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.

 

Raising Monarchs: Part II – Mid-July

Raising Monarchs: Part II – Mid-July

As of last night, this monarch breeding season has allowed me to raise and release 13 adult monarch butterflies! That number is many times greater than than last year at this time, when I had only released one, on July 9th. Last year, although a great late season in tagging numbers, had a very slow start. It was just the opposite this year. Due to weather patterns, my milkweed had germinated, grown to a foot tall, and was patiently waiting for monarch visits by the end of May!

Right now, I have 7 monarch eggs, six caterpillars, and 8 chrysalises! Until last year finding Monarch eggs was elusive for me. But, I have had success now finding the eggs, caring for them in separate containers until, after about 3-4 days, a very, very tiny, black headed caterpillar sans stripes emerges and eats its own eggshell. Two of the six caterpillars I currently have just emerged from their eggs the night before last. But, four of the thirteen that I have released were raised from the egg stage.

My milkweed has flourished in this hot, humid, and sometimes very rainy weather we’ve experienced this year. It is already past the flowering stage and will be setting seed pods soon.  The patch at school is no different.

Yesterday, I was able to present to a group of 3-5th graders during their summer school class at school. I brought me cages so they could see the eggs, the caterpillars in various sizes, and the chrysalises. After our discussion, we went outside to the garden to look at the butterfly habitat we have there. I wanted them to be able to identify those aspects of habitat that we are providing on our school grounds.

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Plant Food Times Two

Food for  both for caterpillars and butterflies. This means having host plants for each. They were able to see the milkweed we have for the caterpillars (and for the female adults to lay their upon), and nectar plants for the adult butterflies. We have zinnia, coneflower, black-eyed Susan, liatris, and more in our school garden for nectar.

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Water & Sun

While we don’t have any formal water features in the garden, aside from the rain barrel which is capped,  there are some spots that butterflies could puddle. Namely this is a stretch of pea gravel along the front of the bed, and some stumps and rocks that have have crevices that will hold a shallow pool of water, just right for sipping. Those rocks and gravel have another significant function and that is the provision of a place to bask in the sun to warm up. Butterflies are cold – blooded meaning that they need the sun to warm themselves. This plays and increasing important role for the monarchs as the fall migration season approaches, because they cannot fly until it is about 65 degrees F. It is is too cool, they cannot start off on their trip of a lifetime! We had one monarch, years ago, emerge in late September, only to sit in a plum tree in our yard for more than two days, until it became warm enough to wing out of here! Sitting in the sun to warm is called basking. Our rocks and gravel, sidewalk and blacktop, all provide places in or near our school garden to do that. All butterfly habitats should be in a sunny spot.

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Shelter

The students immediately understood that shelter meant a place for protection from predators and the elements of weather, like wind and rain.  I further enriched their knowledge with letting them know it also was necessary as a place to raise their young. Although, there is some use of camouflage in some of the butterfly life cycle stages, certainly there is none for that bright orange and black butterfly when a bird is chasing them or the shelter from a summer storm is necessary.  Shelter is a necessary piece of habitat for all. We all need a place to rest.

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Common Milkweed Flower/Leaves © Carol Labuzzetta, 2018

Just as we were standing in the garden, a monarch flew into the milkweed patch. It sipped nectar from the flowers and maybe laid an egg on a leaf of the milkweed plant that was providing a meal. The students were excited, as was I.  They got to see all four stages of the iconic monarch butterfly in one morning!

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One thing I try to impress during my presentations on monarchs is that we all have to do our part. So, each student was sent home with a packet of milkweed seeds to plant in their garden – in a sunny spot, of course!

It’s been a wonderful season so far for raising monarchs. Soon, it will be time to start tagging them as they continue to reproduce into the month of August. Stay tuned for further updates.

 

 

Blueberries & Butterflies

Blueberries & Butterflies

Today, I made the rounds on our fruit trees. The cherry trees in our front yard were picked clean by birds while we were away at our cabin for a few days. The 8 cups I picked last Thursday and just finished processing today are all we will have from this year’s cherry harvest! Sorry friends! I know more than one family that will be disappointed at this news.

Our blueberry bushes were faring better.  Last week, I had covered two with a black mesh that keeps the birds away. It was such a hassle that I gave up and left a few more bushes unprotected. So, upon heading back to that area of our yard today, I got an unexpected surprise when I saw that most of the berries were untouched…..even on the unprotected bushes. They were also nicely ripening.  I picked about two cups of  berries before I tasted one….seriously! They were firm and a little tart. So, I stopped picking figuring they need a day or two more to ripen. Still, we had fresh blueberries in our breakfast for dinner supper tonight!  I’m hoping to be able to harvest enough blueberries to make Plum Blueberry Jam this year. It was delicious two or three years ago, when I made it last.

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Fresh Blueberries! 

While we were gone, my son let three monarchs go that had “hatched” while we were away. And, I let three more go today. Today’s group was two boys and a girl. I named them Abe, Abigail, and Bruce. They took off to find some nectar late this afternoon. This brings our total of successfully raised and released monarchs to 12 this year already.  Right now, we have 9 chrysalises and three caterpillars that just emerged from their eggs Saturday morning before we took off. They are eating heartily and growing. Since we’ll be home now for a little while, I will go on the hunt for more caterpillars tonight.

Yes, blueberries and butterflies are two of my favorite things!

Dutch Goes the Photo Challenge: New

Dutch Goes the Photo Challenge: New

Since the Weekly Word Press Photo Challenge has been discontinued, I have been surfing around the blogosphere for other photo challenges in which I can regularly participate. Dutch Goes the Photo is a blog that hosts a variety of photographic challenges, so tonight I turned to their page to see that the photo challenge for the last week was to interprete  the word “new.”

This was the perfect word for what I photographed earlier this week, a monarch caterpillar coming out of its eggshell and eating its first meal (the eggshell). Although I’ve known this is what they do before gorging themselves on milkweed for the next two weeks of this life cycle stage,  capturing a photo of it has been difficult. However, my timing was just right the other day. After photographing the egg daily since finding  it on the requisite milkweed leaf, I noted that the egg began to look different and figured the time would be soon that we (hopefully) would have a caterpillar emerge.

Another blogger, The Mindful Gardener,  who has fantastic garden photographs, and stories about her garden plants, recently purchased a macro lens. I couldn’t help but be jealous of that lens when trying to capture a decent photo of this event. A brand new monarch caterpillar eating its first meal is my interpretation of the word NEW for the Dutch Goes the Photo Challenge!  I cannot imagine something “newer” than a new life or a new life stage, as is the case with this new caterpillar. Raising Monarchs breaths new life into each summer for me, as I am always amazed at the process!

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New Monarch Caterpillar Eating its own eggshell, June 18th, 2018, © Carol Labuzzetta

Just to show the difference, here is the same caterpillar today, June 24th, 2018. He’s got his NEW stripes now! The picture above and below contain one and the same caterpillar! NEW – it can be amazing!

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Newly striped Monarch Caterpillar, 6 days old. © Carol Labuzzetta
Silent Sunday: Raising Monarchs, Part I Mid-June 2018.

Silent Sunday: Raising Monarchs, Part I Mid-June 2018.

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Monarch Egg found on Rose Milkweed June 17th, 2018
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Monarch Chrysalises since 6/15 and a caterpillar in a pre-pupal J hook stage., © Carol Labuzzetta, 2018
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New Chrysalises and  a Pre-pupal J Caterpillar, June 17, 2018
Found At Last, A Monarch’s Tag!

Found At Last, A Monarch’s Tag!

For the last three years, I have tagged Monarch Butterflies. Having raised these fascinating, and now troubled, iconic creatures for the last 15 years, I took on the task of tagging their hind wings in the late summer/fall of 2015.  I was hooked! It was easy and fun! I was acting as a contributing citizen scientist, providing data to Monarch Watch on the migration of these miraculous insects.

So, I did it again in the fall of 2016 and again, this past fall, 2017. I tagged 16, 17, and 25 monarchs each respective year for a total of 58 monarchs. It is not a lot, but it is significant for me. I receive a great deal of joy from helping sustain the monarch population. It has also been the subject on which I have focused many of my environmentally based garden club lessons with students over the last 14 years. For me, the act of tagging brings their life cycle full circle. It is a sign of hope I am placing on them as I attach the tag to their hind wing. I carefully raise each monarch caterpillar or egg I find in the habitat meant for them in my yard. I feed them daily and clean their “cages.” When one ecloses or emerges from the chrysalis, as the term implies, it is a beautiful transformative moment. A moment signaling hope for their future.

Immediately upon emergence from the chrysalis, the monarch’s wings are crumpled and wet. They cannot fly at this time and, as I understand it, if they fall before their wings dry out and straighten, they will most likely not survive! Luckily, I have never had this happen. After a short time – an hour or two – the wings have stiffened and the butterfly is starting to move them to open and close.  The monarch can be tagged at this time. Holding the butterfly securely with the wings closed, the tiny tag is attached to one of the hind wings. The tag has letters and numbers – a code, if you will – in sequence for the number of tags you purchased. The tags are very sticky and need to be placed on the wing in the correct position, the first time, for they cannot be repositioned without stripping the scales from the wing.

 

Tags can only be ordered in late summer for it is only this generation of monarchs that make the great migration to Central Mexico for the winter.  The tags must only be used the year they are purchased, and remaining tags (unused) should be returned to monarch watch with the data record sheet of those monarchs you tagged that season.  Sex is noted, as is whether the monarch was caught and tagged was wild or reared. Tagging location is also indicated on the sheet. It is a relatively simple, yet effective means for tracking the butterflies.

Yesterday, I got some very exciting news! After three years of tagging, and looking for recovered tags on the reported data sheets, I was finally was able to identify two codes from tags that were placed on Monarchs by me last fall! TWO!  Both tags were found in Mexico! Monarchs I had raised in my home gardens in West Central Wisconsin had made the complete migration all the way to Mexico! How cool is that?!

 

Monarch Watch receives the report of found tags. The person finding the tagged monarch reports their location and the code on the hindwing tag.  This is then shared via their website through social media outlets, so people – interested citizen scientists, like myself – can look to see if any of the monarchs they tagged made it to Mexico!  Thus, scientists can tell if they are seeing a large number of monarchs successfully make the migration from one area of the country versus another.

second tag of the 2017 season

Last year I tagged 25 monarchs. Sixteen were females and 9 were males. All were hand-reared.  Two were recovered in Mexico. One, a female was released here on 9/8/17 and found in Sierra Chincua Mexico on 2/10/18. Another, a male – actually, tagged by my husband on 9/20/17, was found on 3/3/18 in Cerro Pelon, Mexico.  This was such exciting news! You can be sure I will be tagging more monarchs this coming fall. Thank you Monarch Watch for encouraging citizen scientists to contribute to your understanding of these iconic creatures. Hopefully, it will help us all save them.

 

 

 

How did the Monarch Season turn out?

How did the Monarch Season turn out?

As a self-taught and self-proclaimed Monarch Butterfly Conservationist who has been active in assisting the habitat needs for this species for the last 14 years, I can share an optimistic report for this season.

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My third year of tagging went well. I was able to fill the data reporting sheet obtained from Monarch Watch that came with my tags. One filled sheet means I was able to successfully tag 25 Monarch butterflies before they were released in late August and early September. Of course, I was able to raise more than the twenty-five I tagged. The total number raised this summer was closer to 35-40 eggs and caterpillars that were collected from my home milkweed patches, raised and released, from June through September.

Monarch Watch Envelope

The very last monarch hatched early last week, still in the month of September, on an uncharacteristically warm day that unfortunately, was also very windy.  Earlier that month, while I was tagging and releasing 2-4 butterflies a day to make their journey south, I noted a caterpillar in a “J” hook on my swamp milkweed plant. I decided to leave it there, in my garden, exposed to nature. I would keep an “eye” on it. Soon enough, the caterpillar pupated and made its chrysalis or hard case, as is what happens with monarchs. It seemed to be doing fine. After all, this is how nature intended it.  Despite days windy enough to blow the majority of  leaves off of my swamp milkweed, the chrysalis stayed attached and proceeded through its metamorphosis.  Towards the end of ten days,  and after a few days of the uncharacteristic ninety degree temperatures, I went to check on the pupa. My first thoughts were of excitement. It looked like the butterfly had just eclosed.  The wings were wet and being blown around constantly by the wind. But soon I noted that the wings were being folded and bent by the wind – they had not stiffened, although they were straight.  The belly or abdomen was no longer swollen! This meant all the fluid contained within had already been pumped out to the wings of the butterfly.  I went into butterfly “nurse” mode. Oh, how I wanted this last monarch to survive! Damn! Why had I not brought it inside?

I went and got my empty cage; the one I used to raise the monarchs in this summer.  Inside I put a stick and a couple of branches from my geranium plant.  I needed to get him or her out of the wind. But, it was no use. The butterfly appeared weak. It was unable to right itself if it came off one of the branches.  The wings were floppy. I wondered if it would be able to fly.

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After several failed attempts to have the monarch “dry” off and “stiffen” in a protected area, out of the wind, I gave up. I put the monarch on my Limelight Hydrangea, just outside my front door, on one of the giant flower heads. Maybe, it just needed to eat.

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There it hung – looking normal, although I knew it was not. Periodically, I checked on it.  I photographed it. I hoped it would be okay. Within several hours, it was gone.  Although, I looked (on the ground) I did not see it again. Mother nature had determined the fate of this monarch, just as she does with any of the others I have released. Most do well, sadly, a few do not. All in all, it was a great season for Monarchs at my home.