Monarch Update: Timing is Everything

Today, I was reminded that in the world of monarch conservation, timing is everything.

This has been a slow year for my summer conservation hobby of raising monarchs. The adults were slow to show up in my yard. The ability to find eggs and larva has been arduous at best, depite the plethora of milkweed plants that seem to be everywhere.

On 7/18, I had a monarch larva that I had raised from a found egg make its chrysalis.  Usually, it is about 10 days until the monarch butterfly ecloses (emerges) from the pupa when I raise the larva in my home. I peeked at it last night and could see the wing pigments through the clear, velum-like chrysalis. I knew, if all went well, we’d have a butterfly release today. It would only be my second for this summer.  Personally, I am finding monarch numbers greately diminished this year.

But, mid-morning today, I checked again. Yes, we would have an emegence today! I got my cell phone set on video and steadied myself on a table that also provided a plain, light background. And, I waited. And, waited. Finally, I saw that the chrysalis was beginning to crack. But, then,  nothing else happened. I asked my husband to give me my cup of coffee so I could have it while I waited. Minutes passed.

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Hmmm. It looks like it is going to come out. I know. I’ve filmed this several hundred times over the last 17 years. And, yet, here I was filming it again. Or, at least trying to film it. I knew patience was the key. If I got up and walked away, the butterfly would emerge. That’s usually how it goes and goes fast! So, I waited.

Soon after my husband gave me my coffee, he took the dog outside.

And then, it happened! I saw the crack get a little bigger. And, bigger still. We were going to have a monarch! Soon!

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Well, as it turned out, not so soon! As i just wrote, I’ve witnessed hundreds of monarchs come out of their chrysali. Something was not quite right. This was taking a longgggg time, much, much longer than normal.

Oh, dear, I thought to myself. Something is not right. And, it seemed, at least at first, that I was correct. After a very long six minutes and a great deal of struggling that was almost hard to bear watching, the monarch emerged – with the exception of the very tip of it’s abdomen. It seemed stuck to the top of the chyrsalis!

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Male monarch appears “stuck” in the chrsysalis. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2020.

 

I was devastated. And, I questioned what I was doing. Yes, I had seen success many times over. Yes, I knew I was being “careful” and “clean” with how I was raising the monarch larva. But, sometimes Mother Nature has a different plan.

I resigned myself to an unsuccessful eclosure and put the lid back on the container that kept the partially emerged butterfly. Truthfully, I could not watch it struggle any longer.  I went to tell my husband. I was definitely sad about what I had seen.

Well, a few minutes later, I looked again. The butterfly was completely out of the chyrsalis and despite its having a very small abdomen (usually the belly is very swollen with fluid), it still must have had enough fluid to pump out through its wings to stiffen them. It looked “normal.”

Ya-hoo! It might be okay after all. I took the container to a more secure area in my home (one that is off limits to the dog) and hoped for the best.

Then, something remarkable happened!

I went outside to look at our prairie patch with my husband. He was having me identify weeds and natives in our garden behind the barn. He was removing an undesireable plant when he said, “oh, there’s a monarch that is pumping its wings, it must have just “hatched!” And, sure enough, there was!

This sight thrilled us both!  My husband exclaimed, “Yes, nature does work!” This was a female monarch that I was able to watch and relocate to some Black-eyed Susans.

Later in the day I went to  check out the male monarch that was born this morning with a great deal of difficulty. He looked fine. I released him this evening and he flew away into my yard. His name was Fred, I decided.

Good bye Fred! I’m glad you are okay!

Fred before flying away.jpg

 

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Fred seems fine! Yes, this is the same butterfly that got stuck getting out of the chysalis this morning. He flew away in the late afternoon! © Carol Labuzzetta, 2020.

As we approach the end of the monarch breeding season and prepare for their migratory journey to the Sierre Madre Mountains of Mexico, I ordered my Monarch Tags from Monarch Watch.   Monarch Watch provided a wonderful update earlier this week about raising and tagging monarchs.

Since new research suggests that monarchs raised indoors might have a more difficult time with the development of their innate navigational systems, I asked my husband to build me an outdoor enclosure in which I can raise the last generation of monarchs for the summer. This generation is known as the super generation since they make the miraculous migrational journey  to Mexico. As a Monarch Conservationist, I want to give this species EVERY chance to make it to the overwintering grounds. So, he built an outdoor enclosure for me to use this year with the Monarchs I raise from Mid-August to Mid-September. Having the enclosure outside will allow the monarchs to develop with the natural variance of light and temperature. I am excited to see how it will work.

Side note: In the past, I’ve had to “counsel” a couple of friends when the monarchs they raised did not emerge fully formed or viable.  It is very difficult to accept that while we are making many efforts to ensure this species remains part of our pollinator ecosystem, and one of earth’s great migrations, we (humans) are not in charge of anything. Be it nature, evolution, or a higher power with a plan we do not understand, we must be willing to accept our failures made in an attempt to help and also try to minimize any actions we take than might ultimately be harmful. For many years, probably the better part of a decade, I never experienced a monarch death.

Now it seems more common and it makes me rethink my actions. Nature knows.

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