Monarch caterpillars and butterflies at last!

Wild Ways

It’s about time! For the 15 or so years I have lived in this house, I have been planting and nurturing a “butterfly garden.” In the beginning, when our lot was bare, I read everything I could about butterfly nectar and host plants, and spent a small fortune installing various shrubs and perennials in my yard to attract them. It’s mostly been a failure.

Sure, here and there, a butterfly or two flit in, but they don’t lay eggs on any of the milkweeds, parsleys and other host plants I’ve laid out for them. And most of these plants either die or never return the next spring. It’s got to be the soil – construction dirt placed on the lot to build our house. But we’ve never had the energy or will to do more than just dig in some bags of amendments and hope for the best.

But the best never happened. Each spring, I am faced with perennials that are not perennial and a mess of weeds. But this year, a miracle happened, at least in my book. Some milkweeds I planted last year actually spread their seeds, and a bunch of new milkweed plants sprouted up in the garden.

Maybe it was the number of plants that drew in the monarch butterflies, a tasty treat for their offspring, finally spotted and utilized. For weeks, I have watched in delight as wave after wave of monarch caterpillars devoured them, leaf by leaf. My original milkweeds are gone now – all the leaves have been eaten. But not to fear. I’ve now added “caterpillar food” to my new expenditures, and continue to buy new milkweed plants and install them in pots around the yard, and the monarchs are finding these, too.

Over the days, I’ve learned a lot about monarch caterpillars and also found out how much I don’t know. The tiny caterpillars emerge from a white egg about the size of a pinhead and go through five size-stages where they shed their skin and grow a bigger one. This all happens during about two weeks; then they are gone. 

Well, I know they are not gone. I know they have crawled off the milkweed plants and moved on to a more permanent place to form into their next stage, a green chrysalis, hidden somewhere in the bushes. I have watched more than a dozen caterpillars at a time on my milkweeds as they grow up to full caterpillar size. But I’ve looked around the nearby bushes and had other friends look, too, and, no, we can’t find any chrysalises.

But these must be here somewhere. After two weeks, the butterfly emerges from this hidden chrysalis and flies again in adult form, to mate, lay eggs and continue the species. There are now adult monarch butterflies flitting from milkweed to milkweed and laying eggs. At least, from a non-disturbing distance, that’s what I think they are doing on the underside of the milkweed leaves.

You have to have a day in the garden to really enjoy the details of the monarch show. One recent day, my friend Susan Gallion and I hung out in the backyard, watching butterflies. We saw a monarch flit around a milkweed plant already loaded with eggs and caterpillars in various stages. Then it moved on, circled around the pond, but soon came back to the same plant. We wondered if the butterfly sensed that there were already too many caterpillars on the plant and that the food source would be gone in the three or four days it would take her egg to hatch.

Just maybe, though, she couldn’t find more milkweed plants elsewhere, so decided to use this one anyway. We watched as she gently fluttered under a leaf, most likely laying her egg at last.

For those who want to watch the butterfly life cycle from start to finish, it is possible to put small caterpillars in a terrarium stocked with plenty of milkweed and sticks to crawl onto to form their chrysalis. You can often find monarch butterfly eggs and caterpillars on milkweed plants sold in local nurseries. If you want advice on how to grow them, ask Sandra Baker-Hinton at Amelia SanJon Gallery on Ash Street. She’s successfully raised scores of them and released the adult butterflies back in her yard. Another place to learn more about monarchs is to visit the website MonarchWatch.org.

But best yet, for me, is just to watch the monarch show from my chair in my backyard. Monarchs in my butterfly garden. At last!

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. 

 

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