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.

 

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.

two chrysali and two larvae

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.

Monarch Activities in August

Monarch Activities in August

One of my son’s friends tells him I am always “shouting” about butterflies on my social media pages. Shouting might be a bit of an over-exaggeration, but I do have regular posts on this iconic species.  I have been involved in Monarch Conservation for almost 15 years now, long before it became a popular thing to do or say you are doing.  Raising monarchs during the summer has become part of my life, a part I have learned to share with others in order to educate, inspire, and call to act.

As you might know from prior posts, the summer started slow with my first Monarch Butterfly sighting being after the July 4th holiday! This is very late for the upper mid-west and had me concerned. I found one monarch caterpillar in June, raised and released it as an adult butterfly. And, although this told me monarchs had been visiting my yard, I had not seen any flying about until early July.

Mid-July, I spoke at the Trempealeau Wildlife Refuge on Monarchs, Monarch Habitat, Milkweed, and the Monarch Highway – which is being enabled in states adjacent to ours but not within.  Sharing knowledge is part of the Master Gardener’s mission, so this fits well with my passion for the Monarch.

Shortly after that talk, I began to find monarch eggs in my garden – mostly on my common milkweed patch. I have never had good luck with raising monarchs from eggs, but I felt desperate to get my adopted summer family growing, so I collected ten tiny, pale yellow orbs – the eggs of the Monarch. On August first, I left on vacation, leaving my eggs to be watched by my adolescent boys and their Aunt. A week later, upon returning home, I still had ten eggs! Whoo-hoo! I was very excited. And, I think my sister-in-law was relieved.

As those eggs started to hatch, I started to find more caterpillars of various instars (size stages) in my milkweed patches. I brought those in as well, separating them from the ten tiny caterpillars that were rapidly growing.  As of Monday, this week, nine of the ten egg raised monarchs had pupated, eclosed, tagged, and released.  Out of the other caterpillars I found, 8 are now pupating and one is getting ready to do so.  Inspired by another monarch enthusiast, I looked on my plants again yesterday to find 3 tiny caterpillars on my rose milkweed, one on my swamp milkweed, and one larger caterpillar on my common milkweed.  I brought those in to join my growing family that resides in the laundry room.

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Monarch Caterpillars on three types of Milkweed: L-R: Rose, Swamp seed Pod, and Common. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2017

My aim is to use all 25 tags I purchased from Monarch Watch earlier this month.  This is the third year I have tagged, and my most successful year raising monarchs from eggs.

Monarch Watch Envelope

Lastly, I have been able to make plans to do more sharing of my knowledge of the Monarch Life Cycle and their habitat needs in the coming year.  If all goes well, I will be reaching more people in our community – both children and adults, alike – with my Monarch message and mission to help sustain this iconic creature.

A Watched Pot Does Boil; It Just Takes Time

A Watched Pot Does Boil; It Just Takes Time

I had to be patient today. Firstly, when I walked into my laundry room this morning, I found that two monarch chrysalises had darkened and I could clearly see the butterfly wings through the hard case made by the pupa. I knew we would have two eclose today, meaning I was going to be able to tag and release at least two butterflies.  I was very excited!

My observations detrailed my morning. By 9:30 a.m., I was obsessively watching the contained in which the chrysali hung. One was close to the edge of the top opening and I focused on that pupa, sure it would be the one to eclose first, taking snapshot after snap shot, focusing and refocusing my iPhone in video mode. Although I have many videos of this event, each time I am presented with the opportunity to be witness to the miraculous event, I convince myself that I can improve on the last video I captured.  So, I continued to wait, joking with my husband that the other chrysalis, farther down in the cage and away from the zipper – the one I had not paid any attention to would be the first to split open giving way to another beautiful monarch.  I went about my morning, best as I could, skipping a trip to the post office but sequeezing in an early lunch, drying my hair, and even starting a batch of homemade jam. Every few minutes, I would stop what I was doing and look expectantly at the choosen chrysalis near the zipper. It must have been around 12:30 p.m., that I looked and a movement captured my attention after being observed from the corner of my eye!  Sure enough, the other chrysalis had given way to a beautiful monarch! It still had crumpled wings so, I knew I must have just missed it. It made me chuckle. Apparently, I had picked the wrong one to observe!

About an hour later, conveniently when my jam was boiling down, I glanced at the chrysalis that was left and it was splitting. Three minutes later, I had a complete video of the monarch  butterfly coming out of the chrysalis I had chosen to watch!

The pot that contained my water bath for the final stage of the canning process had finally started to boil as well!  It took long enough, but the butterflies emerged, the jam boiled down, and the water bath was boiling just when I had the time to attend to all three.

 

By 2:30 p.m., I tagged and released both monarchs – the first two of twenty some odd more that will emerge in the next week or so. I named them Annie and Andrew, as one was a male and one a female. Hopefully, they will soon be on their incredible journey as they migrate to Mexico for the winter.

Have you ever wondered if a watched pot boils? Well, it does! It just takes patience!

first tag of the 2017 season