“Outside” monarchs

In 2017 there was so much monarch activity going on in the front yard, I honestly couldn’t keep up with all the eggs, caterpillars, and butterflies. It was a very entertaining change compared to the previous year, when I found only one caterpillar!

The season started really early, with a monarch laying eggs on May 26. I watched at least eight or nine of them (it’s not always easy to find all of them at once to count them) grow up into full-sized caterpillars ready to pupate.

Most of this action happened on the common milkweed. After spotting six eggs on one butterfly weed, I only found caterpillars there once or twice.

For the first time, I saw caterpillars eating not just the leaves of milkweed plants, but the flowers or flower buds, too. This one was likely one of the eggs from the May generation:


(If you can’t use the embedded video above, watch a monarch caterpillar eating common milkweed buds on YouTube.)

The monarch caterpillars, and the American Lady caterpillars, too, managed to ride out a hailstorm in mid-June:

Caterpillar recovering from a hailstorm, facing upward on a milkweed stem, its antennae slicked back.

In previous years I had planted swamp milkweed seeds in the front yard but never saw them appear. In the backyard, I had tried a couple of other varieties such as whorled and the “hello yellow” butterfly weed cultivar, but they were either eaten or overtaken by weeds. Last year, I decided to get serious about trying other milkweed varieties, to not rely too heavily on common milkweed, which often fades too early for the later monarch generations. So in June I picked up a few new milkweeds at the Landscape Revival plant sale: poke, prairie, and whorled (along with a couple non-milkweeds).

Five small potted plants in a row.

Some other time that I’ve already forgotten, I also picked up Sullivant’s and showy. I decided to fence in these new plants (the chicken-wire is not easily seen in this photo, though)…

Late-afternoon sun shining on a garden that is mostly woodchips with some small green plants, with a knee-high fence surrounding.

… and that seemed to make a difference — not only did all of these survive, so did the whorled from years past that I thought was lost, as well as a couple of others that were not planted this year and so I’m not sure what they were. One was a butterfly weed that may have been the old hello yellow or may have been from seed that wandered over from the front yard. The others, I don’t remember at this point; I hope they come back and flower next year so I can find out what they are. But I know that they were milkweeds because all of these, old and new, planted and surprise, ended up with monarch eggs and then caterpillars!

One afternoon while I was giving a garden tour for my Butterfly Buddy, a monarch flew into the backyard to lay eggs. The most amusing part of her visit: she couldn’t figure out how to get over the chicken wire fence protecting the plants, so she first flew all the way around the perimeter, then landed in the middle of the fence and squeezed through one of the small wire openings! I’m really glad there was another witness for that because I’m not sure my husband believed me when I told him later (and I don’t blame him).

When I checked the plants later, I found out that not only had she picked this small showy milkweed, she chose a leaf that already had a hatchling! And on the same plant was a row of four lacewing eggs. When I went back to take a picture with a better camera, the caterpillar had already eaten the egg! That’s one way nature deals with competition, I guess.

Hand pulling a milkweed to see the underside, with a monarch caterpillar near an egg on one leaf, lacewing eggs on another leaf.

In all, I counted seven kinds of milkweed in the backyard, and this monarch laid an egg on six of them! I don’t know whether she also visited the common milkweed in the front yard, but this was a good validation for my plan to plant more species for later generations.

Poke milkweed:

Underside of two large milkweed leaves, a small caterpillars on each.

Whorled milkweed:

Lots of very narrow leaves, one with a small white egg.

Prairie milkweed:

The top of a dark-green leaf with an egg.

Sullivant’s milkweed with evidence of a caterpillar feeding:

The underside of narrow milkweed leaves, one with a small chewed hole.

Unknown milkweed:

Small milkweed with wide leaves, one with an egg underneath.

Are whorled milkweed leaves really big enough to support caterpillars? What happens when the caterpillars grow past, say, the third instar?

Hand holding the top of a whorled milkweed with a second-instar caterpillar, the leaves only as wide as the caterpillar.

Nearly all of these plants were very small, not just the whorled milkweed (which is always small, even when fully grown). The exception was the poke milkweed, which was definitely not a first-year plant when I bought it. None were big enough, or perhaps it was that they weren’t established enough, to flower. I saw many caterpillars over the next couple weeks, but as I had worried, I saw none past the third instar. I’m not sure why: not enough food, too much competition, predators, moved to another area (though the front yard is quite far away for a little caterpillar), or something else.

Possible predator?

Hand pulling down a narrow milkweed leaf with a diamond-shaped black insect.

Following that generation, the next time I saw new eggs on the backyard milkweed, I collected eight of them to raise indoors.

After this amazing season of monarchs indoors and out, I’m hoping for another good local population in 2018 and will plan to order tags for the migration generation.

Blurry monarch flying above an in-focus cup plant.

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“Inside” monarchs

After a disappointing monarch season in 2016, I was thrilled to find many eggs and caterpillars in my yard in 2017. Some became temporary “inside” monarchs when I brought eggs indoors to raise the caterpillars and then release them outside as butterflies.

Side view of a monarch butterfly perched on joe-pye weed, facing right.

After seeing a monarch lay a dozen eggs at the end of May, and then finding many more eggs in the yard on the butterfly weed and on the common milkweed, I wanted to bring a few inside to watch them grow.

Looking down into a plastic container with three monarch butterfly caterpillars and several large common milkweed leaves.

But wouldn’t you know that after weeks of my tending to the three caterpillars, and days of watching the chrysalises, they decided to wait to emerge until I was out of town? Fortunately I have a Butterfly Buddy who was more than happy to take the chrysalises…

Three green monarch butterfly chrysalises lying on an open hand.

…and send me updates on the three beautiful butterflies!

After that adventure, I took a break from raising caterpillars during the busy-ness of the summer. There was plenty of monarch activity in the garden during that time, which I will detail soon. I waited until after a five-day family reunion to begin again, and on August 7, I collected eight monarch eggs — then figured that was enough! Four of them had already hatched by the next morning. Not sure where two of the caterpillars are in this photo:

Looking down into a plastic container with eight milkweed leaves of various sizes, with four monarch eggs and two tiny caterpillars.

An upside-down common milkweed leaf with many small holes created by four small monarch caterpillars.

It was during this period that one of the caterpillars met a sad end when I wasn’t paying enough attention while cleaning the cage and grabbed a leaf exactly at the spot where it was sitting on the other side. I tried to console myself by noting that this one was much smaller than the others and not progressing well anyway, but it still was my fault.

An upside-down common milkweed leaf with four much larger monarch caterpillars.

Three pale-green monarch chrysalises hanging from the top of a plastic cage.

In the midst of the raising of this group, on August 23, I found this newly hatched monarch caterpillar when checking out the progress of the front garden. (Good thing the common milkweed was still kicking out new leaves.)

Tiny monarch caterpillar on a small common milkweed plant.

August 30: My first release of the season!

Male monarch butterfly hanging from a cup plant flower.

A watched chrysalis never opens. Isn’t that how the saying goes? Even though there were three chrysalises like this on Sept. 1, I didn’t see any of them open!

Monarch chrysalis hanging from dental floss in a white mesh cage, just before the butterfly emerged, wings clearly visible.

But it was an exciting day, anyway, when the “three sisters” all hung out with me in the garden for the afternoon:

Three female monarch butterflies resting on a cup plant, two facing right and one facing left.

This one starred in a video chat with my nieces and nephew:

Monarch butterfly resting on a pointer finger in front of a laptop.

The next day, one emerged:

Male monarch butterfly with wings open, resting on an open hand in front of sunny black-eyed susans.

Two more were nearly ready that day, but in unfortunate timing, we were planning to leave for a weeklong trip the next day. This time I hadn’t planned ahead enough to pass them off to my Butterfly Buddy, maybe because I had optimistically thought they would have emerged sooner. So I did the next-best thing and tied the chrysalises to joe-pye weed plants so they could eclose outside and fly off on their own.

Luckily for me, one of them did emerge before we left, as I was waiting impatiently but not impatiently enough to pay close enough attention, and it was almost all the way out before I noticed. I’m always surprised at how quiet this process is; I was standing right there and didn’t hear a thing.

Monarch hanging from its chrysalis, wings full-sized and smooth.

The other one apparently emerged safely, since we found an empty chrysalis when we returned.

Before the trip, I needed to release a caterpillar into the wild, too: the single one I found in late August. It was close to being big enough to transform into a chrysalis, but not close enough:

Large monarch caterpillar crawling up the stem of a common milkweed plant.

There’s no way that six days later I would find a caterpillar that had been that large, still in caterpillar form. But it was an odd coincidence to find a fully-grown caterpillar in the same area the night we returned:

Slightly bigger monarch caterpillar upside-down under a common milkweed leaf.

Of course, I brought this one inside, too, and a day and a half later, it transformed:

Monarch caterpillar hanging in the J position from a plastic cage.

On the autumnal equinox, he became my last butterfly of the season.

Male monarch butterfly resting on a pearly everlasting plant, facing right.

Final tally

  • 3 released in the first generation
  • 8 released in the migration generation

Closeup of a monarch butterfly hanging off a joe-pye weed, facing left.

More about my monarch-raising adventures

Camouflaged looper inchworm

On July 13 in the mass of black-eyed susans, I spotted more than a dozen different kinds of insects. The coolest was this one, which I believe is a camouflaged looper inchworm. Its destiny was to turn into a wavy-lined emerald moth.

Black-eyed susan with a small caterpillar at the top of the center disk, with lots of dark brown spikes sticking off its body.

This caterpillar chews off parts of plants and then attaches them to itself as a disguise.

Flower from above, with a caterpillar looped on the left side and several brown clumps attached to its body.

It was concealed so well against the flower’s dark-brown center disk, I’m not sure how I even spotted it at first!

Angled view of a flower, with a small brown clump on the opposite side of the center disk.

Though after I saw it once, I could easily find it again later the same day, and even the next day. (The accumulating quantity of frass also helped locate it.)

Caterpillar with its front end raised above the center disk.

Making its way around the ring of tiny flowers in the center disk of the black-eyed susan:

Side view of the flower, with a caterpillar on the right side, the back half of the center disk's flowers missing.

Almost finished the next day:

Side view again, caterpillar on the left side, no center disk flowers visible, but the caterpillar still appears to be eating.

I saw it crawling around a bit but unfortunately didn’t get to see any of the actual “gluing.”

Watch video on YouTube

Two more videos:

I kept checking back for this inchworm every day for a week and saw it many more times.

Top view of the flower, with the inchworm 'inched' at the top.

Top view showing two thick layers of camouflage:

Only the very top of the caterpillar showing, with two distinct ridges of material on its body.

Sometimes it was resting on a petal, and in these cases it looked nothing like a caterpillar.

Black-eyed susan with a small brown clump on one of the petals on the right, lots of frass around the center disk.

Once I thought it was gone, but then found it again on a nearby flower. This time it looked different after it apparently re-covered itself with new material.

Flower in shade apparently underneath another flower, with the caterpillar 'inched' and some lighter brown or yellow material on its body in addition to the dark brown.

And this time I saw it eating the petals, too.

Caterpillar on a petal that's curving down, reaching out to the edge.

But after that, I didn’t see it anymore. Hopefully it made its way safely to its next stage as a cocoon.

More about camouflaged looper inchworms:

Pelecinid wasp

On August 15 I found something in our box elder tree that is definitely not a box elder bug.

black insect perched on a leaf, with a slender abdomen longer than its body protruding from the back and curved under

A quick Google image search (“mn fly with scorpion tail”) identified it as a wasp, American Pelecinid, that looks intimidating but doesn’t have a stinger. It uses its long abdomen to dig into the ground until it finds the grub of a June beetle, and there it lays an egg that will feed on the grub.

It would be nice if it would look for Japanese beetle grubs, too.

Two weeks later, at a seed collection event, one of these insects landed on another volunteer. No one else knew anything about it, and I was so excited to share what I know about this wasp, including that it’s harmless. However, I couldn’t remember its name, and so I looked it up on my Instagram feed.

In my excitement to share, I called it a PELICAN-id wasp. It wasn’t until about five minutes later that I realized it’s probably pronounced “pell-i-SIN-id” instead. (And yes, according to a Google search, that second version is true.) I was embarrassed the rest of the event, and I don’t think I’ll forget the name again.

More about pelecinid wasps

2017 garden in review

At the end of another cold snap, it’s fun to look back at pictures of the garden in its prime.

Front view of the front yard:

a 15-foot section with 10 different types of white, yellow, and pink blooming native plants

Successes

Obviously, as I’ve documented at length already, black-eyed susans were the star of the show. Blooming from late June to mid-August, taking up a huge spot right in the front of the garden closest to the street, they were amazing.

closeup of one black-eyed susan in the sunshine at the right, with dozens more faded in the background

This is the year that the cup plant “leaped” — more than a dozen new plants grew away from the original cluster.

five one-foot-tall cup plant seedlings, the one on the right in shade

Bonus: these were young enough that they were just my size. (The older ones are several feet above my head, so I usually don’t see these flowers up-close. The ones at the top of this website were taken when I was holding a camera above my head while standing at the top of a ladder.)

closeup of a cup plant flower blooming on the right, with three budding stems on the left

White snakeroot, which was in our backyard before we were here, spread to a new area in the backyard, and also to the front yard:

two-foot section of tiny white flowers

Joe-pye weed seedlings made themselves comfortable between the pine tree and the sidewalk:

two dozen seedlings less than a foot tall, in a relatively small space

Fails

Of course, not everything succeeded.

Trout lily and bluebells didn’t grow, but this was completely my fault. I never got around to planting them, and the little pots blew over in the wind and then something ate them.

two trout lily leaves standing straight up in a square pot with a white plant marker

Blazing star was eaten by rabbits (though I planted more seeds in the fall to try again).

several green stems that have been chewed off at about an inch tall

Vegetables didn’t grow, again. Tried in a different spot this time, too. This might be the last time; we can rely on farmer’s markets and the co-op for our fresh veggies instead.

five white plant markers in a dirt plot next to concrete

Even the path through the garden: it disappeared around the end of June, engulfed by plants that I didn’t have the heart to pull out (or the time to transplant).

three stepping stones surrounded by short and medium green plants

Mixed results

Every year it seems as if one non-native perennial fades or doesn’t survive, and this year it was evening primrose’s turn.

blurry photo of two four-petaled yellow flowers

Allium: perhaps fading like other perennials, perhaps just overshadowed by
bigger, flashier plants around them.

two blooming and one budding purple allium

New plants

From the Landscape Revival plant sale: bishop’s cap, native false indigo, and three kinds of milkweed. (More stories to come another day about milkweed.)

five small potted plants lined up next to a retaining wall

Lobelia from a friend. This is one of my favorite photos of the year because I have no idea how I managed to get the tussock moth caterpillar to photobomb this flower. One day I was transporting caterpillars from the backyard (which ran out of milkweed) to the front yard (which had plenty) and apparently chose that moment to stop and take a picture of a lobelia!

purple flower in focus on the right, with a blurry finger holding an orange-and-black caterpillar in the top left corner

Donated plants

Purple giant hyssop, yellow coneflower, joe-pye weed, and pearly everlasting, dug up from our front yard to donate to a Wild Ones fundraiser:

cardboard fruit box holding about a dozen small potted plants

Surprise!

Squash plant that volunteered in the flower garden — though it waited until October, so no actual squash were produced:

short squash vine with one yellow flower, viewed from above

Bishop’s cap, which I bought in June and normally blooms in the spring, apparently didn’t want to wait for next year, and bloomed in its original pot in July:

closeup of the top of a narrow stem, with four white star-shaped flowers and six buds

New bugs

Peachtree borer moth:

black moth with a narrow orange band around its abdomen

I wasn’t sure how to describe this one on Google to find its name, so I posted it on Instagram and asked for help. Within minutes, I got an answer: brown marmorated stink bug nymph.

roundish reddish bug with darker red stripes and black spots around the edges, facing downward on a milkweed leaf

(More posts to come about new bugs.)

Fun photos

Culver’s root with a stalk that split into six:

green plant with one stem that became six

Four-petaled spiderwort:

purple flower that usually has three petals, but with four

Rabbit caught in the act:

rabbit with its body facing away but turned back toward the camera, visible in the space between plants

Pretty American Lady butterfly next to a faded coreopsis:

black-and-orange butterfly with big circles on its wings, with its proboscis in a yellow flower

In closing

Here’s what I wrote on Instagram in June, on my first master naturalist anniversary. I think it summarizes my year’s exploration nicely.

Today is my master naturalist birthday: one year ago I earned a certificate for completing the prairies and potholes course. Taking this class was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made because it reinforced my growing interest in the natural world. Since then I’ve learned a lot and committed to environmental stewardship through events such as invasive species removal, wildflower planting, and seed collecting. But my favorite place to explore remains my own front yard.

large monarch caterpillar eating common milkweed buds

Previous garden recaps