Slice of Life Tuesday: The Down Side of Raising Monarchs

This summer was like any other summer with respect to my plans to raise more monarch butterflies. It’s a hobby that has kept me occupied for the last seventeen summers. Starting in 2002, raising monarchs has been part of each breeding season. In addition to creating habitat in our yards (2) and school yards (numerous), I’ve taught hundreds of children and adult community members about the monarch life cycle. My focus has always been on the environment and habitat creation.

Monarch populations have declined due to a lack of habitat, among other reasons. Creating habitat, namely planting milkweed and a variety of nectar flowers for the adults, is the best way to help the monarchs.

But, over the years, I’ve seen a trend. I call it the Butterfly Bandwagon Effect. Thousands upon thousands of people have jumped in to “save the monarchs” and while participation in saving a species is important, it has downsides. Rarely are the downsides talked about, so I thought I’d share some of that today. But, before my words venture into explaining what some of the downsides are, I will reveal that what I’ve come to realize is the biggest disappointment. It seems to me that the more the public steps in to “raise” monarchs, the more they (we) are failing them.

The monarch’s life cycle is a natural process. No matter how hard we try, we cannot duplicate the environment or completely satisfy their needs and requirements. I will give an example from my own summer experience this year. Since recent research has shown that monarchs raised indoors do not have the same “directional” abilities to orient them on their southern migration, I had my husband build me an outdoor containment area.

The idea was that we’d put it over the milkweed that was already growing in the garden, and raise the last generation (the generation that migrates) outside. Well, a couple of things have happened. 1) The milkweed was infested with aphids and dried out long before the end of summer. 2) the container got wet, holding a potential for drowning the caterpillars. I had them in a smaller container within the outside enclosure when they were tiny but this collected rainwater. We will build a slatted roof. 3) I had one caterpillar within the container form a chrysalis and attach itself to the screened roof of the container. But, I came home to find the chrysalis lying on the ground, still green. Obviously, our “outdoor” shelter did not do what I had intended this year. It needs work. I was trying to “improve” on how I helped the monarchs but so far it has not been successful. Sometimes, good intentions don’t matter.

In past years, I’ve raised the cats inside with daily care in the summer. This runs from late May when the northbound adult monarch butterflies arrive in our area to mid-September when the last ones leave. One year I raised over 100 throughout the summer and tagged another 78 monarchs from the last generation. Two of the monarchs I tagged in Wisconsin were found in Mexico! Those were caterpillars I had raised inside from the egg stage, through the metamorphosis, tagging and release. They completed their journey! It is my biggest success story.

While there are many other success stories, there are also many downsides. Some people who decide to raise monarchs are not prepared for these sad occurrences. But, all of them are part of a living being’s experience. One must be ready (emotionally and cognitively) when they occur. I’ve been in the position of having to counsel at least three people when losses have occurred. We are human, not mother nature or some other higher power. We can only do our best and realize sometimes, it is not good enough, sadly.

The three Major Downsides of Monarch Rearing

Disease

There are diseases that effect monarchs. I’ve had experience with tachnid fly infestation and OE, both of which can kill the monarch in various stages of its life cycle. I found that the more zealous I got gathering eggs and cats, the more disease they experienced. Three years ago, I lost 7 chrysalises out of fifteen to a tachnid fly infection. I noticed that the density of cats and chrysalises in my containers were high, so I backed way off on my numbers. It solved the problem. When you think about it, chrysalises are not hanging all together in nature. It makes sense to not allow them to hang all together in captivity.

Deformity

This was my first year where I experienced repeated deformity on eclosed monarchs. I had one get “stuck” in the chrysalis when trying to emerge. Feeling sure I was going to have to euthanize the butterfly, I waited several hours while its wings straightened and it was able to fly off. But, I’ve had others report deformed wings to me. Did you know that if the chrysalis falls while developing or the butterfly falls while its wings are drying and straightening, it will not survive? True. Recently, one of the monarchs born had deformed wings – I found it on the bottom of the cage this morning.

Deformed Monarch. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2020.

Last summer, I found a monarch on my swamp milkweed that was similarly misshapen and did not live, either. So, deformity happens with or without our help.

Death

Death is part of life. We all know that. But, when monarchs die, in any part of their life cycle, it saddens those of us who truly are only trying to help. It can feel like a personal loss. If you are not ready to experience this, then, please do not raise monarchs. Very few survive the natural life cycle in the wild – less than 10% of eggs laid in the wild complete the life cycle. (Monarch Joint Venture, 2020). Some researches feel it is less than 10%.

While we might have a better success rate when we raise monarchs, it is well understood among monarch researchers that raising monarchs will NOT increase the population’s numbers overall. So, thinking you are helping add to the population of myonarchs by raising these butterflies is not true. There is a handy fact sheet from Monarch Joint Venture to help guide your decision making on raising monarchs. Anyone, experienced or not, should read it if interested in this activity.

Please do not misunderstand, raising monarchs is an awe-filled, joyous experience. I can absolutely understand doing it as well as enjoying it. I have loved teaching and sharing about my own experiences in monarch conservation for the last twenty years. And, while one person might have a slow or disappointing year, another has a bountiful year. It all depends on so many factors. It is just that after all this time, I am starting to rethink my motives. I want to help, not harm. And, the best way to really do that is to educate and plant habitat. At the current time, I plan to revert to that next year.

Large Monarch Caterpillar on Rose Milkweed, © Carol Labuzzetta, 2016

Raising monarchs, in small numbers, with careful cleanliness and mindfulness of their needs (milkweed is the only plant that sustains this species in the caterpillar stage of the life cycle), is a worth while educational activity. Just be prepared for some disappointment along the way. And, if you are raising monarchs with a classroom of students or your own young children or grandchildren, be prepared to answer some hard “facts of life” questions. Where there is life, there will be death. It is a fact.

Male Monarch raised from an egg. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2020.

I recently added a self-investigative unit to my Teachers-Pay-Teachers page called Garden Club Lessons. Feel free to check it out.

In addition, I’ve written countless other posts on the iconic monarch butterfly. Just search for them on my blog using the word Monarch! Thanks!

Today is Slice of Life Tuesday. Thank you to TwoWritingTeachers.org for hosting this forum each week.

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