Silver Falls, Dichondra argentea, has been in the gardening world for a while now but I don’t find that gardeners use it very often. Too bad! This plant makes an easy to grow spiller/trailer out of containers and a great low ground cover. An annual native to northern Mexico, Arizona, and western Texas, it thrives in hot dry conditions. A Proven Winner plant, I buy at least a flat of it in the spring for my containers.
Here are some quick facts about this great plant:
Vigorous, fan-shaped silver foliage on silver stems; very heat and drought tolerant
Cascading plant that works in containers and looks good on stone walls
Grows 2-6 inches high, space in the garden 18-24 inches apart
Needs part sun to sun
Hardy to 20 degrees
Ideal for containers, hanging baskets, and ground covers
Works well with Creeping Jenny trailer
Hardy to zone 8 or 9
Definitely not deer proof but deer don’t prefer it. They only eat Silver Falls if there is nothing else tastier on the menu. Also, if you get it going so it has some size to it, deer tend to leave it alone. Get it through the juvenile and tender stage, and deer will browse on something else.
My Silver Falls dripped out of my window boxes and rooted in the ground underneath. I let it do its thing as I thought it made a great ground cover. And yes, this is a vigorous (but not invasive) plant and I welcome the speed that it drips or cascades as once really cold (below 20 degrees)weather hits, it is gone. In the mid-Atlantic region here in Maryland, that means that it lasts until January.
Ground cover Silver Falls rooted in from a window boxIn Austin, kit is hardy and forms a great, closely woven ground cover in hot sunny areas.
Butterflies are flying everywhere in my yard, swooping, basking, and fluttering like graceful ballerinas. Observing the butterflies visiting my flowers and trying to catch them with my camera is easier than ever with digital technology and for many people has turned into a hobby-butterflying. To make it more likely to capture them in my lens, I did some research about their habits and floral preferences.
More than 765 species of butterflies occur in North America, north of Mexico, according to the Fish and Wildlife service. Butterflies are very sensitive to weather as well as the caterpillars that turn into butterflies. Eggs and caterpillars in the hot weather hatch and grow more quickly, so here in Maryland, August is the ideal time to view butterflies. But what are the best practices to attract butterflies to your garden? And where can you go to see different species if you don’t have a garden?
Colorful flowers attract butterflies which rely on the sugar-rich nectar for food. Small patches of blooming plants lure butterflies and concentrate them in a small area. When my ‘Black Beauty’ lilies bloom in August, the greatest number of butterflies are active, and I can observe dozens at a time congregating in a small 5′ x 5′ space. For a great source of Black Beauty Lilies, go to Old House Gardens. A great source of Heirloom bulbs, this is one of my all time favorite plant sources.
Host Plants for Larval Food
Many people forget that butterflies require plants that serve the needs of all life stages of the butterfly. The insects need places to lay eggs, food plants for their larvae (caterpillars), places to form a chrysalis and nectar sources for adults. Adults are often found near their larval host plant. Why not support the entire life cycle of the butterfly? You will benefit by getting many times the number of butterflies than you had before. For a list of host plants, go to Host Plants or these excellent regional guides by the Xerces Society.
Carry a plant identification field guide to find host plants if you go out in the field and/or plant the larval food plants in your garden. Milkweed is an easy larval food plant to start with. Go to Got Milkweed…….? post to see the benefits of this plant. I always include Asters, Sunflowers, Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Coneflowers, and Passion Flowers in my garden as common host plants.
Some butterflies rarely or never visit flowers and instead visit things like animal dung, dead animal remains, rotting fruit, or tree sap. Especially in rainforest understories, where flowers are hard to find, butterflies will instead eat the liquids from fermenting fruit found on the forest floor.
Moist Soil or Gravel
Many butterflies gather at mud puddles or stream banks to drink water and take in various nutrients like salts and minerals. Often when I hike on my local “Rail Trail” covered with gravel, I see butterflies swooping in and settling on the moist gravel.
Forest trails, waterways, woodland edges and power line cuts can attract diverse species of butterflies and become natural movement corridors for traveling butterflies. Adult butterflies use these for long distance migration, or to locate mates. I often go to power line cut outs to see different species than what frequents my meadow and gardens at home.
Butterfly enclosures at zoos and other attractions are a sure way to view some exotic ones.
Cold blooded creatures, butterflies remind me of snakes and lizards who seek out the heat of the sun for warmth, and that is exactly where you will find them. When the sun comes out, butterflies magically appear. Living for a fleeting 2 to 4 weeks, butterflies are interested in doing only two things-eating and reproducing.
Here are some tips that will help you observe and understand butterfly behaviors and hopefully catch a good picture with your phone or camera! My hand held camera is a Lumix Panasonic DMC-FZ300 which I love using. But my Iphone 7 takes excellent pictures also. I go back and forth between the two.
Butterfly Camera Tips
Butterflies love the sun and need heat from the sun to warm their bodies, so you will see fewer butterflies on a cloudy day. Instead choose a sunny warm day with a slight breeze. Don’t rule out cloudy days though, the light is better for photography.
Butterflies are slower in their movements in cooler temperatures so you probably could catch them ‘basking’ in the sun at lower temperatures. If the air temperature falls below 55ºF, butterflies remain immobile, unable to flee from predators or feed. When air temperatures range between 82º-100ºF, butterflies can fly with ease. Cooler days require a butterfly to warm up its flight muscles, either by shivering or basking in the sun. And even sun-loving butterflies can get overheated when temperatures soar above 100ºF, and may seek shade to cool down.
Watch where you stand when observing butterflies so you don’t cast a shadow that could scare them off. Move slowly with no abrupt movements
Ditch your tripod-with a moving target, the tripod is useless
Butterflies fly more often at 9:30 to 12 in the morning and 2 to 3:30 in the afternoon
When I see a butterfly alight on a flower, I press the shutter on my camera which can take up to 11 frames a second. At least one of those many pictures that you snapped will be a winner.
Butterflies don’t have any chewing mouth parts, but eat by sipping nectar, through their proboscis. The proboscis is found curled neatly on the lower side of the head when not eating. When a butterfly eats, the proboscis extends like a straw which they insert deep into the flower to suck up the nectar, a behavior called ‘nectaring’. When eating they will circle around a flower for seconds at a time, making sure to drain all the nectar.
Male butterflies are found “puddling”, sipping at the moisture in puddles or wet soil. They are also benefiting from the salts dissolved in the water which increases a male butterfly’s fertility.
Butterflies lay their eggs on the specific host plants and are very particular in finding the perfect plant to do this. I am always looking at my host plants to see if I can find eggs or caterpillars. A plant stripped of leaves is a good sign of caterpillars.
Butterfly wings are transparent. Formed of layers of chitin, a protein that makes up the insect’s exoskeleton, thousands of tiny scales cover the wings which reflect light in different colors. Moths and butterflies are the only insects to have scales. Sometimes you can take advantage of this property and photograph butterflies with sunlight shining through their wings.
Butterflies taste with their feet. Taste receptors on a butterfly’s feet find its host plant and locate food. A female butterfly lands on different plants, drumming the leaves with her feet to make the plant release its juices. Spines on the back of her legs have chemo-receptors that detect the right match of plant chemicals. When she identifies the right plant after visiting at least several choices, she lays her eggs. I follow a butterfly for a long time, hoping to catch her in this behavior to snap a picture.
Within about 10-12 feet, butterfly eyesight is quite good, so move carefully. Anything beyond that distance gets a little blurry to a butterfly. Butterflies rely on their eyesight for vital tasks, like finding mates of the same species, and finding flowers on which to feed. In addition to seeing some of the colors we can see, butterflies can see a range of ultraviolet colors invisible to the human eye. The butterflies themselves may have ultraviolet markings on their wings to help them identify one another and locate potential mates.
Lots of hungry predators are happy to make a meal of a butterfly. Some butterflies fold their wings to blend into the background using camouflage, rendering themselves all but invisible to predators. Others try the opposite strategy, wearing vibrant colors and patterns that boldly announce their presence. Sometimes you have to look very closely to spot a camouflaged butterfly or moth.
Plant nectar rich flowers and host plants for a steady parade of colorful butterflies to visit your garden. Go to Plant These For the Bees for ideas on plant choices which work with many pollinators. Tithonia, or Mexican Sunflower, Zinnias, and Lilies are my all-time favorites for butterfly attraction and watching. If you can only plant one type of plant, go with Zinnias-they love them!
Beekeeping, especially urban beekeeping, is picking up steam and buzz! When I first attended my “Beekeeping Basics” class put on by the local beekeepers club twenty years ago, older men in coveralls dominated and the joke was that the average age of a beekeeper was “from 57 to dead”. As a younger woman in the class, I was definitely in the minority. Sticking with beekeeping for over twenty years has seen lots of changes in the apiary. A new generation of beekeepers have arrived which has injected a revolution in how beekeeping is practiced. Hipsters, young mothers, and middle-aged couples, have taken up the practice in greater numbers than ever before.
The practice of “we have always done it like this,” is slowly but surely disappearing. Beekeepers with new ideas, energy, and ways of doing things are transforming the apiary yard to something that beekeepers from 50 years ago wouldn’t recognize. When problems started to arise 10 years ago with the advent of mites and colony collapse, beekeepers wasted time hoping to return to 1940’s beekeeping. The old guard still wishes that. But with the new crop of beekeepers, they don’t know the difference and attack the problems with renewed vigor and novel solutions.
An apiary’s female dominated society should be especially attractive to women. Historically, people assumed that the bee queen was actually a “king”. Even Shakespeare referred to the head of the hive as a “king”. Females in a beehive basically do all the heavy lifting with the males (drones) kept around for only one thing-inseminating a queen bee.
Women are increasingly becoming beekeepers in the traditionally male dominated field. But this isn’t easy for young women because of the physical nature of beekeeping. Try bench pressing 65 to 75 pounds or more of dead weight! – which a full hive body of honey can weigh. Women tend to embellish their hives more. Check out the blog Beekeeping Like a Girl for great ideas on decorating your beehive to stand out from the crowd.
From a creature with a brain the size of a sesame seed, a working hive is incredibly diverse and organized and gets the job done efficiently. Pollinating one in three of our agricultural crops, honeybees are hugely important to our economy. But only until Colony Collapse Disorder in 2007 became publicized, did people sit up and take notice that bees were in trouble or realize that they were vital. A result of that realization is a huge welcome influx of brand new concerned beekeepers, most of them under thirty, to start their own hives in concern for the environmental impact of the decline.
A steep learning curve will hit any newbee, and even though I have kept bees for twenty years, I still feel new to the field. Disease, parasitic mites, low winter survival rates, and the high startup cost is still an issue, but I find that new beekeepers are enthusiastic and eager to learn. Inevitably, some people upon learning about the time and money involved drop out. And be prepared to get stung and have swarms on your property!
But many are sticking with it and they are in it for the long-term. Committed newbees really want to become beekeepers even after hearing about all the recent setbacks in the bee world. Check out my post on How to Jump Into the World of Beekeeping.
BroodMinder-Technology In Beekeeping
And technology has entered beekeeping. I am using BroodMinder which uses the latest in Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology and integrated circuit temperature and humidity chips, to monitor my hive. By placing the small bee resistant wrapped monitor with a battery on top of the frames, any heat and humidity created by the bees is recorded as it rises to the top of the hive. Relaying the information to an app on my phone, I can monitor how the hive is doing and even email it to myself. Yes, there is an app for everything!
If the temperature and humidity plummets during the winter, I will know that the beehive needs my help with supplemental feeding. See BroodMinder for more information. They are also developing a monitor that will weigh your hive. I would love this feature to inform me as to how much honey is being stored during the summer so you know the best time to harvest!
Full Disclosure: BroodMinder gave me a unit to test out, but I only post reviews about products that I really like and use.
Beekeeping has moved from the pastime of fusty middle-aged men to young urban couples and singles. It is trendy now to become a beekeeper! Who could have predicted that? When I worked at the bee booth at the Fairgrounds recently, I was amazed at the young (under 25!) people, both male and female who were into beekeeping! I was also surprised by the number of people who have asked me questions about beekeeping, who were seriously considering jumping in, but just weren’t sure if it was for them. And yes, it does change your life. I categorize my life as BB (before beekeeping) and AB (after). It is kind of like having children. You are changed from the experience whether you like it or not.
So, I thought I would do a post on what to expect as a newbie beekeeper, because by now I have experienced it all – the mistakes, the outlay of money, the new friends, the frustration, swarms, the deluge of yummy honey, and yes – the stings!
Don’t Try To Do this By Yourself!
If you are really thinking about beekeeping, first learn all you can about the basics. Contact your local beekeeping association; they are all over the U.S. My local one, the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association conducts a comprehensive course which is called the ‘Short Course in Beekeeping’. Starting in February each year, the evening classes are well attended by prospective beekeepers. At the conclusion of the series, there is a hands on practice with bees and outside demonstrations and you can order your starter hive from them. The instructor is the State Apiary Inspector who will teach you basic bee biology and management of your colonies for the first year. The course is excellent with lots of reference materials available and personal encouragement from experienced beekeepers.
Even if you are not interested in starting up a colony, the course is fascinating. There are local beekeeping associations everywhere. Just do a google search and you are sure to find one close by. Attending one of these courses will help you to become a successful beekeeper. I have found that the most successful beekeepers are ones who have taken the course and continue to go to the monthly meetings to learn more, and share ideas with others. The association is kind of like your cheer leading section- when you become discouraged and frustrated, you have someone to bounce ideas off of and give you support. The internet is a resource that I use a lot but there is nothing like talking to real hands-on beekeepers. Don’t get me wrong, experienced beekeepers have vastly differing opinions and practices that vary greatly but the advice is invaluable. There are no right or wrong solutions, so you need to listen, check your references, and then do what you think is best.
When I contemplated starting a hive, I had no idea of how much it would cost and if I had known, I might not have taken the plunge. The expense of starting up a hive is considerable. Purchasing hive bodies, feeders, the bee suit and hat, smoker, medications, and various beekeeping tools will run a minimum of $500 to $1000.
The initial investment is steep but once you have your basic equipment, the cost levels off. You can add other items that you need later on, such as an extractor, which you won’t need right away. Or you can rent an extractor like I do from the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association for a nominal fee.
You can also buy used equipment from a local beekeeper to cut down on your start-up costs but it is important to make sure that the equipment is free of disease. The cost of your initial package of a couple of thousand bees with a queen will run around $100.
By attending the ‘Short Course’, experienced beekeepers can help you to obtain the proper equipment that you need to get started. I mostly order my new equipment on-line for convenience. There are a few local providers of supplies that I use also.
Another question that is asked of me frequently is how much time is involved in maintaining your colonies….. a lot! The lion’s share of your time is spent in the spring to make sure that the hive is happy and healthy, installing new bees, feeding them, and monitoring them. I spend at least a couple of hours a week in the early spring, feeding, inspecting, and manipulating the hives. Manipulating the hives just means you are pulling your hive bodies or boxes apart, making sure that the queen is healthy and producing eggs, and that there is sufficient room for her to lay eggs in the frames.
Later when there is a ‘honeyflow’, which is when the particular flowers that bees prefer are blooming in abundance, you need to add extra supers, or hive bodies on your brood boxes to handle the extra honey. Bees normally will not produce excess honey the first year that they are hived as they are just starting out, but will produce extra for harvesting in subsequent years. Check out my post of Honeybee HoneyFlow.
In the late summer and fall, I spend time taking off the supers, extracting the honey and feeding and medicating them to get through the winter. I set aside one entire day to remove and extract my honey sometime in August or September. Check out my extracting post at Spinning Honey.
Will they swarm? Yes, of course and you have to deal with it! I have had many swarms from my hives, some that I could catch and some that just were too difficult to hive safely. I have also caught wild swarms to increase my hives. Swarming is a natural mechanism for honeybees to find a new home when their present home gets too crowded. Sounds like a benefit for the beekeeper as he increases his hives but the downside is no extra honey is produced for harvesting. Go to Swarming of the Bees to see how I deal with that.
Will they sting?
With my hives, I have noticed a much greater presence of honeybees my flower and vegetable gardens and generally around my property. They use a nearby pond next to my patio for their water source, so the honeybees are very close to where people frequent. The hives are set about 100 feet from my house. I have been stung many times as I manipulate the hives or extract the honey because the bees are protecting their territory and that is a natural response. But if I am working in the garden or just sitting on my patio near the pond they never bother me. Guests have never been stung either. Honeybees are non-aggressive unlike yellow jackets and wasps, and on their daily trips to collect pollen, nectar, or water, they will ignore you and go about their business.
I have 2 hives now on 2 acres of property, but have had as many as 4. I normally will harvest about 50 to 60 pounds of honey from each hive every season and sell it to friends and give it as gifts. It is a hobby that you can practice on much smaller pieces of property, even in urban locations.
By producing your own honey, you are getting a natural, unadulterated product that has no additives. Your own honey contains nectar from local wildflower sources only, and that is supposed to help people with allergies to pollen. I use my honey and beeswax not only as a sweetener, but for healing and cosmetic purposes, like soap and body butter. See my recipe for Honey Scented Soap and Body Butter.
Managing your own hives also makes good garden sense as it improves the pollination of your garden and will improve the yield of your vegetable garden. Observing and managing your own hives is endlessly fascinating!
Many pollinator species have suffered serious declines in recent years. Unfortunately, most of our landscapes offer little in the way of appropriate habitat, forage, and housing. Even the most beautiful gardens are not always healthy ecosystems. Design choices, plant selections, and maintenance practices can make a huge difference in creating your own healthy ecosystem, filled with life. As a garden designer, I use variations of this landscape plan for many gardens to attract the greatest varieties of pollinators.
Native Bee Habitats
Mason bee habitats attract pollinators to your garden also. Simple strategies, such as providing bee habitats and gardening with an ecological community approach, contributes to species diversity, attracting and supporting more birds, butterflies, pollinators, and beneficial insects.
Paper tubes or straws provide nesting areas for mason bees which are pollinator powerhouses, much more efficient than honeybees. Tubes of any kind can be used, like bamboo or hollow stems of sunflowers or other thick stemmed plants.
A pollinator garden can be beautiful as well as useful. Strategies such as planting in groups of at least 3 to 5 plants is very important. A single plant won’t attract pollinators, but groups of same plants stand out and pollinators use less energy flying to a compact group of flowers.
My planting plan for pollinators includes an array of plants that span the early spring-time starting with Aconites, Snowdrops, Willows, Crocus, and Scillas, ending with the late bloomers of Aster, Tithonia, and Agastache. Mid-summer is not an issue to have blooming flowers in your garden; it is the shoulder season of early spring and late summer/fall that keeps pollinators going.
Mixing shrubs and trees with perennials, annuals, and bulbs creates an all-season show of blooms for foraging bees for both pollen and nectar. Many of the plants are also host plants for caterpillars that produce butterflies. And caterpillars are the protein rich food that keeps our songbirds going as it is the primary food that many birds feed their young. For example in my plan, willows are known to shelter tiny overwintering Viceroy Butterfly larvae rolled up in a leaf. You could also plant an Oak nearby as according to Doug Tallamy of ‘Bringing Nature Home’, oak trees are top of the list for providing a host to hundreds of caterpillar species, critical for providing essential food source for birds and their young.
It is important to include both herbaceous and woody plants in your pollinator garden. Trees and shrubs not only provide pollinators with food but also offer protected areas from the wind and predators. Also, remember to plan for a sequence of blooms, staggering the flowering time of nectar sources so that butterflies will frequent your garden throughout the season. Water is an essential for attracting pollinators, and something as simple as a birdbath will work. Mud is the other ingredient that pollinators are seeking when they lay their eggs into the paper tubes that you put out for their use. So, don’t mulch every garden bed.
Meadow creation is an option if you have a large wide open area in full sun. Using a newspaper layer on top of the grass to smother it, you add compost on top and scatter wildflower seed.
You need a sunny spot in your yard for a pollinator garden to be at its best. If your garden is shady but you have a sunny patio, plant containers full of annuals and perennials instead.
Lilies are my favorite flower. They last a long time in the garden, are usually fragrant, make great cut flowers, and pollinators flock to them. Oh, and they are so easy to grow! All these attributes make lilies my go-to flower to plant every year. But some lilies just increase in number and come back year to year….. that is my all time fav-‘Black Beauty’, Purchased from Old House Gardens, my lilies have formed two breath-taking clumps that last for at least 6-7 weeks in July and August. When they start to bloom in July, I am in my happy place!
Old House Gardens says this about Black Beauty-“Though absolutely gorgeous – with 15-40 turk’s-cap flowers of dark raspberry narrowly edged with silver – ‘Black Beauty’ is even more prized for its wonderful vigor and long life in all sorts of gardens. In fact, you’ll often hear it called “indestructible.” (It’s even lily-beetle resistant, researchers say.) The first lily voted into the NALS Hall of Fame and one of our customers’ favorites year after year, it’s one of the 20th century’s very best. Sturdy 5-7 foot stems, mid-summer, zones 5a-8a, from Holland.”
I agree with that assessment completely and the only downside for this lily is I do have to support it after it reaches 6 feet tall. If a storm comes through, the stems will sometimes break off or bend down to the ground. But that is a small price to pay to have this beauty in my garden. Sphinx moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds flock to this beauty and my garden is humming with activity when these gems are blooming. Indestructible and coming back every year, this lily will outlive me!
An overflowing garden and a frig packed with produce is an opportunity to make the classic vegetarian French stew Ratatouille, using up everything in one fell swoop. Chock full of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and ripe summer tomatoes, this summer stew will produce a dish to feed a crowd, pack for lunch, and freeze for later.
Starting with basics from the garden- chunks of squash, peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes- I add anything else that is hanging around my fridge that needs a home. Extra pesto from my garden was a welcome addition, as well as some fresh Okra pods that I picked and added ten minutes later for a flavor boost. Some leftover grilled squash and eggplant made it to the mix also. Fresh herbs such as thyme, basil, and oregano were added along with garlic cloves that were sitting in my garlic-infused olive oil. Okra has started to produce and this was a tasty addition to the stew, adding a welcome thickening agent to the final product.
One of the easiest, most prolific vegetable that you can grow in most any garden is Okra. A super food full of nutrients, and tasty as well, I tried a new All America Selection called Candle Fire, a unique red okra with round pods. An ornamental plant in the garden, the only chore for this plant is picking the pods every few days to use in cooking. That is absolutely it! No pests bother it and I love the beautiful blooms.
The recipe is very loose – it is just the starting point for many flavor additions that you might have on hand. You could add some red wine, a splash of vinegar or lemon juice, or smoked paprika to make it your own. Cooking a large batch at the beginning of the week allows you to use it throughout the next week as a tasty and colorful base for chicken, fish, grilled meats, or pasta. The possibilities are endless. How about folding some into a omelette or over crostini?
Delicious cold. if possible make it a day ahead of time-ratatouille improves significantly after the flavors have a chance to mingle in the refrigerator.
Making this in a large 10 inch cast iron skillet is the easiest and most flavorful method; the clean up is a breeze
2-3 Garlic CloveMinced
1Red Bell Pepper, or any other peppers1/2" Dice
1/2 to 1 LBTomatoesChopped Coarse
Small tender okra pods4" or less, Chopped
Dried or Fresh OreganoChopped
Dried or Fresh ThymeChopped
Salt and Pepper to taste
Fresh Basil LeavesShredded
In large cast iron skillet, cook the garlic and onion in olive oil until tender, stirring occasionally. Add the rest of the vegetables, sauteing until tender. Stir in the herbs, except for the fresh basil. Stir occasionally to blend the flavors about 30 minutes, adding the fresh basil right before serving.
Prior to pupating, the cats go on “walk-about”, trying to find the perfect spot to make their chrysalis. In the wild, they can travel up to 15 to 20 feet away in their search. Found in some odd places, the chrysalis might be on fences, flower pots, window ledges, benches, bird houses, siding- just about any structure in your yard or house.
After crawling around the caterpillar finds the perfect spot to form their silken button that attaches to hang in their prepupal “J”, prior to their last molting. The silk comes from the spinneret on the bottom of the head. After shedding its skin for the last time, the caterpillar stabs a stem into the silk pad to hang. This stem extends from its rear end, called the Cremaster. The beautiful gold dots that adorn the chrysalis are not known to have a function.
For the last skin shed, the caterpillar makes it chrysalis and goes through the “pupa dance”, a process that only takes 3 minutes or less.
Relocating a Chrysalis
Sometimes the cats make a chrysalis in a place that isn’t safe, like on the Milkweed branch that they are eating. In a matter of days when the chrysalis completes the cycle, the Milkweed branch is dead and not sturdy enough to hold the chrysalis. Happening several times in my tomato tower, I relocated the chrysalis using some dental floss. Tying the dental floss around the black Cremaster, I relocated the chrysalis to hang at the top of the enclosure.
For more information about relocating chrysalises, go to Shady Oak Butterfly Farm. Just remember that you must hang the chrysalis so that it will form normally.
To witness Eclosure, the moments surrounding a butterfly’s emergence from its chrysalis, is magical, no matter how many times you observe it. The only way to do that is to have the chrysalis in captivity, where you can monitor its progress and not miss the miracle of metamorphosis. It is extremely hard to catch this happening in the wild as once it occurs, it only takes about 3 minutes from start to finish.
Eclosure normally occurs in mid-morning. You will notice the chrysalis darken after about nine days (typical of females) or ten days (typical of males), right before the butterfly emerges. Immediately prior to this, the chrysalis darkens to almost black. Bright orange wings begin to show through the chrysalis covering.
For a great image of the Monarch chrysalis as it ages and changes color, go to Spica’s World.
The excitement builds as you watch and wait for the butterfly to emerge. Typically in early-to mid-morning, the chrysalis’s transparent skin cracks around the head at the bottom. The butterfly pushes it open and drops its abdomen down, still clinging with its legs to the empty shell.
When the butterfly first emerges from the chrysalis, it has stubby little wings and a plump body. Fluid from the body pumps into the wings, expanding them to full size in a few minutes. After the wings have fully expanded, the butterfly discharges waste products that have built up during its dormant period. A couple of hours later the wings are dry enough for the butterfly to take its first flight, usually a short one to the nearest tree. As a fully grown adult, it is now ready to mate and to spawn a new generation. You can tell the sex at this time very easily.
Releasing the butterflies is always bittersweet as this generation that comes of age in September is most likely going to make it to California or Mexico for over-wintering. They have a long journey ahead of them. For more information about their journey, go to The Monarch Diaries, Part 1.
Adding fresh Milkweed leaves to the container and cleaning up the gooey frass (poop) is a daily task that only takes a few minutes.
As the cats grow larger, shedding their skins, I transfer them to a slightly bigger container with fresh leaves. Clear salad mix receptacles that you buy at the grocery store make great containers at this stage.
Milkweed-Eat & Grow
When the cats reach about 3/4″ inch long, I put them in with the “big boys” in the tomato cage tower that is full of several types of freshly cut Milkweed branches stuck into water bottles. To keep my Milkweed from immediately wilting, I use a flower arrangers trick-flaming the cut ends so that the milky sap stops flowing. I use a small propane torch, like one that you would use for creme brulee. A match doesn’t cut it. It just isn’t hot enough to sear the ends to stop the sap which will make the branch wilt.
All it takes to keep your cats happy and healthy is a good supply of milkweed, because that is all that they eat-nothing else! Eat and grow is the primary goal for the caterpillar. The Monarch butterflies nectar on many types of flowers, but the caterpillars eat only Milkweed. There are lots of kinds of Milkweed, but it must be Asclepias, which is the Latin name for Milkweed. Go to Milkweed Guide to see great pictures and descriptions if in doubt. Growing Milkweed around the country to fuel the Monarchs is really vital to the Monarch survival and people are starting to grow it everywhere. Check out Got Milk…….Weed to read some amazing facts about this essential ingredient to raising Monarchs.
Milkweed is a source of food for many insects, most notably aphids and Milkweed bugs, which I wash off carefully before bringing inside. I don’t want anything else to be eating my collected Milkweed-just my caterpillars!
Monarchs complete almost all of their growth during the larval stage which lasts from 9 to 14 days, during which time they undergo five larval instars or skin shedding. Before molting, the cat will become very still. If you catch this right after it happens, you can see the skin and then they eat it!
I try not to handle them at all, especially during this vulnerable stage as the larva spins a silk thread to keep attached to the leaf. From hatching to pupation, monarchs increase their body mass about 2000 times!
By the time they are ready to pupate the caterpillars become these pudgy clown-like eating machines. So, move them to a large enough enclosure so that they can move to a flat surface, stick, or other hard surface to attach their chrysalis which is their last skin molting or instar. I place sticks in my cage to give the cats added surface area for the chrysalis.
Making a Caterpillar Tower
As soon as I saw this ingenious enclosure at my workshop by The Monarch Teacher Network, made out of a tomato cage, black tulle, and clothes pins, I was hooked. Taking only a few minutes to slap together and tall enough for Milkweed plants, this was a great solution to keeping the cats contained while being able to observe them. Directions are below.
Directions for Monarch Tower
Buy a tomato cage with 4 rings. I used one that measured 14″ in diameter and 27″ from the first to the last ring in length. Cut half the length off of each protruding tine and bend the legs at the base inwards.
Take your 54″ square piece of tulle and knot one end and pull that over top of your tomato cage.
Laying the cage on the side, clothes pin the tulle to the bottom ring of the cage pulling it taut. Using needle and thread, overcast stitch the tulle firmly to the bottom ring of the cage. Almost there!
Using 3 clothes pins, fasten the overlap area of the tulle on the side and place your cage on top of a pizza box base. If you aren’t a pizza lover, cut a piece of cardboard to fit the base.
Set up your cage on the base and it is ready to fill with your milkweed plant or cuttings. Tall enough for plants and lots of caterpillars, they will travel to the top when they are ready to pupate. This setup is easy to see through and clean, essential when you have lots of plump cats eating away.
I had a few cats die after turning black caused by a bacterial disease. This is upsetting but part of life. I removed these as soon as I spotted them to stop any spread of infection to others. Be sure to clean and rinse your milkweed before using and clean your cage thoroughly every day to increase your caterpillar survival rates. If you notice a caterpillar looking sick, remove it from the others immediately. Once your caterpillar gets sick, there is really nothing that can be done. You can euthanize by placing in a ziploc into the freezer. For more information on caterpillar diseases, go to 7 Common Monarch Diseases.
Next Up: The Final Journey to An Adult Monarch Butterfly
Monarchs always amazed me with their unique migration, over 3000 miles in some cases, which seems an impossible task for such a delicate creature. The only butterfly that makes a two-way trip, Monarchs are unique in the animal kingdom. Unable to survive cold winter temperatures, the Monarch has evolved to make this incredible trek to over-winter in warmer climes, such as Mexico and southern California. Using a combination of thermals and air currents, Monarchs sense when it is time to travel and know where to go even though the migrating generation has never been to the distant over-wintering sites.
Monarchs travel along one of three major routes and investigators think that a combination of directional aids such as the magnetic pull of the earth and the position of the sun among others guide them. Monarchs can travel between 50-100 miles a day and it can take up to two months to complete their journey. Traveling only by day, Monarchs roost at night high up in trees to rest before warming up in the sun to continue their journey. A distance of 265 miles in one day is the longest recorded distance of a Monarch! A great website to track the migratory happenings of Monarchs and other animals is Journey North. Citizen Scientists record their observations all over North America to show the movements of animals north in the spring and south in the fall in real-time.
Many teachers include Monarch rearing in their science curriculum in Elementary school but I missed the opportunity in school and wanted to do it myself at home to observe the incredible transformation that these creatures go through. How can such fragile creatures make a 3,000 mile journey to an unknown location and remain there for months, mate and then return to the north to start new progeny?
Monarch rearing has been on my “must try” list for several years and a two-day Monarch workshop put on by MonarchTeacherNetwork got me motivated and ready to go. Milkweed growing, enclosure instructions, Monarch activities and games, healthy practices of raising, and release ceremonies were all covered in simple, easy to follow directions with added field trips to meadows full of Milkweed and a butterfly house. After the intense two-day workshop, I felt fully prepared to set up my own Monarch raising operation at home.
After gathering some eggs from the meadow walk at Ladew I was ready to begin. Start with the eggs!
The hardest part of raising Monarchs is finding their tiny single creamy-white eggs which are smaller than pin heads. Carrying a portable hand lens on an overcast day makes it a little easier to spot the eggs in the field. If you observe Monarchs swooping in and landing on a Milkweed, there is a good chance that she just laid an egg.
Monarchs tend to lay their eggs singly on the underside of freshly grown leaves of Milkweed, hidden from predators and directly on their food supply for best survival rates.
The butterfly glues the egg on the leaf surface so that it adheres even through a rain storm, but predators find the eggs a tasty treat. The first egg for me was hard to find, but subsequent ones much easier once I knew what to look for. The likelihood of a Monarch surviving the egg and larval (caterpillar) stages is less than 10% in the wild. For great tips on finding eggs, go to How to Hunt, Gather, and Protect Monarch Eggs . This site gives great information on where, when and how to look.
After locating an egg, I note what type of Milkweed they were attached to and remove the leaf or branch and add it to my “nursery enclosure”, a small plastic container with holes poked in the top. Taking only 3 to 5 days to hatch, watch your eggs carefully as the caterpillar can emerge, eat their egg shell and will move on to fresher leaves pretty quickly. When the top of the eggs turns dark, hatching is imminent.
Adding some extra Milkweed leaves will keep the tiny caterpillars busy when they hatch. You could also place tulle or pantyhose over the top to keep any wandering minuscule caterpillars inside. Lining the container with a moistened paper towel makes cleanup of the “frass” or black gooey caterpillar poop easy and adds some moisture to their environment. Once inside the house, air conditioning tends to dry the air out for the caterpillars and a light mist from a spray bottle of water helps. I clean out the plastic container every day as the frass can bring in pathogens that can harm the caterpillars.
After the eggs hatch in about 4 days, the tiny caterpillars are no larger than 1/16 of an inch long. They are delicate and easy to overlook as you handle the Milkweed leaves, so move carefully when you are changing out old for fresh leaves.
Next: Part 2-Larval Stage and How to Make a Tomato Cage Enclosure