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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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

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.

two chrysali and two larvae
© 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.

 

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!)

 

A Quick Change

A Quick Change

Today’s post will be short. It was a busy day finishing up my last assignment for the grad course that I am taking on Advanced Interpretive Media. My final was due last Sunday, but this week we had a full load of assignments, the last of which is due tomorrow.

My day started with a friend coming to pick cherries off of our trees in our home fruit orchard…..we have been picking daily for over a week!  Then, it was on to soccer practice. I got a deal at the local nursery, which is usually expensive but since it is mid-summer, I guess they just needed to get rid of plants. Petunias were being given away free! I picked up two six-cell packs of those and two lovely pink geraniums in five inch pots for only $2.00 each.  I was also able to get in a little work on my last assignment.

Then, by the time we got home, there was a surprise waiting for us! Our monarch had emerged from the chrysalis! We had a beautiful new butterfly! It was a female and as is tradition in our house I named her. Her name was Alice.  She flew away this afternoon in the bright sunshine! hangingmonarch7817

 

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.