Monarch Count

Monarch Count

During the last week, I have resumed care of my monarchs in very stages of their life cycle. Right now, I have the following:

  • 8 Chyrsalises
  • 4 Larvae in J hooks
  • 4 Larvae in the earliest instar stages
  • 2 eggs
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© Carol Labuzzetta, Can you see them? Two Eggs (upper right corner & right mid-page)                and two tiny larvae, Summer 2017.
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© Carol Labuzzetta, Two tiny larva, up close, 2017.

What is unusual about this year, besides getting a very late start to finding monarch caterpillars on my milkweed is that all but three of those that are being raised have been done so from finding eggs! I have never had so much success with finding and raising monarch butterflies from the egg stage. Usually, I find fairly large caterpillars (instars 2-4) on my milkweed.  All of the eggs have been found on my common milkweed plants and all but two have been on the underside of the leaves. Two eggs were laid right on the top of the leaves.

I do not know if, after many years of raising monarchs, I am just better at recognizing the eggs, or it has just been luck. I do think I have been more patient this year when I have looked in my garden patch for caterpillars.  Since I was not finding any, until about a month ago, I really started inspecting the leaves throughly just hoping to find a sign monarchs had visited the habitat we have made for them in our yard.

Apprehensive would be the best way to describe finding all these eggs! You might recall from an earlier blog post that I left on vacation just days after finding ten monarch eggs. The caterpillars started to emerge when I was gone and I came home to ten, fast growing, healthy larvae.

Since I want to tag the monarchs I raised, I ordered tracking tags from Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas. This will be the third year that I have tagged the butterflies before their migration.  You can purchase 25 tags for $15.00 plus shipping/handling, right off their website.  The tags are on their way, having been shipped a couple of days ago.

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© Carol Labuzzetta, Darkening Stripes, Monarch Caterpillar, 2017. 

From experience, I know that it takes 10-14 days for the butterflies to emerge from their chrysali. Hopefully, the tags will be here by then. I have continued to observe and collect more monarch eggs and caterpillars. With the exception of the three larger caterpillars I found on my swamp milkweed, I am finding only eggs or very tiny, just emerged, caterpillars.  Daily, fresh milkweed has been provided, a count has been made, and the containers (3) cleaned.

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© Carol Labuzzetta – Two  Monarch Caterpillars, Two Monarch Chrysalises, Summer 2017.

Always a satisfying experience, I often think about my garden club students when I am tending the monarchs during the summer. The Monarch Life Cycle was a student favorite, being requested year after year as one of our unit topics. At the beginning of each school year,  I had the luxury of surveying students about what they wanted to study during our meetings. The three topics with the most votes were added to my theme/unit plans for the year. I strongly feel, when possible,  we need to give students a voice. I can attest that this increases student engagement and depth of learning. Situations that are ideal for this are project based learning, such as National History Day selections, Science Fair projects, or Place Based Learning on local culture, customs, flora, and fauna. Talented and gifted (TAG)  students also greatly benefit from being asked what they want to learn more about. Forcing subject matter down the throat of any student, but especially the gifted, can have immediate and lasting negative effects.

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No, studying the monarch life cycle, their current habitat plight, and miraculous metamorphosis was not everyone’s preference. However, since the students could select more than one topic of study, hopefully most students eventually got to learn about something that mattered to them, be it earthworms, cacti, succulents, corn, carnivorous plants, pumpkins, or something else. We explored many different topics over 13 years, but none were as requested, enriching, or satisfying as our experience with monarchs, the butterfly garden, and citizen science projects having to do with this incredible creature.

 

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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!)

 

Monarch Update Yields Hope

Monarch Update Yields Hope

Today, is the Monarch Monitoring Blitz hosted by Monarch Joint Venture. I came across a posting on social media that reminded me of this citizen science event.  Having raised monarchs for 14 years, I definitely feel the need to participate in the reporting activities of this weekend.

Just to set the stage, this summer I did not see a monarch until after the July 4th weekend. I had found one caterpillar toward the end of June that told me Monarchs had visited, but until that holiday weekend, I hadn’t seen my orange and black friends float by on a breeze. To date, I have only been able to release one butterfly.  I can tell, without the use of any statistics, the numbers are down.

But, yesterday, after seeing a Monarch fly by three or four times, or possibly three or four monarchs fly by, I saw the post by The University of Minnesota’s Monarch Lab Monitoring Project. Essentially, it is asking “regular” citizens or lay-people, or non-scientists to go out this weekend and look for Monarch eggs or larvae (caterpillars).

So, since I consider myself to be a monarch conservationist and have participated in many citizen science activities regarding monarchs and milkweed, I headed outside after dinner to check out my milkweed patches. This really is not an unusual activity for me, I have been checking my milkweed for the last 14 summers! Usually, I have raised and released over 15 monarchs by this time in the summer. As I have already noted, it has been slow. I did not harbor much hope of finding eggs or caterpillars. Yet, I did have that adult monarch (or those adult monarchs) flying around my deck before dinner.

I thought about waiting to look. After all, I had just looked two days ago and found nothing but aging milkweed plants. And, the monitoring blitz wasn’t starting until today. But, I went ahead and read what information they were seeking from community observers (citizen scientists) such as myself and decided to look.

Within five minutes I was back in the house, proudly showing my teens a monarch egg I had found. Two minutes later, I had found four more. And ten minutes after that, another five! Ten monarch eggs! All found on common milkweed leaves in the patch facing South next to my garage – in an area of about 225 square feet, encompassing about 32 plants. I was ecstatic!

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For one thing, I have never been good at finding eggs. But, these had been super easy to find!  All but one were on the underside of tender, newly sprouted milkweed leaves. I made note of this observation. One leaf had 3 eggs on it. Each of the other eggs were laid upon single leaves – kind of what is expected. One egg was found laid on the top side of the leaf – somewhat unusual. And one egg was so hard to determine if it was an egg because it was near a margin of a leaf that had already been chewed, dried, and was curled on itself. Luckily, I have a great pair of magnifying glasses, which I use to do fine work on my jewelry,  and broke those out to inspect not only this egg but all of them!

Ten eggs – the night before the monitoring blitz started! Ten eggs – a great number with which to work as it will be easy to determine morbidity and mortality statistics, without causing any mathematical difficulties. Ten eggs – all photographed. Ten eggs – checked and rechecked this morning. Ten eggs – hopefully, soon to be te caterpillars!

I feel fortunate to be able to contribute this information to the scientists working hard to ensure the survival of the monarch species.  I have hope.

 

 

Four Monarchs for the Fourth!

Four Monarchs for the Fourth!

On June 30th, last Friday, I saw my first Monarch of the season! It was at our cabin in the Northwoods of Wisconsin! I have a perennial bed with common milkweed for the caterpillars and nectar plants like purple cone flowers for the adult butterflies. The monarch was flitting from plant to plant!  Later, after my excitement calmed down, I was able to find a tiny caterpillar on those same plants!

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The next day, on our morning walk, I found a bigger caterpillar on a milkweed plant alongside the dirt road on which we were strolling before seven o’clock in the morning! Both caterpillars were carefully collected and given plenty of milkweed leaves on which to munch. They made the ride home with us on Monday. Usually, I have enough caterpillars at our house to satisfy my need to raise monarchs. This year, I have only found one in my main gardens. It is now in the third stage of the Monarch Life Cycle, or the Chrysalis (the pupa). It is in this stage that the metamorphosis takes place from caterpillar to butterfly!

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On July 4th, I was working in my gardens and saw four monarchs throughout the day! Or maybe, it was one monarch I saw four times! I am hoping it was the previous occurence and more than one had returned to my yard! It was a welcome sight, indeed!

Since it is July, one or two months of monarchs have already completed their life cycle. In August, I will again send to Monarch Watch to obtain tags in which to apply to the monarchs I raise and/or catch during that month. This is the generation which will travel an amazing 1,700 miles from my home to central Mexico to overwinter. Last year, I tagged 15 monarchs. I doubt I will have that many this year. But, I can hope. Maybe the season is just off to a slow start!

For more information, please see the downloadable PDF from Monarch Joint Venture on raising Monarchs responsibly.

Inspection Time

Inspection Time

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.

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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!