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!

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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.

 

Monarch reflections and outtakes

Monarch season is long over in the north and we’re hearing reports of butterflies that have arrived in Mexico. It’s hard to believe that the three we released in September may be 2,000 miles away now! Here’s one last monarch post of 2015 to review our first season of raising.

two big caterpillars in acrobatic poses while eating

I was an observer during the first generation of the season. During the second generation, we raised and released nine butterflies. During the migration generation, we raised four butterflies and released three (the fourth couldn’t fly).

caterpillar in J formation, viewed from above

I recorded 72 videos and took more than 900 photos, though I didn’t save nearly that many.

the underside of a leaf, with a caterpillar peeking around a chewed edge

Why so few during the migration generation? I’m guessing it is because we had mostly common milkweed. By the time eggs were laid for the migration season, the common milkweed was not in great shape. I was imagining the female butterflies – who were still visiting the yard – saying, “Ew! I’m not laying my eggs on that disgusting leaf.” It’s a good reminder to diversify the plants to support a full season of insects. I’ve already planted swamp milkweed seeds and will look for more milkweed options next spring.

monarch drinking from joe-pye weed

There was one pair of caterpillars that were always fighting for position. Even when they had climbed to the top of the cage, each was still trying to stake her claim. I felt like I was separating squabbling siblings more than once – “Just mind your own business. Move away so she doesn’t bother you.” – until I realized that I should leave them alone and let them figure it out.

Every day I brought in new milkweed leaves, ripping off bad spots. Many times late at night, I realized that I didn’t have enough and went back out into the yard with a flashlight to harvest more and save them in the fridge, just in case.

one leaf with a spot torn off, and another leaf in a plastic bag

I never understood why they would always finish a wilted old leaf first, even when there was a new, fresh leaf available.

caterpillar eating a leaf down to the stem, next to a wet new leaf

There were two “oops” caterpillars – two leaves I brought in for food had eggs I hadn’t noticed; one even got washed before I found it.

three leaves, each with an egg

Right after molting, with no face…

just molted; new face hasn't come in yet

…because the head capsule pops off during molting:

three discarded head capsules

The fascinatingly creepy skin that’s left over after pupation:

scrunched up skin on the bottom of a cage

Once the skin didn’t detach when the chrysalis was formed, but it turned out fine.

A bigger concern: one caterpillar started discharging a yellow-green liquid the day before she pupated. I isolated her because I was worried about a disease that could spread to another caterpillar, or perhaps the caterpillar had been infected by a tachinid fly that would emerge from the chrysalis (and kill it) and make a mess. But the butterfly was normal.

jar with a coffee filter over the top, with yellow stains

When a caterpillar is ready to pupate, it gets into position quickly; I only caught one caterpillar starting to make the long journey up to the top of the cage.

The caterpillars always seemed so surprised to find themselves at the top of the cage. “Wait, what is this green thing?”

caterpillar inspecting a chrysalis

They go through an elaborate process to spin a web during molting and before pupation.

And another long process to create the silk “button” that will hold the chrysalis.

I’m always surprised by how much I miss the caterpillars when they chrysalis-ize. Things are suddenly really quiet, once a chrysalis forms.

the last caterpillar, one day before pupation

When the first butterfly was ready to emerge from her chrysalis, I was worried she would fall, so I set up lots of towels for cushion. But she didn’t fall, and neither did any other. In fact, one hung from the empty chrysalis all day, then all night, and into the next morning, when I opened the cage to let her out.

Right before the butterfly emerges, the chrysalis looks a little like Darth Vader.

It’s amusing how tiny and wrinkly the butterflies are when they first emerge. But it doesn’t take long for their wings to flatten.

They hold still for several hours while their wings dry.

One was so excited to leave that she tried to crawl through the towel that was draped over the top of the cage. I didn’t see her at first and was worried she had escaped.

monarch lying on its side on a towel

But NONE of the butterflies escaped in the house!

monarch climbing out of a jar

All but one wanted help getting out of the cage. It’s a fun and funny feeling to have a butterfly crawl onto my hand.

All of them flew off into a tree immediately after they were released.

monarch resting in a pine tree

My favorite memory of the 2015 season: the sound of caterpillars chewing milkweed leaves.

Will we do it again next year? I’m not sure. It’s a lot of work – not so much on any one day, but over the couple of weeks during the caterpillar stage. It’s not possible to take a vacation while there are caterpillars. And some people advise against mass-rearing (although our “operation” could hardly be called “mass”), which makes me wonder whether we should raise any indoors.

chrysalis with visible butterfly wings

It was a fun and educational experience, and I’m sure that I’ll want to do it again. It’s hard to see caterpillars in the yard and leave them, because I want to keep all of them safe until they turn into butterflies.

empty chrysalis

More monarch posts

A butterfly that couldn’t fly

This was our first year of raising monarchs. Most of the time, when a butterfly emerged from its chrysalis, the big event happened before I woke up. So when it was time for the 12th birth, the day after Labor Day, I didn’t even try to wake up early to catch it. But when I checked on her, I noticed a that not only had she emerged, there was major problem: she was stuck in the chrysalis.

chrysalis viewed from above with a butterfly's wings below

Her head and wings were out, but her abdomen was stuck to the very top of the chrysalis. It was obvious that she had been struggling to free herself for some time.

Best practices say that you should not help a monarch who is stuck. If this problem occurs, it is because something is wrong and the monarch isn’t healthy enough to live. But how in the world could I not help?! It was terrible to watch her frantic struggling. And I’m already helping by raising monarchs indoors, away from predators. Of course I felt like I had to help her.

Luckily, my husband was at home that morning to assist. I cut down the chrysalis, and we gently laid her on a towel. It didn’t take much to pull the chrysalis off.

gloved hands tugging at the top of the chrysalis

Her wings were limp, which I thought meant she might be new enough that she still had time to finish drying. I struggled to get her back into the cage because she was desperate to climb up my hands rather than be set down. She knew she needed to be able to hang to let her wings dry.

monarch with wings unfolded in a pair of gloved hands

Unfortunately, when I got home from work that night, her wings still weren’t straight. I thought she flew a tiny bit but then realized it was more of a jump with a flutter. I had already decided to keep her inside overnight, and in the morning, not much had changed.

So what to do? It was the migration season, and she couldn’t fly. She needed to get to Mexico, or she would freeze or be eaten. Would it be more humane to euthanize her? Or should I keep her inside as long as she could survive?

There’s not a lot of advice for a situation like this. The only thing I could find was along these lines: “If the butterfly can’t fly, you should feed the butterfly sugar-water or rotten fruit.” Well, of course we should feed her. But then what? Do we keep her for the nine months that the migration generation lives? And even then, if she can’t fly, we wouldn’t be able to let her out even when the others returned to Minnesota in the spring. This was pretty stressful.

I mashed up an old banana and somehow managed to set her down near – or more accurately, in – it. By the time I had a chance to wonder whether she’d know what to do, I noticed her proboscis was already in the banana.

Later she was standing on top of a slice of plum, so I was assured she could move around on her own (even with fruit-covered feet). But it was obvious that her wings weren’t correct.

monarch with its wings back, the bottom two bent inward and the tips of the top two folded outward

With the lack of a better option, we kept feeding her as the days passed. When I had first told people weeks earlier that I was raising monarchs, several people asked me if I planned to keep them. I thought they were crazy. The whole point is to raise healthy butterflies so they can be released. And now we were keeping one as a pet.

I took her outside when I released a healthy monarch. She seemed to enjoy sitting in the sun and made a couple attempts at flying.

Five days after she emerged, she was very active. For an entire hour, she sat near the mashed bananas: drink, drink, drink, rest. Repeat. It even seemed like she was doing exercises, waving her wings and lifting her abdomen. And then she was trying very hard to fly. It didn’t work so well when she was on a flat surface, but if I picked her up, she could jump and fly away – except I eventually realized that she wasn’t so much flying as she was gliding; her path was always gently to the floor.

monarch with its wings expanded on a white towel

The following night she was even more spunky. She wouldn’t sit still anymore, walking all over the table and gliding over to the window and climbing the curtains.

monarch on a window screen

Many times I picked her up and she jumped off my finger. She seemed determined to fly, and she seemed mad that it wasn’t working.

blurry image of a monarch rapidly fluttering its wings

It seemed that she got discouraged after this. The next night, she would barely eat and only briefly tried to fly.

The next morning she was listless on the floor of the cage, one of her legs already folded up. It was time to help her go. Fortunately Bill was home to help me. We put a tissue in a jar to give her a soft spot to rest, and then placed a cotton ball soaked in nail-polish remover in the jar and sealed the cover. Almost immediately, she was gone.

I never intended to have a butterfly as a pet, but this one stole our hearts. I’m sad that something was wrong to prevent her from flying, and that we couldn’t fix her. Though if we hadn’t helped her out of the chrysalis, she would have died anyway. We did the best we could to help her.

So what went wrong? Everything seemed normal when she was a caterpillar. The one thing I noticed was that it seemed to take her a really long time to get into the J position: she was at the top of the cage for a whole day before making the silk pad and falling back into the J.

monarch in J position

But I watched her transform, and that process seemed fine.

newly formed chrysalis that is still bumpy, not smooth

She’s the chrysalis in this photo:

monarch chrysalis above a caterpillar that's eating a milkweed leaf

But of course, she ended up stuck in the chrysalis. Also, her abdomen had irregular white marks instead of the usual defined lines.

wings flat, abdomen raised to show white splotches

Because of those two things, I thought it might be OE, a parasite that lives inside monarchs and related butterflies. We collected a sample of her scales and used our microscope but couldn’t find anything. But since it’s a very cheap model and we weren’t sure it was powerful enough to see tiny OE spores, we sent it for testing.

scales in clear tape, sitting on a microscope slide

Edith at Shady Oak Butterfly Farm didn’t find even one OE spore, proving that tests are needed to determine OE, not just observation. Here’s what she told me via email: “The problem is that the spotlight is so bright on OE that other diseases are openly doing their nasty work and no one blames them. They treat for OE and sometimes OE treatments won’t take care of the other diseases. … It reminds me of magicians imitating pick pockets. We are so busy looking at their right hands with the flashy tricks that we don’t see their left hands picking the subject’s pockets, right there in plain view.”

Another parasite, or a virus or disease, could have been the culprit. A younger butterfly – which had been raised in the same container as this one – was fine, though, which makes me think it wasn’t a contagious problem. Still, it’s a good reminder for next year that we will need to thoroughly clean the caterpillars’ cages daily (which we did this year anyway) and bleach them between generations (likewise) to try to prevent issues.

monarch with wings expanded on a white towel, with one wing visibly bent under

More about our monarchs