“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.

“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

Late-night snacking

One night just after dusk, as I arrived home after running errands, I decided to see what the caterpillars were up to. For several days, I had been observing eight or nine monarch caterpillars growing larger and larger in the front corner of the yard, in what I’m calling the “milkweed forest” because there are about three dozen common milkweed plants close together. Quite likely, these caterpillars were from the eggs that were laid on May 26.

The caterpillars were getting so big, I knew they’d be ready to form their chrysalises soon. Would they be resting up, or would they be eating all they could? I guessed they’d be eating.

Sure enough, they were still out and about, still eating. Even in the low light, I could easily spot them. They just went about their business without even noticing me, which is generally what they do in the daylight, too.

just a head poking out under a leaf, looking surprised, though that is likely anthropomorphization

caterpillar underneath a leaf, holding on, with a sharp corner in its mouth

caterpillar climbing up a leaf, curved over to eat from the top

caterpillar possibly resting upside-down at the base of a leaf

caterpillar reaching up to the top of a leaf, antennae stretched wide

caterpillar facing down on the left side of a large cluster of leaves

I’m not sure whether they eat all night. Sometime, maybe I’ll check!

Within a day or two, these caterpillars probably moved on to the next stage in life. They must have crawled far away, or hidden well, because I haven’t found even one chrysalis.

Photos were taken on June 15. These caterpillars might be butterflies now!

They don’t call it butterfly weed for nothing

A little over a week ago, I saw a monarch lay an egg on the butterfly weed, so I kept checking on it.

closeup of one butterfly weed bud stem in the sun, with a white football-shaped egg pointed downward on the left side

Two days later I noticed two more eggs. The next day I noticed a fourth, and I was able to get them all in one photo.

large, full butterfly weed plant with two eggs visible in the front and two practically invisible in the middle

Of course, from this distance they’re nearly impossible to see, so I added arrows to show where they are. The orange arrow is the location of the original egg.

same photo, with three black arrows and one orange arrow pointing to tiny whitish spots

A zoomed-in version of the top two eggs:

a black arrow and an orange arrow pointing to white dots

And a zoomed-in version of the bottom two eggs:

black arrows pointing to two white dots

When I leaned in to get a closer look at one of them, I spotted a fifth egg in the crown of one of the stems.

an egg in focus on a cluster of buds, with blurry leaves in the foreground

Then I decided to check the other side of the plant, and I found a sixth egg.

egg on the top left corner of a group of lots of skinny green leaves

Six eggs on one plant. Wow!

I decided to raise two of the eggs (plus one from a common milkweed) inside — partly to simply observe, and partly for a reason I’ll explain in a future post. All three hatched early the same morning, but strangely, they’re growing at different rates.

three tiny monarch caterpillars, one much smaller than the others

It’s monarch season already

This year the monarch migration from Mexico was earlier than normal. Butterflies started reaching the Twin Cities about two weeks ago, so I have been checking the milkweed every few days but not finding any eggs. Then this evening Bill saw a monarch fluttering in the front yard. I raced out with my camera.

monarch butterfly resting on common milkweed

She landed on common milkweed, in a cluster of plants that’s growing outside of the garden in the lawn. While I watched, she paused in the egg-laying pose and then fluttered away, circled the yard, and came back to another plant nearby to repeat the process.

monarch butterfly with her abdomen curved to lay eggs on common milkweed

Then, in my excitement to see this process up close, I scared her away. (Next time, I will be more cool.) I started checking the plants and found two eggs right away, where I had seen her. Then I moved on throughout the garden.

closeup of a striped, football-shaped, ivory-colored egg on a green leaf

We have more than 100 milkweeds, so it took awhile, but there were plenty of eggs to be found. Each was on its own plant. Some were on full plants about a foot tall…

egg on the underside of a large leaf

some on really small plants with only one or two leaves so far…

egg on a leaf that's still unfolding

one curious location near several insects…

egg on the edge of a leaf with several green aphids and white, cotton-like insects

some on plants growing in a community…

a milkweed with many leaves, with two more plants in the background

one on an island in the grass.

egg on the underside of a vertical leaf, only grass in the background

12 eggs in all! So maybe she was done laying eggs, anyway, and wasn’t bothered by me observing…?

Last year, it wasn’t until July 15 that I saw my first monarch in the garden and September 22 when I saw the first caterpillar. While May 26 feels really early, now that they’re here and the cycle is continuing, it’s pretty exciting.

At this point, I’m not planning to bring any of the eggs inside to raise them. It’s only May, and I’m not sure I’m up for an entire summer of cleaning out cages. But once I start seeing caterpillars in the garden, it won’t be surprising if I cave.

2016 monarch recap

Remember back in late June when I whined that there were no monarchs in my yet? The very first monarch I saw was this tattered female in mid-July:

butterfly with wings spread and a chunk taken out of its lower wings, climbing on a purple flower stalk

I also saw a few others, like this one two days later that tried and tried to get the unopened joe-pye weed to work before giving up and flying off to the fully open purple coneflower

monarch standing on the center of a flower, its wings folded closed

and this gorgeous male two weeks later that spent more than an hour in the garden, splitting time between the now-open joe-pye weed and the cup plant

butterfly with its wings stretched wide and the flower in the background, viewed from above

zoomed-in photo of a small orange butterfly from the side, on a yellow flower

and I saw evidence of caterpillars

the underside of a milkweed leaf with a tiny crescent-shaped hole in the lower left and a small circle hole in the middle

but until late September, I never saw even one caterpillar in my yard. After last summer’s excitement of fostering 13 caterpillars over two generations, this was disheartening, especially after bad news about the freak March snowstorm that killed many monarchs in their overwintering habitat in Mexico.

But I tried to stay positive with news from real friends and internet friends about monarch and caterpillar sightings in the area, even though I was seeing fewer butterflies than last year. The reports seemed to be more numerous as the migration generation was growing.

right-side view of a butterfly with wings closed, climbing on joe-pye weed buds

As the season was winding down, I had a blast at Ney Nature Center in Henderson, “hunting” monarchs at sunrise to tag them for their journey to Mexico. There were far fewer sleeping in the trees than the staff anticipated – in fact, we only saw one (and it got away). I then spent many hours walking through the prairie and saw quite a few monarchs

butterfly in a large clump of light-purple asters, with other flower seedheads nearby

and my first-ever viceroys! Such a convincing monarch mimic. This butterfly is much smaller than a monarch, though that’s not obvious unless comparing them side-by-side. The biggest visual difference is that viceroys have a black line through their lower wings, while monarchs do not.

viceroy butterfly with its wings unfolded, viewed from above

In the end, I caught five, though two escaped, so I tagged three.

two butterflies inside a mesh monarch cage

fingers holding a monarch's wings closed, with a small sticker tag on the lower wing

And then – on the first day of autumn – I found a caterpillar in my front yard, moments away from beginning its transformation. I brought it inside, where it created its chrysalis. It stayed that way for two weeks, to the point where I was getting worried that the process had failed. But then, the green darkened to show wings forming inside.

a hand holding a chrysalis with the top still green, viewed from the side with one wing somewhat visible

The butterfly emerged the next day, but I wasn’t home until the evening and so I decided to keep him inside overnight. Then next afternoon he was so antsy to get outside that he climbed out of the (nonsecure) mesh cage (really, a laundry container without a top). Fortunately, I had anticipated this and covered it with a towel, so he didn’t escape. But the release day was chilly – barely 50 degrees even though it was sunny – and I wondered if he felt tricked when I took him outside; he was suddenly in no hurry to move.

butterfly sitting on the top of a white mesh laundry hamper

After I let him climb onto my finger, he flew right up to a tree, like all of last year’s monarchs did, but this one perched in the shade. I knew he was not going to warm up there, so when he was still there an hour later, I climbed up a stepstool and took him down to find a better spot.

monarch hanging from a leaf of a birch tree, viewed from the right side

The backyard was somehow much warmer, so he rested on my finger for a few minutes while his wings warmed up, and then away he flew.

butterfly with wings unfolded, resting on my outstretched finger

I’m thrilled to find out that our common milkweed still attracted monarchs late in the season, when it didn’t look so good anymore. This year we added three other types of milkweed as small plants in the backyard garden, and hopefully 2017 will be the year the swamp milkweed seeds take off, too. The more variety we can provide for summer-long habitat, the better.

A caterpillar at last

In mid-July I finally started seeing a few monarch butterflies in the garden, but I did not find even one caterpillar all summer. That changed today – the first day of autumn – when I was collecting flower seeds and a line of yellow-and-black stripes caught my eye.

caterpillar on the underside of a deteriorating milkweed leaf, with coneflower and milkweed seedpods nearby

With the nights getting colder, I brought this little one inside to form a chrysalis (at any moment). When he or she emerges as a butterfly in about two weeks, I hope it will not be too late to join the migration to Mexico.