faculty. It all started this summer with an effort by faculty and staff to provide some natural wildlife habitat while enhancing the outside appearance of the new wing of Cheatham Hall at Virginia Tech.

A butterfly garden was planted outside the new entrance to the college. It attracted everyone's attention, especially the monarchs'. While not visible from a distance, numerous caterpillars feeding on the plants and slowly turning into butterflies can be seen close up. A few hours after the first hatch, another butterfly emerged from its chrysalis right outside the entrance door.

The butterfly garden consists of swamp milkweed, which attracts monarch butterflies and provides a place where they lay their eggs. The monarch caterpillar, or larva, feeds on the milkweed leaves. The butterfly itself also takes nectar from milkweed flowers.

The entire process for butterflies to develop takes approximately four weeks. After mating, the female butterfly lays eggs one at a time at different locations on the milkweed leaves. In three to 12 days they hatch into caterpillars, which can feed only on milkweed. A caterpillar then molts four times during a period of about two weeks, and in a matter of hours attaches head down to a convenient twig, sheds its outer skin, and begins transforming into a pupa, or chrysalis.

The chrysalis resembles a waxy, jade vase and becomes transparent. It takes about two weeks for the caterpillar to become a beautiful adult butterfly. At this time of year the butterflies will migrate toward the mountains of Mexico and then begin their return next spring. In late summer the butterflies move in a decidedly southern direction when choosing the next flower on which to feed. Guess what? The native garden at the Cheatham entrance way faces south!

Suzie Leslie, academic advisor for the College of Natural Resources, encouraged Virginia Tech's landscape architect to create the butterfly garden after she noticed the planting of exotic plants around the new addition to the Cheatham building. The exotic plants, which are not native to the region or the United States, were then removed because of their potential damage to native species. The exotics were replaced with native plants, including swamp milkweed, for a butterfly garden. Invasive exotics tend to overtake natives, which often are better adapted to local conditions, require less water and maintenance, and may be more resistant to insect diseases.

"When I saw that invasive exotic plants were being put into the ground, I knew I had to step forward," said Leslie, who has a master's in fisheries and wildlife from the college. "The landscape contractors had no problem re-doing the area around our new entrance with native plants."

"The butterfly garden attracts various wildlife in the area," Leslie explained. "We have successfully started our collection of native plants. Additional landscaping plans include a patio and pond in the front of the building. The plan will also include more native plants and also native fish."

Leslie said she contacted all the faculty and staff members of the college informing them about her idea and they were very supportive. Many have been assisting her with the garden, pulling weeds, mulching, and watering.

"Now we have a garden that differentiates our building from the others on campus, which also provides habitat for native insects and serves as a useful educational tool for students and visitors, as well as makes a pleasing view," said Don Orth, department head of fisheries and wildlife sciences.

The Cheatham garden, which contains plants to attract both butterflies and birds, includes: swamp milkweed, blazing star, goldenrod, native phlox, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, New England aster, joe-pye weed, winterberry holly, coreopsis, brown-eyed Susan, ironweed, sundrops, dwarf crested iris, green and gold, pink turtlehead, and sweet bay magnolia.

The garden does not require a lot of maintenance. With the assistance of faculty and staff, student volunteers and student organizations, daily deadheading and weeding are done. Occasionally, the garden requires mulching to hold in moisture, minimize weeds, and create good soil.

Further information on the butterfly garden is available by contacting Suzie Leslie at sleslie@vt.edu or (540) 231-3484.

Written by Meredith Long, Public Affairs Intern