A townhome in West Windsor might seem an unlikely haven for the threatened monarch butterfly. But 11-year-old resident Aiden Wang has created a safe place for these creatures to nest, or rest on what might be a 3,000-mile journey from Canada to Mexico.
Back in 2014, environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect monarch butterflies, the only species that migrate such distances, as endangered. Due to pesticides and development, the rapid loss of milkweed—their only natural habitat—spelled doom for their populations.
The same year, Wang began his own project to help the embattled monarchs, and inspired a short documentary by film producer Olga Talyn, a Plainsboro resident.
The film, Aiden’s Butterflies, will be screened at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival this month on Saturday, April 14, at 1 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library.
Wang started the project when he was a first grader at Maurice Hawk School as part of a class activity to nurture monarch eggs into caterpillars, watching them spin chrysalises and unfurl wet, orange wings. It inspired him to grow milkweed at home.
Without a big backyard, he did what he could, sowing the seeds in a narrow bed that wraps around his house. Lined up neatly against the sliding doors are now five black pots, dedicated solely to milkweed.
The pots look lifeless this time of year, filled with dark soil and stubby hollow stalks. Wang says that in the summer, the milkweed roots will sprout big, leafy plants that rival his height—more than four feet tall.
As his milkweed plants mature, more monarch butterflies are choosing to nest on their leaves. In addition to pesticide-free nectar and a nesting spot, these butterflies enjoy top-notch childcare.
“The survival rate for monarch butterfly eggs in the wild is 5 to 10 percent,” Wang says. When raised indoors, their survival rate shoots up to 95 percent.
According to his detailed records, of the 93 eggs he nurtured from tiny dots to winged creatures, just one died (and though the ink changes from marker to pen to pencil, each butterfly is numbered and meticulously tracked).
Over the summer, he checks his milkweed daily for butterfly eggs. When he finds one, he carefully snips a square from the leaf, storing them in dozens of plastic containers to hatch, protecting them from torrential downpours and predators like wasps. When the caterpillars look mature enough to spin a chrysalis, he transfers them to a netted cage for their final transformation.
In short, it’s tedious work that takes up much of the summer. And this year, he expects closer to 200 butterflies, or double the amount of work.
The problem is the opposite of the one he faced when first starting out. For the first two summers, the milkweed was so young and small it didn’t attract any monarchs. And the first insect eggs he found on its leaves actually belonged to a moth.
“I was so surprised,” he says. He had to remove them to save his plants for the butterflies. “They eat a lot more [milkweed] than the monarch.” Though they don’t kill the perennials, they can destroy growth for that year.
The third year, he raised 25 butterflies. And last summer, he raised 93. He says that he might end up nursing 1,000 eggs in no time.
When asked how long he plans to run his butterfly nursery, says that he thought that he would stop in middle school (next year), but has put it off until at least high school.
The milkweeds’ robust growth could attract and sustain a butterfly population without his meticulous care. Though the survival rate falls dramatically for wild eggs, Wang is hopeful his plants will continue to make a difference. He has also inspired others to grow milkweed —giving milkweed seeds to neighbors and last year, helping sow many acres of butterfly habitat on the Dunwald farm in Hopewell.
The organic farm belongs to Adrian Hyde, an acquaintance of Talyn’s who connected the two. When Talyn first heard of Wang’s project, she was curious to meet him. His infectious enthusiasm for the monarch immediately struck her as a great subject for her next documentary.
She produced the 12-minute Aiden’s Butterflies with filmmaker Brad Mays, who also grew up in West Windsor.
“When you see the film and talk to him, you’ll see how magical this is,” she says. “It’s his love for animals and this particularly delicate species that just came out.”
The camera follows Wang as he meets other monarch enthusiasts in the local area, including author Trina Paulis, the author of Hope for the Flowers.
In addition to the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, the film will also be in New York City at the Paradigm Shifts Film and Music Festival in May.
Evident in the film is Wang’s quiet and gentle demeanor. His mother, Yuki Azumi, describes her son as a “butterfly whisperer,” and he easily matches this image. He seems most at ease coaxing his pet parakeet off my head, or petting a chihuahua in his lap. The documentary, he says, at times was “scary” to film (though Talyn and Mays were “very nice”), as it involved meeting new people.
And though Wang seems an introvert, he lights up when asked about the butterfly’s life-cycle or the many varieties of milkweed. He talks about how different species of butterflies prefer different types of milkweed, the temperatures they grow best at, their different flowers and average heights.
Wang’s passion for the monarch also transcends his sort-of encyclopedic knowledge. When he came across an injured butterfly with a broken wing, he went online and watched a YouTube video on how to repair the wing with a thin piece of cardboard, glue, powder and wire.
He rummaged the house for materials—his mom’s art supplies proved especially helpful—and performed the delicate “surgery.”
“Honestly, I doubted it would work,” Azumi says. She wrote it off as another curious kid experiment. After the glue had dried, Aiden let the butterfly go. It flew.
“I was amazed,” she says.
Similar to how the monarchs’ instinct to migrate skips a couple generations, Aiden’s inclination for winged creatures might run in the family. His great-grandfather was a well-known bird researcher and veterinarian in Japan.
Growing next to his bed is a milkweed plant that’s green year-round, a tropical varietal called Silky Gold. The plant is young and thin, looking as fragile as a butterfly. Along with the milkweed in his room are dozens of books on birds and two models of egg incubators: one homemade out of styrofoam, and the other ordered from Amazon.
“My next project is next year’s butterflies but slowly the birds will take over,” he says. “Maybe I’ll raise geese. Canadian geese.”
His mom smiles, “Maybe when you have your own house.”