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

Rearing Monarchs – Start With Milkweed

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Full grown meadow with lots of nectar plants and milkweed around my beehives
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A Monarch nectaring in a Joe Pye Weed flower

Rearing Monarchs at my house was one of my goals this year. But I needed a ready source of milkweed to hand as I knew they were voracious eaters of this specific plant. A meadow of grass and goldenrod surrounded my three bee hives and I decided to plant nectar plants and milkweed in the grassy area, backed up with the goldenrod which is an important source of late nectar.

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A field of Goldenrod backs up my beehives

Trolling the byways as I walked my dog for Monarch caterpillars on milkweed is not the same as having milkweed plants in my back yard. “Plant it and they will come” is so true-you just need the room to plant your milkweed and nectaring plants. Popping out the back door while preparing dinner to check for eggs, caterpillars, and milkweed made it much easier for me.

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Take it section by section

Start Early

Late February was my starting date when I had time that was not taken up with other garden duties. First lay out your area with paint or a hose. I targeted an area about 15 feet wide by 60 feet in front of my bee hives to provide my bees with lots of floral sources and loads of milkweed for the Monarchs that I hoped would visit. Saving old newspapers all winter prepared me for the day when I started laying it down directly on top of the turf. Wet the newspaper so that it clings to the ground surface without flying away in the wind. A convenient hose to water everything down as you place the newspaper down is essential. I used at least 5 layers of newspaper to kill any underlying turf.

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Potting soil bag

Go Section By Section

Using about a dozen bags of potting soil, I added a thin 1 to 2 inch layer on top of the newspaper to hold the newspaper layers firmly to the ground. Mulch is also an option. I progressed one section at a time as the newspaper could dry up and blow away if you leave it too long exposed. After leaving this sandwich sit for about 8 to 10 weeks, the turf underneath was mostly dead and the newspaper was almost rotted through so that I could plant through it. When I gathered my plants for the meadow, I planted directly through the soil and newspaper layer into the underlying soil.

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Spread topsoil on top of the newspaper

Planting

Early in the spring, I gathered perennials in quarts and plugs to plant. Different varieties of of milkweed were planted among the other perennial plants to give a long season of bloom time, from early in the season to late. I planted all my milkweed transplants that were started in February into the ground at the same time. Go to Planting Milkweed to see how to start milkweed from seed. Weeds started growing, but I let them in! This wasn’t a manicured groomed perennial border and I didn’t bother the weeds that popped up.

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Planting Milkweed inside in February
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Newly planted perennials planted in the meadow, backed up by goldenrod

In early May, after danger of frost was over, I broadcast mixes of different seeds that were pollinator friendly in the open spaces. Mixing together many seed packets made a diverse mix and I sprinkled these on top of the soil and firmed it down with a hoe.

IMG_5805
Mixing lots of seed packets together
Firm the seeds into the soil with a hoe and water lightly
Firm the seeds into the soil with a hoe and water lightly

Next Step

Now I have a great little meadow which is a nectar source for my honey bees, as well as for other pollinators. And a great area to pick milkweed to bring in to feed my Monarch caterpillars. Watering in the spring is the only maintenance that I had to do until the plants rooted in and started growing. I left it alone after the initial planting and watering and have enjoyed the flowers that popped up all season long. To see what types of plants that pollinators seek out, check out Plant These For Bees.

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Milkweed in the foreground with other perennials and sunflowers

 

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The meadow is growing in nicely in July

Next Up: Rearing Monarchs

postermonarch1

Bee Counted

 Bee crossing sign

Drum roll please!……..It is National Pollinator Week starting today and you need to start counting those bees. Go to my post Pollinator Week to see the drill, but it is real simple. Name the flower, and then do a quick count, say five minutes each flower of any pollinators that visit. Bees are of course the poster child for this campaign, but remember bees are only one part of the equation.

Apiary
Beehives are important but only part of the picture

Butterfly on Zinnia
Butterfly on Zinnia

Count butterflies, hummingbirds, moths, flies- basically anything that visits the flower by wings or just crawling. Do as many or as few counts as you have time for this week and click on Great Sunflower Project, and if you haven’t already registered, set up an account and input your results. This project collects data from ordinary gardeners all over the country to track pollinator numbers so that scientists can have a better understanding of the health of our populations in North America. Consolidation of all this data gives scientists hard numbers when they determine the best strategies in tackling this problem.DSCN0733

Citizen Science at its best!

Bee One in a Million

Set up a pollinator garden with blocks of plants
Set up a pollinator garden with blocks of plants

 

To take this effort even further, you can join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge which is a nationwide call to action to preserve and create gardens and landscapes that help to revive and sustain the health of all pollinators.

Plant in blocks of color
Plant in blocks of color

Plan of a pollinator garden
Plan of a pollinator garden

Aiming to move millions of people outdoors to create nectar rich gardens, this initiative fosters a connection between pollinators and the food that we eat. The goal is to get people out in the great outdoors and start planting flowering plants. You notice that I say “flowering plants” and not just “flowers”? Flowering trees and shrubs are just as important as perennial and annual flowers. And if you can plant native ones, all the better. Go to Plant These For the Bees to see the best strategies on attracting pollinators in the garden. And check out Monarch Way Station if you are interested in Monarchs in particular.

Bee on Azalea shrub
Bee on Azalea shrub

 My Sunflowers and Zinnias here in the mid-Atlantic aren’t quite blooming yet, but I do have lots of other flowers that are popping out that I can start my count on. Happy counting!

Monarch butterfly

Monarch Way Station

 

Monarch on Joe Pye Weed
Monarch on Joe Pye Weed

Monarch Way Station-Easy to Set Up!

Because of massive habitat loss due to large-scale corn and soybean farming that has gobbled up every acre of farmland, Monarch butterflies are on the decline.  Pervasive spraying with herbicides has largely eradicated the huge swaths of the common milkweed plant, which colonized margins around farm fields and roadsides that sustained Monarchs on their long migration.

Monarch Waystation on the roof of the conventiion center in Pittsburgh, monarch caterpillar picture by Martin LaBar
Monarch Waystation on the roof of the convention center in Pittsburgh, monarch caterpillar picture by Martin LaBar

 What Can We Do? 

This decline of Monarchs isn’t new information as it has been touted in all the news media for several years, but it seems like people are starting to pay attention and take action. Monarchs are a flagship species like the honeybee, and if we preserve existing Monarch habitats or add to them, we will be helping a lot of other organisms as well. So what can we as gardeners do who plant on small properties? Or even if a gardener has just a balcony or deck to garden on? We can plant the right plants for Monarchs and other pollinators.

Monarch butterfly on Zinnia
Monarch butterfly on Zinnia

Plant Milkweed Everywhere

Launched in 2005, Monarch Waystation was created by Monarch Watch and sells seed kits for starting your own Monarch Waystation or pollinator haven. If you are a school or non-profit, Monarch Watch will provide a free flat of 32 milkweed plugs as well as guidance on how to create a new habitat or enhance an existing garden. That is a great deal and schools should be snatching these up! And if you aren’t a non-profit, Monarch Watch will sell you seed kits with the proper species for your area for a nominal $16. Go to http://shop.monarchwatch.org/store/p/1179-Monarch-Waystation-Seed-Kit.aspx to order. If you are a regular home owner and gardener who wants to help provide healthy habitat for the Monarch, follow the guidelines on plantings to make your very own Monarch Waystation in your yard at the bottom of this post.

The Great Migration

Migration map of monarch butterfly-used with permission of Paul Mirocha at http://paulmirocha.com/
Migration map of monarch butterfly-used with permission of Paul Mirocha at http://paulmirocha.com/

Each fall, millions of Monarchs migrate from the U.S. and Canada to overwintering areas in Mexico and California, staying there until spring returns and then make their way back north. The Monarchs east of the Rockies follow a different path from the Monarchs west of the Rockies.  Flying thousands of miles for these fragile creatures is hard work and they need fuel during the journey. Increasingly Monarchs aren’t finding the proper nectar plants on their arduous trek and we need to remedy this. Since the program started there are over 7,000 Monarch Waystations registered. Other organizations, such as The North American Butterfly Association and Wild Ones which is a program specific to Monarchs, and motto is “Healing Earth One Yard at a Time”, are also in the movement.

Cluster of flowers make up the common milkweed flower that sustains Monarchs
Cluster of flowers make up the common milkweed flower that sustains Monarchs

 

Monarch Habitat Guidelines

By following these basic guidelines, you can set up your own Monarch Waystation and get it certified with a designated sign. The sign and certification applications are available at http://shop.monarchwatch.org/store/p/1181-Monarch-Waystation-Sign.aspx  Monarch Waystation sign available athttp://shop.monarchwatch.org/store/p/1181-Monarch-Waystation-Sign.aspx

 

Size: At least 100 sq feet; This area can be split up into different areas

Exposure: At least 6 hours of sun a day

Drainage and Soil Type: Low clay soil with good drainage

Spacing: Plants should be close and can be touching each other to give shelter to the pollinators from predators

Milkweed Plants: Plant at least 10 individuals, representing different species that flower at different times; By planting more milkweed plants, you increase your chances of successfully attracting Monarchs 

Additional Nectar Plants: Add at least four species who have different bloom times. For more information of types of plants that attract pollinators, go to Plant These for the Bees . Zinnias which are not a native is my single biggest draw for Monarchs. See my poster below for more flower options that are attractive to pollinators.

Flowers for pollination poster available at https://www.etsy.com/listing/182225449/18-x-24-pollination-poster-plant-these?
Flowers for pollination poster available at https://www.etsy.com/listing/182225449/18-x-24-pollination-poster-plant-these?

Care: Water during drought and weed regularly. Mulch with compost in the spring and cut back dead stalks. Fertilize, amend the soil, and don’t use pesticides!

Pollinators
Pollinators