East Texas man shares joy of raising, observing butterflies

Joel Enge poses for a portrait with monarch butterflies at Kingdom Life Academy's garden in Tyler, Texas, on May 12. Enge has been raising butterflies as a hobby for 16 years and typically does a butterfly release each year with either his students or his church.
Joel Enge poses for a portrait with monarch butterflies at Kingdom Life Academy's garden in Tyler, Texas, on May 12. Enge has been raising butterflies as a hobby for 16 years and typically does a butterfly release each year with either his students or his church. AP

“Look! Do you see it?” Joel Enge exclaims mid-conversation. He points to the sky as he stands in Kingdom Life Academy’s budding garden, excitedly talking about the beauty of the monarch butterfly that is fluttering through the rows of new vegetables.

The Tyler Morning Telegraph reports Enge, a butterfly enthusiast, has been raising butterflies for 16 years and genuinely appreciates little moments such as these.

“Initially, I started raising butterflies to give my elementary students an exciting experience with real life science, not just out of a textbook,” Enge recalls of his first year raising painted lady butterflies in 2002 with his Austin Elementary School students.

The students loved the project and Enge continued ordering and raising painted ladies from California with them until he found out about monarch butterflies and ordered the caterpillars from a local place in Texas. “Their beauty is phenomenal. ... It’s incredible to watch the chrysalis transform into a transparent shell to allow us to see the butterfly inside.”

By the time he had decided to raise the monarchs in 2008, it had become a campus-wide event, with each class at the school receiving 10 caterpillars so they could watch the metamorphosis process.

The 300 caterpillars arrived on a Friday, and Enge went to the school on a Saturday to check on them, only to walk into a classroom with a bunch of empty containers — the caterpillars had escaped.

“They were crawling all over the room and I was freaking out since I had to touch them. I started grabbing them and putting them in my hand and herding them up. That helped me get over my fear of caterpillars,” Enge laughed as he held a small monarch caterpillar in his hand.

Eventually the caterpillars became butterflies, and the release event was held, featuring research projects on metamorphosis and butterfly crafts. A group of fifth-grade girls sang “I Believe I Can Fly” as the butterflies flew out of decorated milk cartons.

Enge has continued the butterfly release tradition, but now searches for his own caterpillars and milkweed.

“I go and search for the eggs for a few hours to all day depending on the day,” he said, describing how he carries a mesh laundry basket with him on the grassy sides of country highways to collect the caterpillar eggs off milkweed blooms.

“The median on (U.S.) Highway 69 South near Gander Mountain is a great spot for milkweed, but people think I’m crazy and will stop and ask if I’m OK and what I’m doing,” he chuckled.

The young caterpillars go through five series of molts and instars over a period of 10 to 14 days before forming their chrysalis and transforming within it for seven to 10 days. Once they emerge, the monarch butterflies typically live four to six weeks, with the last generation of the season living nine to 12 months.

The butterflies migrate through Texas but are not native to the Lone Star State. Through the fall and winter, the butterflies will fly from as far as Canada to migrate to Mexico. Typically by February, they start their migration back north. “God has designed them to have this internal radar to know that they can’t stay here, but that they must keep going north,” Enge said.

“They move from being a source of destruction, devouring plants, to pollinators who give life to the plants,” he said.

Enge finds spiritual application in this scientific fact: “I was such a taker, to be honest, and in a sense, a destroyer, because it was all about me. But once I gave my life to Christ, he changed me from a taker to a giver, and I began to sacrifice my time, energy and money to help others have a better life.”

In addition to finding peace in the spiritual metamorphosis metaphor the butterflies remind him of, Enge simply loves seeing the joy that the butterflies bring to others: “I love to see the excitement, particularly with the kids . to see their smiles as caterpillars crawl on their fingers and the joy the butterflies bring them is great.”

This year, Enge raised the monarch butterflies to share with his congregation members at Colonial Hills Baptist Church. It was a tough season for the butterflies, Enge said though, as forces of nature like ants and storms took almost 50 caterpillars and butterflies before the big day.

In the end, Enge was still smiling, as he was able to bring nearly 50 butterflies to his church to release on Mother’s Day. After a tour through the Sunday school classes for kids to have a chance to experience dozens of butterflies at once, Enge packed individual butterflies into brown paper sacks for the release.

Dozens of church members made their way to the front lawn after the service and picked up a bag or two. With a quick countdown, the butterflies were released into the sunny blue sky to the delight of young and old alike.

The monarchs will continue on their own path for now, but they will eventually find their way back to Tyler, and Enge will be sure to point them out to you with joy when they do.