Monday, July 20, 2020

Monarchs



Last year I decided to grow milkweed.  Milkweed is the only host plant for monarch butterfly caterpillars.    Monarchs are having a rough go of it, in a lot of places their numbers are steadily declining.  I choose two types of native milkweed, narrow leaf milkweed (Ascepias fascicularis) and showy milkweed (A. speciosa).  

My 2019 milkweed journey had some ups and downs.  When I found caterpillars on the plants I was quite excited.  But, none of the caterpillars seemed to survive.  One day they would be munching away, and the next day they would be gone.  Just gone!  I learned later that the survival rate "in the wild" can be as low as 5%.  Out of at least 15 caterpillars only one actually made it all the way to the stunning butterfly you see above. 

This year my milkweed plants have been growing well.  A couple of months ago I again started seeing caterpillars on the plants.  But, just like last year, they were disappearing.  I did a little reading, and found out you can take either the eggs or the caterpillars inside, which gives them a much higher survival rate.  Starting with the eggs is the best way to get healthy caterpillars.  So, I went on the hunt for butterfly eggs.  Once I knew what to look for, I found them. 

White spot in the middle of the picture is a monarch caterpillar egg.

The rest of this post is going to focus on the monarch life cycle.  
Aren't the caterpillars gorgeous?

4th or 5th instar monarch caterpillar.

When the time comes to start the process of turning into a chrysalis, 
the caterpillars will hang upside down in a "J" shape. 


After about a day they shed their skin, and reveal the chrysalis underneath.  
While everyone seems to focus on the chrysalis to butterfly transition, 
I found the caterpillar to chrysalis transition the most fascinating. 



Brand new chrysalis, caterpillar skin just shed.

Day old chrysalis.

Maybe 10 or so days after the chrysalis has formed, 
there is a brief window where you can see the fully formed butterfly inside. 



When the butterfly first comes out it's a bit crumpled up. 



In a few short hours it starts to look like the typical stunning monarch, and off it will go.



Bringing the caterpillars indoors and watching this process up close has been an 
amazing experience.  I couldn't think of a better way to spend some of my pandemic 
induced home-isolation hours.  I'm already planning for next year.  I want to add 
two new types of native milkweed to my yard in the spring.

4 comments:

  1. Amazing, fascinating process!!!

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  2. We had 4 milkweed plants but they kept getting aphids and no matter what we tried, they took over the plant. My hubby saw caterpillars and they were disappearing but my hubby saw what happened. A wasp came and laid its egg on the caterpillar and that egg eats the larvae..poor caterpillar. I am go8 g to tell hi. What to look for. We have 3 butterfly bushes to attract the butterflies. Your picture are great!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Birgit. So nice to hear from you!

      Aphids are a problem. Last year my plants all had huge aphid infestations. This year it's less, but there still are some. When I would search for the caterpillar eggs, and noticed groups of aphids, I took a small paintbrush dipped in some diluted (approx 50%) rubbing alcohol, and would brush the aphids off. The rubbing alcohol didn't seem to hurt the plant, but I'm thinking it killed the aphids. I didn't apply the alcohol if I saw any caterpillars nearby. In my early stages of aphid infestation it was manageable, I really wanted my plants to be healthy enough to support all the caterpillars I brought in the house.

      That must have been fascinating for your husband to watch a wasp lay eggs on a caterpillar. Today I had my first parasitised caterpillar, the poor thing was dead and two fat grubs crawled out of it. It's an uphill struggle at times. I'm always happy to hear that people have milkweed planted. Good luck!

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  3. My friend took in a 'caterpillar' last year and watched it hatch! She took it outside on your flowers and video taped it. She said it was like letting a child go off to college! Thanks for showing all the stages! How wonderful!

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