Late last week I spent some time looking at my milkweed patches for signs of monarch caterpillars. It is one of those activities that no matter how many times I do it, it is always filled with hopeful anticipation for me.
I have three main patches. The first patch is common milkweed, next to my garage wall in a long perennial bed. These plants are about knee-high right now and some are even starting to have flower bud clusters. Eagerly, I looked for eaten leaves, or leaves with holes in them. I found a few and turned the leaves over to inspect the underside. Adult Monarch Butterflies typically will lay their eggs on the underside of a milkweed leaf. There are many reasons for doing this. The egg is protected from the elements – sun, wind, and rain, that might do some kind of biological damage to the developing caterpillar within. Obviously, if a predator cannot see the egg, it is a built-in protective mechanism. The egg is out of sight, under the leaf, it cannot be eaten or disturbed. However, I cannot imagine the egg would provide much sustenance for any other species, as it is tiny! As tiny as the head of a straight sewing pin! It ovoid in shape and a pale lemony color. It took me years to be able to find and identify a monarch’s egg. I still find it so much easier to just look for the second stage of the monarch life cycle which is the characteristically white, orange, and black striped caterpillar. The common milkweed yielded no eggs or caterpillars, despite some suspiciously eaten leaf margins leading me to believe I would be lucky and see evidence of monarchs visiting my yard.
Last year, my rose milkweed, which is behind our barn and started as seed planted by my garden club students in May of 2015, was teeming with caterpillars. It was hard to count, there were so many! My milkweed inspection turned to this patch next. Now, the rose milkweed is about 3 feet high already! It is a much different looking plant, with a more elongated, sharper margined, darker leaf, supported by reddish stems. My anticipation was dampened again, after not finding any signs of monarchs in this patch. I did not even see any eaten leaves.
Swamp milkweed is the last type of milkweed in my yard. This type of milkweed likes wet soil. Our yard varies from a sandy loam to a wet, dense clay depending on where you dig. Under a rapidly growing maple tree, in a shady spot, where the soil is almost always moist, grows my swamp milkweed. This plant is different still, not requiring the bright, hot sun, but milder conditions The leaves are a lighter green than the rose milkweed but similar in shape to that plant. The blooms are white. Again, flower buds are already forming but there is no evidence of flying or crawling visitors.
My hope was dashed. It is mid-June and I haven’t seen a monarch butterfly yet. There is no evidence they have been here, either. No eggs, no caterpillars, no butterflies. I looked back at my reporting records on Journey North’s Citizen Science Reporting Log for first sighting an adult monarch. In 2008, I saw one on May 14th. Last year, in 2016, I first saw a monarch butterfly on July 5th. This is not good, folks! I hope they show up soon. I have lots of food for them!
Looking for monarch eggs and caterpillars can be an exciting activity for youngsters. When they were young, my boys loved looking for the caterpillars and now will still report to me if they find one. Even just learning to identify a milkweed plant on a local roadside hike can be a valuable learning experience, leading to more curiosity about a disappearing icon of the natural world. Learning about the life cycle of another species is helpful in that we also learn how we, as humans, influence their habitats. Knowledge is power!
Here are a few children’s books that I have used in the past to engage either my own boys or my students in learning about the Monarch Life Cycle.
The message is simple. Without milkweed, there are no monarchs!