The Monarch Diaries-Adult (Part 3)

A just released Monarch hanging out
A just released Monarch hanging out

My three part series on raising Monarchs.

Preparations for Pupating

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.

Yes, this caterpillar is searching for a spot to pupate
Yes, this caterpillar has  found a place to pupate and is making a silk “button” to hang from

 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.

The cremaster is black and attaches the pupae to the structure
The Cremaster is black and attaches the pupae to the structure. The pupae on the left was just formed and is still soft, the one on the right has hardened

In the "J" position

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.

Tying a knot around the stem or Cremaster and moving the chrysalis to a sturdy structure enabled this chyrsalis to transform
Tying a knot around the stem or Cremaster and moving the chrysalis to a sturdy structure enabled this chrysalis to transform normally

Using dental floss to hang a chrysalis
Using dental floss to hang a chrysalis

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.

Prior to making a chrysalis, the caterpillar hangs in "J" and the antanae
Prior to making a chrysalis, the caterpillar hangs in “J” and the antennae go limp; This one made a chrysalis on a Milkweed branch and I had to move it

 

Eclosure

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.

 I missed this one happening. But it still was clinging to the chrysalis, so it just occurred minutes ago
I missed this one happening. But it still was clinging to the chrysalis, so it just occurred minutes ago

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.  

Eclosure is close when the chrysalis turns transparent
Eclosure is close when the chrysalis turns dark and you can see the coloration of the butterfly wings

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.

A male Monarch with black dots on his wing
A male Monarch with black dots on his wing which contain pheromone sacs that drive the females crazy!

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.

Three Monarchs who just emerged and will be released
Three Monarchs who just emerged and will be released
One of my just released Monarchs clinging on to my hair
One of my just released Monarchs clinging to my hair

If you are interested in learning to tag Monarchs, go to The Butterfly Farm.

Learning to tag with the Monarch Teaching Network
Learning to tag with the Monarch Teaching Network

 

Next up: Bad Year For Tomatoes

 

 

 

 

The Monarch Diaries-Caterpillar (Part 2)

As the cats get older and plump, they become eating machines
As the cats get older and plump, they become eating machines

Larval Stage (Caterpillar)

Continued: The Monarch Diaries-Rearing Monarchs from Egg to Adult (Part 2)

Adding fresh Milkweed leaves to the container and cleaning up the gooey frass (poop) is a daily task that only takes a few minutes.

Lots of caterpillars munching away produces a lot of poop!
Lots of caterpillars munching away produces a lot of poop!

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.

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Baby cats-I cut up the milkweed leaves and place them in a plastic container lined with a paper towel and fresh leaves for them to eat

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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.

The Milkweed on the left has not been flamed
The Milkweed on the left has not been flamed
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Flame the ends of Milkweed with a propane torch to stop it wilting

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.

Aphids are always on Milkweed leaves and are voracious and reproduce like crazy
Voracious Aphids are always on Milkweed leaves and reproduce like crazy

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!

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Milkweed bugs covering Milkweed seed pods

Instars

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!

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This guy just molted and is getting ready to eat his skin

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.

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I added some sticks to the tower for additional areas to attach a chrysalis

 Making a Caterpillar Tower

Tomato cage enclosure
Tomato cage 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.

Start with a four ring metal tomato cage
Start with a four ring metal tomato cage, a 54″ square of tulle and some clothespins
  • Take your 54″ square piece of tulle and knot one end and pull that over top of your tomato cage.

Tulle pulled over the cage
Tulle pulled over the 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 clothes pins to fasten the bottom of the tulle, use needle and thread to overcast stitch the tulle firmly to the bottom ring
    Using clothes pins to fasten the bottom of the tulle, use needle and thread to overcast stitch the tulle firmly to the bottom ring

     

    Overcast stitch the excess tulle to the bottom ring
    Overcast stitch the excess tulle to the bottom ring

     

  • 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.

    Use a cardboard base and set your Milkweed into a water bottle
    Use a cardboard base and set your Milkweed into a water bottle

     

  • 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.

    Change out your Milkweed when the caterpillars eat most of it
    Change out your Milkweed when the caterpillars eat most of it

Disease

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.

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Blackened caterpillar from disease

 Next Up: The Final Journey to An Adult Monarch Butterfly

The Monarch Diaries-Rearing Monarchs Egg to Adult (Part 1)

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Monarch on Mexican Sunflower

Incredible Journey

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.

Primary Monarch overwintering sites
Primary Monarch overwintering sites
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Map from USDA Forest Service

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.

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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?

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Several chrysalises hanging in an enclosure at my house

MonarchTeacherNetwork 

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.

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Demonstrating milkweed in water tubes to keep it fresh at Ladew Topiary Gardens with MonarchTeacherNetwork
Showing us how to feed Monarchs JuicyJuice
Showing us how to feed Monarchs JuicyJuice
Different types of Milkweed laden with Monarch eggs were scattered around the room
Different types of Milkweed laden with Monarch eggs were scattered around the room
We each made our own Monarch cage out of tomato cages and tulle
We each made our own Monarch cage out of tomato cages and tulle
We learned how to make a Monarch enclosure for adult Monarchs also
We learned how to make a Monarch enclosure for adult Monarchs out of 2 embroidery hoops, clothespins, and tulle
Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar-We toured the butterfly house at Ladew Topiary Gardens to see other larval stages of butteerflies
Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar-We toured the butterfly house at Ladew Topiary Gardens to see other larval stages of butterflies
Practicing tagging Monarchs
Practicing tagging Monarchs
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We went on a meadow hike at Ladew and I photographed this little guy who just molted his skin

After gathering some eggs from the meadow walk at Ladew I was ready to begin. Start with the eggs!

Egg Stage

This is where it all starts-Monarchs mating
This is where it all starts-Monarchs mating

For more information on Monarch Raising, go to Monarch Watch.

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.

I found this egg on the upper side of a leaf
I found this egg on the upper side of a leaf

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.

Caterpillars are easy to spot with their big bold stripes: the eggs are much harder to spot
Caterpillars are easy to spot with their big bold stripes: the eggs are much harder to spot

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.

Smaller than a pin head, eggs can be tough to spot
Smaller than a pin head, eggs can be tough to spot

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.

tiny

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.

Itty bitty caterpillar with black head
Itty bitty caterpillar with black head

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

Butterflying

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Butterflies are flying everywhere in my yard, swooping, basking, and fluttering like graceful ballerinas in a ballet. Observing the butterflies visiting my flowers and trying to catch them with my camera is easy to do 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.

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Swallowtail inserting its proboscis into Phlox

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?

Disney flower and garden 2014 156
Queen butterfly on tropical milkweed

Flowers

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‘Black Beauty’ Lilium is the top draw for butterflies in my 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, when the greatest number of butterflies are active, 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 favorites.

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?

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After planting milkweed in my garden, Monarch caterpillars appeared

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. For a list of host plants, go to Host Plants. I always include Asters, Sunflowers, Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Coneflowers, and Passion Flowers in my garden as common host plants.

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Beautiful Passion Flower is a host plant to spiky bright orange Gulf Fritillary and Variegated Fritillary caterpillars munch the plants on their way to becoming butterflies.
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Life cycle on monarch with milkweed

Other Attractants

Some butterflies rarely or never visit flowers and 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.

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Owl butterfly feeding on fruit

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.

Corridors

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Cut-throughs for power lines are a good spot to view butterflies

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 a power line cut outs to see different species than what frequents my meadow and gardens at home.

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Clouded Sulphur butterfly seen in my yard

Warm Weather

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.

Gulf Fritillary on Zinnia
Gulf Fritillary basking on Zinnia

Here are some tips that will help you observe and understand butterfly behaviors and hopefully catch a good picture with your phone or camera!

Quick, darting little skipper butterfly on Zinnia
Quick, darting little skipper butterfly on Zinnia

 

Butterfly Pic 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.

  • Butterflies are slower in their movements in cooler temperatures so you probably could catch them ‘basking’ in the sun at lower temperatures. Butterflies need an ideal body temperature of about 85ºF to fly. Since they’re cold-blooded animals, they can’t regulate their own body 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.

butterfly

  • 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

Monarch
Monarch
  • 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.

Monarch basking
A basking butterfly perches with its wings outstretched in a patch of sunlight to raise its internal temperature. This is a great time to get a good picture of them
  • 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.

Curled proboscis
Curled proboscis
  • 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.

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    A tussock moth caterpillar munches on milkweed
Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley plant
Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley plant
Skipper butterfly on lily
Skipper butterfly on lily

 

  • 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.

Transparent wings of a swallowtail
Transparent wings of a swallowtail
  • 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.

Swallowtail on Mexican sunflower
Swallowtail on Mexican sunflower
  • 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.

Swallowtail on Zinnia
Swallowtail on Zinnia
  • 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.

The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed
The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed

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.

Skipper butterflies on Dahlia
Skipper butterflies on Dahlia
Bee Skep poster, go thttps://www.etsy.com/listing/182225449/18-x-24-pollination-poster-plant-these?
Bee Skep poster, go to Etsy Store The Garden Diaries

Plant Milkweed For Monarchs

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Original poster showing Monarch Butterfly life cycle-available at TheGardenDiaries Etsy shop

Milkweed Options

More and more people are realizing the importance of milkweed to the Monarch Butterfly and looking for sources of plants and seeds. Buying large transplants at a local nursery is the easiest way, but can get expensive, over $7 a plant. At Monarch Watch  you can order a minimum of 4 flats of 50 plugs, small rooted seedlings, for any restoration project free of charge, if you pay shipping of between $40 to $60. Monsanto is providing the funding for this initiative. Monsanto is pulling out all the stops to improve their public image and is partnering with non-profits like Monarch Watch and providing funding for programs that are committed to help the Monarch.

Monarch butterfly

I am restoring a field around my beehives and have ordered some of these flats. For my area of Maryland, the native plants that will be shipped is Asclepias syriaca or Common Milkweed. Go to Got Milk….Weed? to check out the importance of this plant to the Monarch as well as a whole array of other creatures.

Common Milkweed
Common Milkweed
Gomphocarpus fruticosus (syn. Asclepias fruticosa) is an interesting variety of Milkweed native to South Africa
Gomphocarpus fruticosus (syn. Asclepias fruticosa) is an interesting variety of Milkweed native to South Africa

Monarch Way Station

Creating a Monarch Way Station, which are plantings specific to Monarchs, is a great way to help the Monarch. Providing shelter and food for Monarchs on their long migration journey, Monarch Way Stations are popping up everywhere and Milkweed is the only food source that the caterpillars will eat to produce those beautiful butterflies. Helping Monarchs in this way helps many other species of insects and animals providing them with pollen and food sources.

 

Monarch Waystation Sign available at http://shop.monarchwatch.org/store/p/1181-Monarch-Waystation-Sign.aspx
Monarch Way station Sign
Tropical milkweed provides habitat for all kinds of butterflies and other insects
Tropical milkweed provides habitat for all kinds of butterflies and other insects

Starting Milkweed

Different types of Milkweed;left is Gomphocarpus fruticosus, top Asclepias tuberosa, bottom Asclepas curassavica
Different types of Milkweed; left is Gomphocarpus fruticosus, top Asclepias tuberosa, bottom Asclepias curassavica

Reading that the Tropical Milkweed was easy to start from seed and was a favorite of the caterpillars, I decided to start them inside this year. Stratification, which is soaking and chilling the seeds for at least 6 weeks, was recommended for most other varieties, so I instead chose growing the Tropical variety and sowed the seeds in peat pots last week.

Sowing seeds in peat pots
Sowing seeds in peat pots

Readily available from Joyful Butterfly for $2.95 for 100 seeds, the seedlings quickly emerged and I put them under grow lights.

Milkweed seedlings emerged quickly
Milkweed seedlings emerged quickly

If all goes well, I will have 72 transplants to plant out into my garden in late April. And I will have flats of the native Common Milkweed to plant in my field. The welcome mat is down for the Monarchs at my house!

Monarch
Monarch
etsy
Available at TheGardenDiaries Etsy Shop

Got Milk…….. Weed?

Painted Lady butterfly on milkweed
Painted Lady butterfly on milkweed

One of the most beautiful flowers, both in flower and seed pod, as well as great importance to wildlife, has been relegated to the roadside for years and virtually ignored. Asclepias syriaca, or common milkweed, is struggling and harder to find because wild areas are disappearing and roadsides are  regularly mown. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a common saying and one that I would apply to this plant. Only when something becomes scarce do we appreciate it, and I can see that happening with milkweed. But there is a sea change coming down the pike and people are being urged to plant this “weed”.

One colony of plants connected by underground roots
One colony of plants connected by underground roots

Acknowledged as a primary source for survival of many insects, notably the Monarch,  people are waking up to its integral role in supporting other wildlife. See my post Monarch Waystation on the many reasons to plant milkweed for Monarch survival.

Milkweed has a highly complex flower structure and quite beautiful
Milkweed has a highly complex flower structure and is quite beautiful

Milkweed Facts

  • Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and it is the only food source for monarch caterpillars

  • It grows in colonies that expand in size every year; each individual in a colony is one side shoot of a large plant and are genetically identical or a clone; one large branching underground rhizome connects the entire colony

A caterpillar munching away at a milkweed leaf
A caterpillar munching away at a milkweed leaf
  • Surprisingly, the flowers are extremely fragrant and you can smell a colony long before you see it

  • Although one shoot may have between 300 to 500 flowers that make up the umbels, only a few of these develop into pods

    Pods of milkweed are held vertically
    Pods of milkweed are held vertically

     

  • Vegetative and flower growth is rapid, but the pod development is very slow and held on the plant for many weeks

  • All pods are held vertically to the plant and hold many seeds; germination of these seeds is very sparse; milkweed more likely expands by underground rhizomes than from seed

    Thorny pods of milkweed
    Thorny pods of milkweed
  • The nectar is very high in sugar content, 3% sucrose, and the supply is constantly being renewed over the life of the flower; the flowers produce much more concentrated nectar than the many insects that feed on it could ever remove

  • Milkweed teems with insect life, providing food and microhabitat to hundreds of insect varieties

     

  • At least 10 species of insects feed exclusively on milkweeds, notably the Monarch butterfly caterpillar

Monarch caterpillar
Monarch caterpillar
  • The adult Monarch lays its eggs on the leaves of common milkweed, the larvae live on its leaves and milky sap, and the adult Monarchs drink from the flower nectar, although adults will drink from other flowers

  • The latex milky sap from the milkweed is extremely toxic to other wildlife and is concentrated in the tissues of the Monarch which protects it against predators

The milky sap is toxic
The milky sap is toxic
  • The adult Monarch migrates south. East of the Mississippi, they fly as far as 4,800 meters to over winter in Mexico, often to the same tree location

    Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is found in hotter climates, like Florida
    Tropical Milkwwed, Asclepias curassavica, is found in hotter climates, like Florida

    This relationship between the milkweed plant and the monarch butterfly makes the pairing a symbiosis, where they become one entity instead of two separate organisms. Most importantly, without the presence of the milkweed plant, monarchs would go extinct.

Asclepias incarnata
Asclepias incarnata

Other Varieties of Milkweed

Asclepias tuberosa, orange-flowered Milkweed below is probably my all time favorite for drawing insects and pollinators to the garden early in the season, around June for me in the mid-Atlantic. A long-lasting cut flower, I scatter it through my borders to brighten up early summer plantings. It comes in an all yellow version called “Hellow Yellow”.

Yellow butterfly Weed "Hello Yellow"
Yellow butterfly Weed “Hello Yellow”

Another milkweed which is a conversation piece oddity is Asclepias physocarpa, or Hairy Balls. Forming puffy seed balls two to three inches in diameter, the orbs are covered with hairs and are quite bizarre looking. Perfect for flower arranging, the cut branches are quite expensive to buy from a florist, but easy to grow. A favored host of the Monarch butterfly, I always try to grow this plant for the odd looking pods.

Hairy balls forms a bizarre pod
Hairy balls forms a bizarre pod

Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is commonly seen growing in Florida and has bright red-orange and yellow flowers and is also a great nectar source. The leaves are narrower and the plant produces many more seed pods than the common milkweed.

 

Butterfly Watching

A skipper butterfly inserting its proboscis into the flower slurping up nectar
A skipper butterfly inserting its proboscis into the flower slurping up nectar

Butterflies are flying everywhere in my yard, swooping, basking, and fluttering like graceful ballerinas in a ballet. Observing the butterflies visiting my flowers and trying to catch them with my camera is difficult at times, so I did some research about their habits to make it more likely to capture them in the lens of my camera.

A swallowtail nearing the end of its life shows some wear
A swallowtail nearing the end of its life shows some wear

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.

Gulf Fritillary on Zinnia
Gulf Fritillary basking on Zinnia

Here are some factoids that will help you observe and understand butterfly behaviors and hopefully catch a good picture! Or just to enjoy their swooping antics.

Quick, darting little skipper butterfly on Zinnia
Quick, darting little skipper butterfly on Zinnia
  • Butterflies love the sun and need heat from the sun to warm their bodies, so you will see fewer butterflies on a cloudy day.

  • Watch where you stand when observing butterflies so you don’t cast a shadow that could scare them off.

Monarch
Monarch
  • Butterflies fly more often at 9:30 to 12 in the morning and 2 to 3:30 in the afternoon, and like a light breeze.

  • Butterflies are slower in their movements in cooler temperatures so you probably could catch them ‘basking’ in the sun at lower temperatures. Butterflies need an ideal body temperature of about 85ºF to fly. Since they’re cold-blooded animals, they can’t regulate their own body 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 be 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.

Monarch basking
A basking butterfly perches with its wings outstretched in a patch of sunlight to raise its internal temperature. This is a great time to get a good picture of them
  • 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.

Curled proboscis
Curled proboscis
  • Some butterflies don’t have access to flowers, such as rainforest understories, and will instead eat the liquids from fermenting fruit found on the forest floor.

Owl Butterfly feeding on fruit
Owl Butterfly feeding on fruit
  • Male butterflies can be 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. For a great list of host plants with pictures of butterflies, go to Dallas Butterflies. This includes butterflies in my region of the mid-Atlantic as well as other areas of the United States. 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.

Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley plant
Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley plant
Skipper butterfly on lily
Skipper butterfly on lily

 

  • 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.

Transparent wings of a swallowtail
Transparent wings of a swallowtail
  • 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.

  • Adult butterflies can only feed on liquids, usually nectar. Modified mouthparts enable them to drink, but they can’t chew solids

Swallowtail on Mexican sunflower
Swallowtail on Mexican sunflower
  • Within about 10-12 feet, butterfly eyesight is quite good. 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.

Swallowtail on Zinnia
Swallowtail on Zinnia
  • 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. Brightly colored insects often pack a toxic punch if eaten, so predators learn to avoid them.

The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of  a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed
The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed

 

Plant nectar rich flowers 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 all pollinators. Tithonia, or Mexican Sunflower, Zinnias, and Lilies are my all time favorites for butterfly attraction and watching.

Skipper butterflies on Dahlia
Skipper butterflies on Dahlia
Bee Skep poster, go thttps://www.etsy.com/listing/182225449/18-x-24-pollination-poster-plant-these?
Bee Skep poster, go thttps://www.etsy.com/listing/182225449/18-x-24-pollination-poster-plant-these?