Raising Monarchs Part III: Early August

Raising Monarchs Part III: Early August

While sitting in the dentist office yesterday I saw a that our local paper featured a man in my town who was raising monarch butterflies. I have to admit that seeing the article stung a little bit.  I’ve been doing the same for fourteen years but have never been featured in the paper!  I guess it’s all in who you know and where you volunteer. He volunteers for the USFWS, while I volunteered in a school district. Obviously, the value placed on what we were doing and who was paying attention to our individual quests was different. Still, when it comes down to it, we are both trying to help save and educate about an iconic species. Many people need to do what we are doing, so in the end, it’s all good!  Therefore, I am working at letting not letting the sting I felt yesterday fester today.  I also hope no one has a problem with what I wrote here. I try to be a good person and do see the larger picture but am subject to all the same emotions and feelings every human experiences. The difference is I just shared what I felt. Enough said.

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It’s a special time of year if you raise monarchs! The last generation of the breeding season is being born in the North and this is the generation that migrates to Mexico to over winter.  Later today I will order my tags from Monarch Watch so that by the time my last group is raised and ready to be released, they can be tagged. It’s been a great season to raise monarch butterflies in our area. I’ve done it long enough to have personally experienced the ups and downs of this population. As of this writing I’ve raised and released 30 monarchs in my own yard this season! There, I offer monarch habitat in the form of three different kinds of milkweed (all native species) and a wide variety of nectar plants for the adults. I am also “caterpillar sitting” for a friend who is on vacation. In the few days I’ve had her four caterpillars, I found a fifth – maybe from an egg or maybe from a new piece of milkweed introduced to the cage for food. Right now, four are chrysalises and one is J-hooked, ready to become a pupa and proceed with metamorphosis.  The daughters of my friend were all former garden club students, and thus, I want to be sure to do a good job for them, as I have a reputation to uphold! It would probably make me more unhappy than them to have to return a cage with fewer monarchs than I received.

In my own cages, I currently only have 2 chrysalises right now. However, the other night I found five small caterpillars on my rose milkweed. Prior to that I had found four eggs on my common milkweed, too.  The eggs and the caterpillars are separated for they do cannibalize – a fact I just learned by reading the book, Monarchs and Milkweed (2017) by Anurag Agrawal.  My milkweed patches, although large, are getting dry and already have formed seed pods, waiting for distribution by mother nature or myself later in the fall. I’ve been picky about which leaves to pick to feed the enclosed caterpillars because I know they prefer a more tender, moist, younger leaf. If you want some really scientific specifics about how monarch caterpillars have evolved special feeding techniques to help them survive on a noxious plant, you must read Agrawal’s book!

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A great read if you love monarchs! 

Finally, I am bolstered by how many people I know support my monarch conservation activities. Truly, I am involved in so much more than just raising them. I love sharing what I know and I am proud to say I am sought out for this task more and more often. In late July while at a local art show, we ran into a friend who was with a friend of hers. After some pleasantries were exchanged, we parted ways. A few minutes later, they were approaching me again. Our friend asked me to share what I know about monarchs with her friend. So, there in the middle of the art show, I did just that! She asked questions and I answered! A few minutes later, after parting ways again, a young father approached me (calling me “Miss” which was really rather nice) and asked if he had over heard me talking about milkweed. Yes, I replied; I raise monarchs and was sharing some information about milkweed. I asked if he had a question.  He did. I answered. Wow! I came away from those encounters feeling great. Apparently, I’ve gained a reputation as a monarch conservationist and I cannot tell you how much that means to me!

 

I’m looking forward to finishing a piece of curriculum on monarch tagging for an assignment this week. It will give me yet another way to share my passion with more school aged children, as it is never to early to plant the seed of environmental stewardship.

 

Bring on the Monarchs!

Bring on the Monarchs!

Exciting News!

The milkweed is up in my garden at home and the gardens at school! Here are some photographs from yesterday.

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Milkweed at school May 15, 2018
Common Milkweed Spring 2018
Common Milkweed germinating in lavender that was killed off during last winter.
Milkweed germinating Spring 2018
I Spy Milkweed, Can You?
Common MIlkweed Sprouting in Home Monarch Habitat
Common Milkweed Germinating Spring 2018 (5/15/18)

Mother Nature Provides

Milkweed erupts in the spring prior to the arrival of the Monarchs. This is Mother Nature’s way of ensuring that once the Butterflies arrive from their Journey Northward (migrating north from Mexico each spring), there are adequate plants for the Monarch to lay their eggs upon. Milkweed is the only plant that sustains the monarch life cycle. Adults lay their eggs, typically, on the underside of the milkweed leaves. Once the caterpillar emerges from the egg, after 1-4 days, it eats its own eggshell first (high in protein) and then proceeds to eat the leaves of the milkweed plant. The larval or caterpillar stage lasts 10-14 days, during which time the caterpillar will increase in size many times, causing it to shed its skin (molt) five different times during that stage of the life cycle.

If you want to plant milkweed in your yard, there are many sources.  Please note that while some claim they are “Free” there does seem to be a postage/handling/or gratuity fee. Read each source carefully. In addition, only milkweed native to your area of the country should be planted. Some sources are:

Monarch Watch Milkweed Market

Live Monarch Free Milkweed Seeds

Xerces Society Milkweed Seed Finder

Really Free Common Milkweed Seeds

In addition if you leave a contact email in the comments, I would be happy to send you some of my own, locally sourced common milkweed seeds. I have saved these seeds from my own gardens in the upper mid-west. Currently, I only have common milkweed seeds but in the future might be able to offer rose milkweed and swamp milkweed.  By leaving your email, you are agreeing to let me contact you to acquire an address to which I can send the seeds. United States residents only, please. I probably can supply the first ten people who respond as instructed above with common milkweed seeds that have been cold stratified and are ready for planting. Are you willing to help plant milkweed in your yard? It has been estimated that  over ONE BILLION additional stems of milkweed is what is needed to sustain the monarchs.

Citizen Science & Reporting Observations

Observing for milkweed in my garden each spring has become a ritual for me. Later today, I will act as a citizen scientist and report my findings to Journey North. I think my sighting this year is earlier than the last few years. It has been an odd spring.  But, the nice thing about the Journey North records is that one can track back to see what your prior year’s observations were.

I look forward to the Monarch’s arrival to the habitat I have lovingly prepared for them. I hope you join me on my journey of monarch conservation as I report my observations for this season!

Today’s Garden Club Lesson: Inspiring Youth with Monarch Conservation Activities

Today’s Garden Club Lesson: Inspiring Youth with Monarch Conservation Activities

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School Butterfly Garden, established 2006. Certified as Monarch WayStation by Monarch Watch 2008. We’ve been at this a long time!

Today, my garden club for third,  forth, and fifth graders will meet after school. We have two meetings in the month of May, instead of our usual single monthly meeting. On this first meeting, we typically weed the garden, turn over the soil to aerate it and loosen it up.  If you read my post last week,  you know a pesticide was sprayed (in error) on our twelve-year-old school butterfly habitat that also serves as a Certified Monarch Habitat or WayStation. Since the spraying was so close to our meeting and really, really should not happened in the first place, I decided to let the weeding go and keep the students out of the garden until our planting session at the end of the month. The planting is the culmination of the school year’s work for garden club students.

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Rose Milkweed erupting behind our barn. Seeds were started by Garden Club Students.

Today, we will discuss the monarch life cycle, the importance of milkweed, and where the migration stands with this dwindling population of butterflies.  Each student will plant common milkweed seeds (saved from my own garden beds) that will serve as the host plant for the monarch life cycle, starting with the egg being laid by an adult, female monarch, followed by the caterpillar stage during which milkweed is the only source of feeding, and during which the caterpillar sheds its skin five times. The chrysalis is formed after the skin is shed for the last time, after the caterpillar has attached itself to a branch or stem, house shingle, sunflower, or any number of existing environmental assistives. The chrysalis must hang off the ground for the metamorphosis to take place.  It is an awe-inspiring event to watch, but most often goes unnoticed and camouflaged in nature. After about 10-14 days, a beautiful monarch emerges and the process starts again.

The whole process and life of the monarch is dependant on habitat and the availability of milkweed. This is why the students will take the milkweed seeds they plant today home to start a habitat in their own yards.

Zinna seeds will also be planted for each student to take home. Zinna’s provide many species of butterflies with nectar. They color and hardiness attract the fluttering insects throughout the summer, well into fall. Zinna’s are also easy to grow.

Since learning the garden that we made into a Monarch Habitat so many years ago and well before it was needed and a “popular” thing to do, I decided that I must change course. Today, starts the path down a different road. I will try to instill the awe of a metamorphic and migrational life of a tiny, seemingly fragile creature in the minds of my students. The future is theirs. The future is ours. I will help them plant the seeds of our future in their own lives.

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Milkweed Seeds Planted 2015.
When Volunterism is Sprayed in the Face.

When Volunterism is Sprayed in the Face.

This week was difficult. Mid-week I saw a sign posted in our butterfly garden at school. It  was not supposed to be there, but yet it was. Just a mere ten feet from the sign that declares our garden to be a Certified Monarch WayStation since 2008, was another sign. Before I approached to read it, I felt my heartbeat speed up; I knew what it was. My fear was confirmed when I read that “pesticide” had been sprayed.

Pesticide. In a Monarch Habitat. Pesticide. In a garden I have lovingly managed for 12 years to provide a safe habitat for migrating monarch butterflies. Pesticide. A killer of insects, both harmful and beneficial. Pesticide was sprayed in our garden!

Immediately, I went into attack mode. I really could not understand why our garden was sprayed. I am sure it has not been sprayed since we established the garden in 2006. At that time, I wrote our district’s Building and Grounds Department explaining that we had gotten permission to convert an old perennial bed into a garden habitat for local butterflies. I explained that from that time forward it could never be sprayed for the chemicals would kill our butterflies and more. They knew. They were informed.

What happened? I am still trying to figure it out. I emailed our building and grounds director and the principal at our school. Currently, I am being told they never knew not to spray the garden, have been spraying it, and it is for weed control. Furthermore, I was told that it was not pesticide that was sprayed, it was a herbicide. This confuses me even more; why did the sign state a pesticide was sprayed then?  The herbicide spraying disturbs me as well for we have milkweed in the garden. Milkweed is essential for the monarch life cycle. Without Milkweed, there are not any Monarchs. I explained to our principal the following day that I am a detailed oriented person, I would never have purposely planted milkweed seeds in a garden meant to host monarchs over ten years ago, only to have the grounds crew spray chemicals on the garden.  I never would have left that piece out because the butterfly garden was planted to enrich the students I have seen monthly for the last 12 school years. The garden, the lessons, the monarch habitat have all been used to plant the seed of Environmental Stewardship in our youth. It has been used for service learning and introductions to citizen science. I thought it was special.

It has been a valuable use of my time – the literally hundreds of hours spent preparing lessons, teaching the garden club students, and caring for the butterfly garden. Another reason I am sure that there has not been any spraying is that I have been the sole gardener in that particular garden bed (with the exception of students and rare families that I recruited). Due to that reason, it becomes overrun with weeds by the end of June, is cleaned up in early July, and is overrun again by mid-August by which time I plan about 10-12 hours of weeding to get it cleaned up for the school year to begin. It has been a successful Monarch habitat over that time. Annually, our milkweed plants grow to 5-6 feet leaving plenty of places to find monarch caterpillars and sometimes even a hanging, hidden chrysalis amongst the leaves. While gardening, I have been visited by countless Monarchs, bees, and other butterflies who are feeding on our nectar plants. It has been the result of hard work, dedication, and truly, a success story for monarch conservation, student enrichment, and my own self-esteem. It has been a product of my own self-direction and efforts.  However, it has largely gone unnoticed by the rest of the community, our district, and sometimes even ignored by educators at the very school upon which grounds the butterfly garden resides.

Because of all the good the garden has provided me, the students, and the monarchs, I’ve been able to rationalize that ignorance up until this week.  Having pesticide sprayed on the butterfly garden bed has forced me to realize that the garden will never be at its full potential because not enough people care about it.  It has been, and can be, ignored.  The ignorance this past week led to it being sprayed with pesticide as the sign stated or herbicide, as I have been told.  Hopefully, it will not be a fatal action. But all actions have consequences and the consequence for this is that I can no longer justify my time only to be ignored, to have the habitat ignored, and to have the needs of our pollinators ignored.

The monarchs will find habitat in my yard, a short distance from school. We have planted plenty of milkweed and flowers for them to enjoy. They will be welcome and cherished there. My home monarch habitat is and will continue to be pesticide free. They will be safe. I will continue to provide community enrichment through other venues – such as my Master Gardener Association, of which I am a member. I am done investing time, only to be ignored for doing some good.  Someone, somewhere, will appreciate my conservation and enrichment efforts and not spray the garden. It is time to find a new home.

Mad about Monarchs

Mad about Monarchs

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Monarch Caterpillar. Summer 2016. Copyright, C. Labuzzetta.                                                               Do Not Reproduce without permission. 

Today I am going to write about something very close to my heart. Monarch Butterflies. You may have been hearing that they are in trouble. They are facing possible extinction. Their numbers are dwindling rapidly. Many are pledging to help the monarch. My story is different. I have been actively involved in Monarch Habitat Conservation for the past 13 years! Yes, that is a long time!  Their miraculous metamorphic life cycle never ceases to amaze me. During the  2005-2006 school year our garden club converted an old perennial bed to a butterfly garden. The group of students, ranging from second to fifth grade, researched host plants for butterflies and caterpillars native to our area of the mid-west.  Colorful plants including purple coneflowers, yellow  yarrow, and black-eyed susans were voted in as butterfly host plants. Milkweed was planted. Milkweed is essential for monarchs. It is the only plant that is eaten in the larval or caterpillar stage of the life cycle. Milkweed depletion from monoculture agricultural practices, wide-spread herbicide treatments, and increased human development have all contributed to the monarch’s current plight.

In 2008, our butterfly garden was certified by Monarch Watch as a Monarch Way Station. This entailed making sure we had host plants and three types of milkweed for caterpillar consumption. We proudly mark our garden with a Way Station sign from Monarch Watch.

The students have learned about the monarch life cycle, butterfly habitat, and how they can help the monarch. We have collected milkweed pods for Monarch Watch and planted milkweed seeds, collected from my home gardens to raise for more plantings. This is citizen science and service learning at its best!  Yearly, we follow migration by using the updates and maps on Journey North, a website designed to help teachers and students follow migrational patterns and report sightings.  We have reported since 2006.

My personal outreach has developed and continues. In 2015, I spoke to seven sections of first grade in a neighboring district about milkweed and monarchs. Last spring, three sections of fourth grade at another one of our district’s elementary schools planted milkweed with me on a late May afternoon. Excitement was palpable when we discovered it had germinated, gracing the prairie once again with the essential meal for monarchs.

Countless Monarchs have been raised, released, and tagged by myself and my family. We welcome them back each year, eagerly awaiting as their arrival becomes more and more precious and a reminder, at least for myself, of a mission and a very beautiful insect that has become an integral part of my life personally, as well as my life as a conservationist in environmental education.