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.

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Monarch Education

Monarch Education

I spent this morning at a neighboring school district, about twenty minutes away by car.  Sixty first graders, in three separate classes, sat quietly and listened to my presentation on the Monarch Life Cycle, the importance of milkweed, Monarch Migration and the development of the Monarch Highway. With the exception of the information on the Monarch Highway, it is a presentation I have done many, many times before. And, I still love doing it.  It truly is my passion.

It is now, at this time of year, that monarch butterflies migrate. The little details of this migration are lost on many.  What follows is a little bit of what I shared today:

  • Only monarchs born in starting in late August and into the fall migrate South to the Sierra Madre’ Mountains in the central region of Mexico.
  • Monarchs travel several thousand miles to reach the overwintering grounds in Mexico. Actually, from my home in West-Central Wisconsin to the preserve in Mexico is approximately 1, 750 miles. An insect, weighing roughly as much as a paperclip – a mere 1/2 a gram, flies this entire distance on its own power. It is the only butterfly to migrate and can cover the span of three continents, up to 3,000 miles if travelling from Canada.
  • Monarchs also overwinter in Florida and, if west of the Rocky Mountains, on the coast of the Pacific Ocean.
  • Monarch butterflies have declined in population by 90-97%  over the last 30 years  depending on the source you rely upon.
  • Monarchs born in the warm months, preceeding early August, only live about a month. It is only the last (fourth/fifth generation – depending on where you live) that migrate. This generation of monarchs lives 8-9 months.
  • The monarchs we see in the upper midwest in the Spring are NOT the same monarchs that we saw in the fall. It is most likely their grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
  • Nature signals when the migration should start in the fall.
  • Monarchs cannot survive our cold winters, so they start leaving when our days shorten and get cooler.  Monarchs cannot fly if it is less than approximately 60 degrees F.
  • Monarchs need habitat. Habitat loss is one of the reasons for the decline in this iconic species. Other reasons include: widespread pesticide use, mono-culture farming practices, and the spread of human development.

Couching this all in terms that first graders can handle takes some practice putting terms into phrases they can understand and making connections to things that most first graders know. We spent most of our time talking about the life cycle stages today, and obviously part of the reason for that is due to the Common Core State Standards being addressed with the content.

However, today, I also talked about tagging monarchs, which is something I have been involved with doing for the last three summers. It is part of Citizen Science. Monarch Watch is an organization that studies monarch butterflies. You can purchase tags in August and attach them to butterflies you raise for release or capture wild just to tag. You report your tag information, release date, and sex of the butterfly, along with the tag number (found on a sticker that goes on the distal cell of the hindwing) to a Monarch Watch data base. When the butterfly is found, the individual can report the information to Monarch Watch and then the recovered tags are reported to the public.

Although being a Citizen Scientist is where I am in my journey in raising monarchs, I realized that the tagging was information that was just not necessary for most of the first graders. There were probably only 1-2 students per class that showed understanding of what the tagging actually meant and was used for by the scientists. However, is that not differentiation? All learners should have something to reach toward and be able to grab on to once they are ready, right?  Would it not be boring to sit there as a first grader and only hear what you already know about monarch life cycles?  I think so. I would rather err on the side of too much detail than not enough. This has always been my approach.

Milkweed was discussed since it is the only plant that the caterpillars eat in stage II of the monarch life cycle. This one plant sustains and entire species of butterfly. So, I asked what could be done about the monarch’s population decline.

And, you know what?!

First graders can actually come up with what needs to be done!

We need to plant milkweed.

Since I was at this school two years ago to discuss the same topic, their supply of milkweed has grown and is plentiful in their school yard garden. With the exception of caterpillars brought in from the students’ homes, I believe they are raising only the wild caught caterpillars for subsequent release.  This is an improvement over ordering caterpillars through the mail, a practice that needs to be strongly discouraged due to the possible spreading of disease.

I mentioned the Monarch Highway at the conclusion of my presentation today.  It is a relatively new phrase coined to designate the I-35 corridor that runs from Minnesota through states further South to Texas and into Mexico.  These states, along with academic institutions and environmental/conservation groups such as Monarch Joint Venture, are leading the way to provide increased habitat and milkweed in the ditches and rights of way along this highway. Attempts at curbing roadside mowing, especially in the fall, is also being promoted. Monarchs need milkweed and hopefully, soon, the Monarch Highway will provide a plethora of this sustaining plant.

As you can see, there is a wealth of information that can be shared and excite children, even the very young, into providing for the well-being of another species. It is one of the things I love about this topic – I can customize my presentation to be appropriate for preschoolers to adults, making the topic awe-inspiring for the young with the miracle of metamorphosis and migration, to a pressing need for adults to be called into action. Butterflies are pollinators and without pollinators, our food supply is greatly diminished, and that fact has great implications for humans.

I left the classrooms today with hope for the future. Thursday, I will return to speak to three more first grades.  After that visit, all 120 students will be armed with milkweed seeds to plant in their home garden beds.  They got it! Monarchs need Milkweed, Monarchs go through Metamorphosis, and in the late summer Monarchs Migrate to Mexico! The monarchs might need a miracle now to keep their population from dwindling further. But, on days like today, I think it is entirely possible!

Thanks, West Salem Elementary First Graders!

WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge: Waiting

WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge: Waiting

waiting on the chrysalis 82617
Waiting for Eclosure, © Carol Labuzzetta, 2017.

Inspired by the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge

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.

lateAugustmonarchcats
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

Inhabit

Inhabit

For years I have waited,

watched, and prepared

the garden beds for visitors.

 

Carefully, I have examined each leaf

for signs they inhabit my garden filled

with milkweed for them.

 

Common milkweed was the first,

taking years to be established.

Then swamp milkweed, followed by

rose milkweed planted by students.

 

Each germinating, growing,

flowering, and podding – a live advertisement

for those looking to inhabit my yard and fill it with

color and grace.

 

I wait each spring for the inhabitants,

Monarch Butterflies, to arrive and live in

the habitat I have provided for them.

 

Spring has turned to summer now, before they

arrive, causing me pause as my concern over

this species mounts.

 

Inhabit. Inhabit our fields, our yards, our roadways.

Help pollinate our food. Add beauty to the landscape.

Migrate thousands of miles, visiting those who also invite

this iconic creature with milkweed in their yards from

Canada to the United States to Mexico.

Inhabit. I hope Monarchs can continue to.

 

Inspired via Daily Prompt: Inhabit

Tiny Charges

Tiny Charges

Earlier this week, toward the end of the vacation my husband and I took to the island country of Bermuda, I remembered to ask my sister-in-law who was staying with our boys how the monarch eggs that I charged with her care were doing.  I did not get a response.

Our cell phone service on Bermuda was nil, and I only used the “free” wi-fi at our resort, so the occasional text I sent might have been missed or not even received. I worried more about how my sister-in-law would feel about some of the eggs not hatching or the caterpillars not surviving than about whether there would still be ten tiny representatives of the monarch life cycle upon my return.

Monarch eggs, the first stage of the monarch life cycle, hatch in anywhere from 1-4 days after being laid by an adult female monarch on a milkweed leaf, depending on conditions. I had found the eggs approximately three days before we left on our trip. I laid out all the leaves and showed my inexperienced, yet willing, monarch conservation participant what they looked like. We discussed what they do when they hatch – eat their egg shells, and then start eating a lot of milkweed. I told her that the caterpillars will be so tiny they will look like a whitish string on the leaf, encouraging the important tool of daily observation when rearing monarchs. The string is a caterpillar, without stripes. The stripes appear in several days, as the caterpillar eats milkweed and starts to grow.

My boys have helped me to rear monarchs for the last thirteen summers. They could manage the monarch care, if my sister-in-law felt unsure or things started to go awry.  Yet, when my question went unanswered, I wondered if it was because I had bad news awaiting me upon our return from vacation.

I would find out soon enough, so I did not ask again. The day arrived yesterday. We arrived home and after initial hugs, updates, and animated conversations about all our international wait staff on the island, I asked again about the monarch eggs.

“Did any hatch? Do we have any caterpillars?” I asked.

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My answer was a firm yes! We have nine caterpillars! Only one egg did not hatch. Wow! I was so impressed! Last year, I found most of the monarchs I raised in the caterpillar stage. Of the three eggs I found, only one did not hatch. So I was hoping to have a better percentage of success than 66%. Ninety percent was excellent! I was really pleased and thanked my sister-in-law and our boys for taking such good care of our tiny charges.

After dinner, I needed to refresh the milkweed the caterpillars were eating. When they are very small, I empty the entire contents of the netted growing container leaf by leaf on to the counter and make a count. Guess what?! We have TEN, not just nine, Monarch caterpillars. They all are striped now, making them somewhat easier to see, but still they like to hide in the curled edge of the drying leaves.  TEN! Ten means 100% of our eggs hatched! Wow! I am so thankful!

After counting and cleaning, which only entails getting rid of old, dried leaves, and dumping the frass (poop), new milkweed leaves were supplied, along with a slight misting of unsoftened water (something I used to do regularly, but found it is not absolutely necessary to do).

When arriving at my milkweed patch in my garden, I was greeted by a monarch flying from plant to plant! What a welcome sight! I picked some fresh leaves to place in the growing container and just happened to find three more eggs!

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Today, I will order my tags from Monarch Watch, so that when I release these monarchs after they complete their life cycle, they can be tracked, if found.  This will be the third year I have participated in tagging the iconic butterfly. It will be a special year, as I will have raised more from eggs than ever before!

Thanks, Aunt Mary, for taking such good care of your tiniest charges! (And the big, human ones, too!)