Wednesday, August 11, 2010

More Monarchs

Back in 2006 I wrote about our first adventures with monarchs on the fledgling praire plants in our yard. Those plants have come a long way, and this year our monarch population caught up. I haven't noticed too many caterpillars the past couple of years, but this year has been absolutely insane. We started looking for eggs shortly after learning in early July that many monarch eggs get eaten by ants or earwigs. I always thought it was better to leave nature well enough alone, but I decided to go ahead and 'save' some butterflies and that the ants and earwigs could find plenty of other munchables in the prairie. Our first night out Bird spotted a gigantic caterpillar and we found a couple of eggs. Over the course of the next month we found more and more eggs and started a monarch nursery! It's minimal work but you do need to keep the enclosure clean and make sure that the leaves are fresh. We did have a couple of very tiny caterpillars "disappear" but overall we had really good success with those we brought in. In recent weeks it's gotten to the point that we would have them randomly appearing in the cage, having hitchiked in on some of the fresh milkweed we brought in. I got tired of the constant cleaning and getting fresh leaves so I've been trying to avoid bringing more in, but I can't really avoid it. Today I was getting ready to take out a vase of flowers I picked from the gardens last week, and I spotted some frass and a caterpillar skin--they molt theirs when they go into their chrysalis stage. I poked around and sure enough, there was a chrysalis hanging from a wilting coneflower blossom. We'd had red milkweed in the bouquet and he must have been living there the whole time. Interestingly enough we found the earlier eggs and caterpillars on the regular milkweed that you see in ditches, etc. that we have around the yard. But lately it's been the native red milkweed we planted that's literally crawling with them.

One of the best things about having so many is that we've had a better chance of seeing the "as it happens" moments. We saw a caterpillar just as he molted into his chrysalis a couple of weeks ago. This morning that same little guy emerged from his chrysalis right before our eyes. His chrysalis had turned clear so Bird was keeping a close eye and called us all over just in time to see him burst out. Simply amazing. We've learned a lot and enjoyed feeling like we're playing for the monarch team. I think it's an experience every child should get to enjoy.

You can look for eggs on the underside (sometimes the top) of milkweed leaves. They are a tiny white raised bump. Just before they hatch they will turn dark as the little one emerges. Keep the original leaf fresh by wrapping some wet paper towel around the stem and covering it with foil. You may need to moisten the towel again but don't let it go too wet--you want to avoid mold. After that just make sure that you leave fresh leaves in. They get positively voracious when they're about ready to go into their chrysalis (about the size of the caterpillar in the third picture, but we've noticed they do it at all different sizes--just look at the difference in the sizes of the chrysali on the lid), so be prepared. Our latest caterpillars have preferred red milkweed right on the stem. Don't let the frass build up in the cage. Remember that when they want to build their chrysalis, they go UP, so be sure to have a secure top on the cage that the caterpillars can't crawl out of. We use a terarrium type plastic cage with fine ventilation. Keep an eye on the chrysalis and you'll see it turn clear before the butterfly emerges. Ours have emerged between 8:30-10:30. Let the wings dry for a couple of house before releasing them. Don't release them in the rain or the dark. Release near a food source is ideal. Enjoy the magic of seeing this spectacle of nature up close and personal!