The Monarch Butterfly, in its caterpillar state, eats only milkweed.
We may soon find monarch butterflies on the endangered species list. Their decline is linked directly to the similar decline in the milkweed plant.
The Eastern Swallowtail prefers open, sunny, upland fields and wet meadows. It is easily attracted to gardens with flowers such as Butterfly Bush, Purple Coneflower, Wild Bergamot, and milkweeds.
When the flowers begin blooming in my gardens, I enjoy the arrival of various butterflies. They come in different sizes and colors, but all have an important purpose, to help pollinate the nearly 90 percent of plants that need pollinators. Behind bees and flies, butterflies are the third largest pollinators. Without them, many plant species would be unable to reproduce. A lot of butterflies, especially the Monarch Butterfly, migrate over great distances, pollinating flowers along the way. Like other insects, butterflies belong to the lower part of the food chain. Birds and rodents consider them a tasty meal and rely on them as a food source. As we all know, the loss of part of the food chain has adverse effects throughout the entire ecosystem.
We may soon find Monarch Butterflies on the endangered species list. Their decline is linked directly to the similar decline in the milkweed plant, the only plant they eat and lay their eggs on during the summer. Although not proven, the milkweed decline may be tied to the use of chemical insecticides on crops. Winter storms that kill many trees in the fir forests where the monarchs winter are another threat.
Raising the Monarch Butterfly
About four years ago, I had such a great experience tagging Monarch Butterflies at a local wildlife center that I bought a butterfly cage with plans to raise them. Well, life happened and I never got around to it, until this past summer. My neighbor behind me, a first grade teacher, planned to raise butterflies and create her own butterfly house. How exciting! I began researching everything about monarchs and learned many facts along the way.
First of all, it’s important to know that one caterpillar can devour an entire milkweed plant over the course of two weeks. Make sure you have enough plants available for the number of monarchs you plan to raise. Start with around 10 so you can learn the process first. Once you make the decision of how many to raise, purchase the following supplies:
- Butterfly/Caterpillar Cage: These come in many shapes and sizes. The pop-up, mesh kind are easy to store and clean. Two would be ideal, one for caterpillars, the other for butterflies. You should clean the cages between batches.
- Container for Hatching Eggs: This can be a critter keeper or other container with pantyhose for a lid.
- Milkweed: Whether you plant your own or have access to wild milkweed, you will need at least one plant per caterpillar.
- Pruning Shears: Yes, you will need to cut a bunch of milkweed.
- Cutting Container: Any type of container will do to hold your cuttings in water.
- Paper Towels: To maintain a poop (AKA “frass”)-free cage, you must clean it daily.
- Bleach: Use for cleaning the cage at the end of the season or if you notice a disease.
- Fine Paint Brush: Sometimes it may be necessary to move a tiny caterpillar.
- Monarch Eggs: You can either purchase caterpillars and eggs, or search for them among your milkweed plants.
- Journal: You will want to reflect on the experience and keep track of any problems that arise.
Let It Fly
Prior to the arrival of your eggs or caterpillars, make sure you have your milkweed plants ready. If you order eggs, and they come on a plant, put it right into your caterpillar cage. If you order caterpillars, you should have your plants ready so they can lay eggs. Cut a leaf into small pieces and place them on a paper towel in a container. Mist the leaves lightly each day to keep the eggs hydrated. Place them in a room with indirect, not too hot sunshine. When kept outdoors, bring them in if temperatures fall below 55 degrees. Once the caterpillars emerge (less then 1/10-inch in size), place a full size leaf under them. Soon they will begin devouring it. Transfer the caterpillars from the container to the cage when they are large enough not to get lost in there.
When it comes to feeding the caterpillars, we already know that they have a very simple diet—milkweed. You have a few options for the feeding process; choose the one that works best for your lifestyle.
You can grow your own milkweed plants in pots and place them in the butterfly cubes or take stem cuttings of milkweed and place them in containers with fresh water. You can also pluck leaves. About once a week, gather milkweed leaves. Rinse and store them in plastic baggies in the refrigerator. Take out as needed. Or, pick milkweed leaves every day for your caterpillars. Rinse before using. Note: Always wash your hands after handling milkweed. The sap from milkweed is toxic and can cause damage to the cornea if rubbed into your eyes.
Cages need to be cleaned every day. Trapped frass can cause mold and germ problems.
On a tray or plate next to the cage, place fresh milkweed cuttings or leaves.
Remove any caterpillars from the floor of the cage. Scoop them up with your moistened fine tip paintbrush, or a milkweed leaf. Place the caterpillars on the fresh milkweed cuttings or leaves.
Using the paintbrush, remove any frass that is sitting on potted plants. Wipe down and dry the cage with paper towels. Put all leaves and caterpillars back into the cage. Lightly spray all cuttings and leaves with water.
At the end of the season and between batches, disinfect the cage with a 10- to 20-percent bleach solution, rinse thoroughly and hang to dry in the sun.
The Pupa Stage
Eventually, a caterpillar becomes a pupa or chrysalis. As a chrysalis caterpillars appear bright green with what looks like pure gold dots. They are absolutely beautiful. After about 9-14 days, they emerge as butterflies. Do not handle the butterflies for the first 4 or 5 hours; they can be kept in the cage until the next day. At that point, hold the butterflies carefully with their wings closed when you release them, or take them out into the sunshine in their cage with the sides unzipped. Eventually they will make their way out.
If you decide to keep a butterfly longer than one day in the cage after it emerges, you will need to provide nectar. A clean sponge or cotton ball saturated with a 20-percent honey or sugar water solution will do or you can use fresh fruit such as watermelons, honeydew or cantaloupe melons cut into wedges and set in the cage. These should be changed daily to prevent mold and bacteria growth.
Following a monarch butterfly through its entire metamorphosis is an unreal experience. Watching it emerge as a butterfly is amazing.
The Monarch’s Journey
Monarch butterflies travel between 1,200 and 2,800 miles or more on their amazing migration. Those east of the Rocky Mountains will migrate from Canada and the United States to the Oyamel fir forests in the mountains of central Mexico. In this mountain habitat, they hibernate in a less harsh environment, protected by the forest canopy.
Not all monarchs make the trip to Mexico. Those west of the Rockies migrate to southern California. Starting in spring as they move north, monarchs produce four generations each year and each generation goes through four stages: egg, larvae (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult. The first three generations live about two to six weeks. The fourth generation, born in September and October, is the one that heads south and can live up to nine months.
Each generation of monarchs undergoes complete metamorphosis. First, the butterfly searches for the host plant, milkweed, to lay its eggs. After three or four days, very tiny larva (caterpillars) hatch and begin eating the leaves of the milkweed. During the caterpillars’ rapid growth, they experience five molts where they shed their skin (instars). This takes anywhere from nine to 15 days. Once they reach the fifth stage, the monarch caterpillar forms a beautiful pupa (chrysalis), in which its tissues transform into the adult butterfly. Just before the butterfly emerges, their black and orange wings are visible through the chrysalis covering. After they emerge, their wings harden and the butterfly takes flight. In about 3-8 days the females begin to lay eggs and the entire process starts over again.
A Chrysalis You Can Keep
When I saw my first chrysalis in a nature center I didn’t think it was real. It looks more like a piece of jade with gold dots. What a beautiful necklace a chrysalis would make, I thought. Luckily for me, I found Jude Rose on the internet. She designs the most breathtaking chrysalis necklaces and earrings made from glass and 24K gold I have every seen. When you hold one in your hand, you will think it is real. She also creates a piece the looks just like the chrysalis right before the butterfly emerges, another stunning design. If you love the monarch butterfly experience you will surely want a Jude Rose necklace of your own.
To purchase chrysalis jewelry of your own visit juderose.com
Create Your Own Pollinator Garden
Recent studies by the National Academy of Sciences on the status of pollinators in North America found that populations of honeybees, butterflies and some wild pollinators are declining. One of the biggest causes of their decline is the loss of habitat that includes food and nesting sites. So, how can you help? Start planning now to plant a pollinator garden and invite the pollinators into your yard.
- Begin by researching the pollinators native to your area that you want to attract.
- Find out which native plants the adults and larvae need to thrive and reproduce. Avoid purchasing modern hybrid and double-flowered varieties.
- Chose a wide range of flowers in various shapes, fragrances and colors that bloom throughout the seasons.
- Find an area for your garden that gets at least six hours of sunlight a day, protected from prevailing winds.
- Plant flower varieties in clumps. Some pollinators prefer to collect nectar from a single species during foraging.
- Provide nesting structures to keep pollinators safe where they can hide from predators and get out of the elements. Brush piles, dead branches or even pollinator nesting boxes, like bug condos make great homes.
- Include water sources such as mud puddles, water gardens or birdbaths.
- Add hummingbird feeders to attract them to your garden.
- Eliminate pesticides. If they are absolutely necessary, read labels carefully, use properly and spray at night.
So, what are you waiting for? Start planning now how you’re going to welcome pollinators into your garden by planting flowers from which they can gather nectar and pollen. And don’t forget a place where they can nest and be protected.
This article is from a previous issue of The New Pioneer. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.
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