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    Saturday, March 02, 2024

    Nurturing and releasing butterflies from senior living community in Niantic

    A swallowtail butterfly rests in the tank after recently hatching at Crescent Point in Niantic. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Resident Helen Russell, 95, reacts to releasing a swallowtail butterfly at Crescent Point in Niantic on Oct. 9. Annette Smith, who is a server at the Benchmark senior living facility, raises and releases butterflies with the residents. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Annette Smith and resident Helen Russell, 95, guide a swallowtail butterfly toward the garden at Crescent Point in Niantic on Oct. 9, 2023. Annette Smith, who is a server at the Benchmark senior living facility, raises and releases butterflies with the residents. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    In the front room at Crescent Point, a Benchmark senior living community in Niantic, transformations have been taking place.

    Inside a glass tank are several creatures that have been morphing from eggs to chrysalis to butterflies. Once these monarchs or swallowtails have reached their butterfly stage, Annette Smith — a food server at Crescent Point and a butterfly aficionado — takes the creatures out and places them in the hands of the residents.

    Those folks sit with their fingers serving as a dome around the insects, feeling the wings flick back and forth and the feet stepping oh-so-lightly, and marveling at it all.

    Then, they let the butterflies go. For monarchs, this means the start of their famously long flight to Mexico.

    Smith remembers a resident who is legally blind who felt the butterfly’s wings in her hands and “just lit up.”

    “We do it for those moments, and it literally is a fleeting moment” until the butterfly alights and leaves, she said.

    This bit of magic has been happening at Crescent Point since 2019, when Smith brought her interest to the place’s residents. She estimates they have released 100 to 125 butterflies since then.

    “That’s our part. We can’t save a redwood tree, and we can’t save a shark, but we can save some monarchs,” Smith said of the butterflies whose numbers have been dwindling because of human factors, ranging from pesticides to the decrease in milkweed plants, which is where monarchs lay their eggs.

    “It just infuriates me. Every 3-year-old and 4-year-old kid should be able to chase a butterfly, and we’re losing that. And the adults have screwed that up. Really? It’s like no! The monarchs — this is what we can do. Everybody can do something, and this is what we do,” Smith said.

    And it’s not just the residents who are fascinated by the project. Smith points out a photo of contractors who were working at Crescent Point and all gathered around the terrarium to gaze at the butterflies in transition.

    Smith, who lives in Niantic and started working at Crescent Point after retiring from being a slot attendant at Mohegan Sun, loves gardening. When her sons were young, they began tagging butterflies for Monarch Watch. They would write down all the relevant information, and the boys would input it into the computer.

    “It was a way to interact with the computer world and our own backyard. It was just a perfect fit,” she said.

    Smith began harvesting monarch butterfly eggs from milkweed plants in her yard and then raising and releasing the butterflies. Her sons grew up and moved away, but she kept with the tradition.

    In 2019, she had a little tank at home with six or seven butterflies, and she was readying to release them. But since she lives just a mile from Crescent Point, she decided to drive the tank down there. She sat on the front porch with some residents. They held, then released the butterflies.

    “They loved it so much,” Smith said.

    Jessica Colangelo, Crescent Point’s executive director, said of the whole process, “It brings so much joy. It’s cause for communication, it’s something for our residents to talk about and to observe. … Having a butterfly in your hand, how cool is that?”

    She added, “It brings the community together as that – a community. A common goal, a common interest, common excitement. It’s just taken on a life of its own, year over year, and (Smith) does a fabulous job with it. You see her passion shine through.”

    Crescent Point resident Helen Russell recalled how one butterfly “laid in my hand, and I turned my hand over and it crawled over to the other side and then it took off. It was ready to go.”

    She added, “It was very interesting to see because we saw the progression of it, from a little thing crawling to finally become a butterfly.”

    Everyone has questions about the process, and Smith said, “It’s funny how much they’ve learned.”

    Smith still gets the eggs from the plants in her yard. The monarchs usually mature during July and August, although Smith said they didn’t even get an egg until the end of July this year. And every year, there are fewer and fewer.

    As for the swallowtails, she said, “They could all come out today or they could all come out in March. You just never know.”

    The transformation

    It varies how long a creature goes from egg to butterfly, but it’s only a matter of weeks, according to Smith. She said it’s a lot of fun to watch, and the residents now know they can see a chrysalis and know it’s not ready yet, but they’ll keep checking in on it.

    Smith said that she’s seen the transition from egg to cocoon to butterfly “5,000 times, and it’s magic still.”

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