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.