New monarch butterfly ready to come out of his chrysalis and flit about my milkweed. This is what they look like about 24 hours before they emerge. He is hanging on the side of my milkweed box since I didn’t try to capture any more caterpillars and put them in my cat box. It seemed late in the season, and I was trying to discourage them from laying eggs. They ignored me and 20 or so more butterflies took off in February.
This is a long story, but it’s going to have to be a blog post because it’s still ongoing. Here on the end of that leaf is a tiny (like a quarter of an inch) Monarch caterpillar.
It’s on a milkweed plant that I had a lot of trouble keeping, and this little guy was the first caterpillar that I had seen on the plant since it was chopped down and revived. It had become infested with milkweed beetles and aphids.
For the moment, I felt a small yay of triumph when I saw this guy. The story continues …
The beginning of a beautiful Monarch butterfly is happily munching on my aphid filled milkweed plant. We did a number of milkweed plants – both red, yellow and the Florida pink milkweed – in an effort to increase the Monarchs that will find their way to our yard this winter. So far, my milkweeds have done well and we have planted more and more seedlings, so our garden is always filled with butterflies.
My milkweed garden is filled with pretty blooms in yellow, orange and red. It is also filled with tiny aphids who seem to be enjoying eating everything on the plant.
While a good soaking for soap and water will rid the plants of the aphids, so will a happy Ladybug. She is moving along eating those aphids like Pacman and dots. All of this, and I don’t see one Monarch caterpillar.
I spent this spring working really hard to plant and cultivate a butterfly rich garden area in order to attract Monarchs and other of these wonderful fruit bearers. I even planted a single stalk of milkweed as a special treat for my Monarch friends. That one stalk now has six or seven offspring, and one of them has started to bloom already. While this beauty was not on my milkweed, he was busy flitting about in the late autumn sun. It was great to see him, and he is not alone, and that means that my garden has attracted them.
Here are some things that I found out about raising Monarchs from caterpillars to adults:
- Our second go at this produced 17 caterpillars, which were about 10 more than I had anticipated. Apparently, if you just leave the plants in the open for a few days, there are many unseen eggs when you put the top back on! We released 11. A couple caterpillars were lost in the beginning (or I overcounted one or two), and two Monarchs were unable to open their wings, so they died. I found that heartbreaking.
- A female Monarch and a male Monarch have different bottom wings. The males have a black spot in the center of the wing on each side. I know I released at least one male this first go round.
- The caterpillars molt and drop bodies as they go. When they are close to getting ready to go into chrysalis, they go manic and eat everything and then some. I ran out of food from the plants in the planter, but I had back-up plants, so I was a planting fool. Along with cutting the tops off of my mature plants and sticking the tops in the ground, I picked up a couple plants at the local big box store. It worked in a pinch, but I was exhausted by the time they are went into chrysalis status.
- If you buy back-up plants in a hurry, make sure that the plants are from a nursery and not a big box store. I think a bad plant may have contributed to the butterflies with the malformed wings.
- Their little heads fall off and drop to the bottom of the cage when they become chrysalis. This is disturbing.
- They poop a lot. A lot. I used a straw to gently blow the poop off the leaves as they went. The cage was big enough that I could remove it from the dirt and the sides.
- They jump off of leaves on a strand of silk if they are scared when they are really little. I was pretty sure that it was being eaten by an invisible spider.
- Keep them sheltered from the hot sun and storms, and don’t release them in the rain.
- If you upset them by just being there as they are eating, they will all start to shiver and shake like they’re scared. It might be a warning mechanism, but it is weird. Even if you talk while you’re taking care of them, they huddle or shiver.
- If they get into a fight, expect a lot of head butting. They fight over leaves, and it’s everyone for themselves.
- They are caterpillars for about 14 days, and then they are chrysalis for 7 days, so it takes almost a month to go from worm to butterfly. There are a few moltings between tiny and huge.
- If you see an egg on a leaf, if it is grey, it is because they are getting ready to hatch. They will eat their own egg. I read that black eggs were bad eggs, but I didn’t do a lot of research on this.
- These butterflies have a host of pests and diseases, so if you do this, be prepared to watch them for problems. I have been lucky, but I’ve read some stories about serious problems. When in doubt, check the internet for references.
- They live 2 to 6 weeks unless they are the super generation that migrates from the United States to Mexico, and then they can live months. My Florida Monarchs do not migrate far, so they don’t live long.
- They lay about 200 or so eggs, and the female can lay eggs within a few days of becoming a butterfly.
- Florida offers year-round butterflies.
- Only buy milkweed that belongs to your region or the butterflies get a bit confused.
- Plant other flowers like lantana and butterfly bushes to encourage the butterflies to stay, eat and breed.
- Check out other host plants for the other butterflies in your yard and help them propagate.
I hate that they are endangered, and I know that I can never raise enough to make a big difference, but I hope to help some butterflies live on.
Since kids love bugs, why not help them understand how important the pollinators are to the world?
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If you’ve been following along on my journey to adding Monarch butterflies to my yard, here is the next installment.
You can see two little heads popping up between the leaves in this photo.
Part 3 of 4
Previous posts here:
It took a few weeks before my stumpy plants started to flourish and grow. During that time, I was a hawk when it came to invading aphids and marauding milkwood bugs. If I saw them, I physically removed them from the plant and destroyed them.
Normally for pests, I spray them with soapy water, but realized that would also kill my caterpillars, so I did it by hand.
To be honest, I walked away from the plants for awhile because I had other things I was doing. Since the big pot sat outside my back door, I saw the plants every day, but didn’t spend a lot of time on it.
My neglect was exactly what was needed to ensure that I would have some caterpillars.
Monarch caterpillars are hatching
I watched a couple of eggs hatch, and realized that if I was going to save any of these beauties, I needed to enclose them to protect them from whatever was munching on them. My woodworking husband took up the challenge and built a screened in 3’x2’x2’ cage to go over the plants. He built is as a rectangle because I only needed to cover the plants, but gave no thought to any open areas on the so-called “cage”. That would become a problem later when caterpillars got frisky.
This was my first shot at this, so everything was a new experience, and we learned as we went along. Like herding cats, literally, cats, these guys would go everywhere when they got towards their chrysalis time, and open spaces around the pot were fair game.
I thought that because there were tall walls on the pot that they would not climb out. That was dumb. They have a million legs and jet propulsion when they’re hungry.
By the time we had them corralled, we had three out of six left in the container.
Then the storm hit.
Continued in part 4
It’s not easy trying to create a milkweed and monarch butterflies paradise, but I keep trying.
While I was trying to do everything the natural way, as part of that natural way, those milkweed bugs were munching on more than my milkweed; they were adding protein to their diet and eating monarch caterpillars. Once I figured out what was happening, I decided that natural wasn’t working for me.
Milkweed and Monarch Butterflies
In all fairness to the milkweed bugs, if your property is being overrun with milkweed, the bugs do work to keep everything trimmed back to a manageable size. The aphids brought in ladybugs that were not in as much abundance as was needed to curb the aphids, and for a while, I thought the little baby milkweed bugs were ladybug babies that I did not want to destroy.
I had every intention of dumping the plants onto a vacant lot next door and giving up on the whole thing, but at the last minute, I trimmed the plants back to the root and removed all of the bugs. If nothing else, I thought I would have some beautiful flowers.
Here are some great flowers that I would love to be able to fill my Florida lawn with:
All in all, my start to 2022 milkweed garden was a huge loss. I was afraid that I had missed the season because of the pests.
That wasn’t the end of the grand milkweed plans, though. Apparently, monarchs lay eggs all year round in Florida. There was hope after all.
Read part 3 of the milkweed and monarch butterflies saga here.
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There is something about milkweed and Monarch butterflies that add excitement to your Florida yar.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved the look of a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). As much as these orange, black and white butterflies with their white-spotted black bodies have been used in motifs throughout the ages, it’s obvious that I’m not alone in my fascination.
Monarch Butterflies as a Symbol
The monarch was an important cultural symbol of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, and Tula warriors wore the monarch on their breastplates. The butterfly was added to stamps, frescos and ceramics of the Teotihuacan people.
This stands to reason considering that Mexico is the migratory destination of these colorful creatures. They can cover thousands of miles to get to Mexico.
The International Space Station even raised a few monarchs in space.
Add Monarch Butterflies and Native Plants
Since we try to include as many native species of plants, trees and flowers in our yard, we see a large assortment of butterflies as they migrate through, as well as our native butterflies like the zebra butterfly. I have tried to plant only Florida milkweed, to not disrupt the natural cycle of the monarch.
Every year, I have planted or tried to raise from seed a selection of milkweed that invites the monarch to lay eggs. Every year, I see a few caterpillars, and then they are gone.
This year, I decided to move my annual milkweed purchase into a large pot on the back porch where I could monitor it. I bought a pink and an orange flower from reputable nurseries and set up my monarch watching station.
Aphids on the Milkweed
It did not take long before I started to see aphids show up. I try not to upset the natural order of things (see the movie The Biggest Little Farm for information on why you should not upset things), to keep nature in balance. I decided to leave the aphids and let nature take its course.
That might have been a great idea for the aphids and then the invading milkweed bugs, but it didn’t do my prospective monarchs any favors.
While I resisted doing anything about the invading bugs, beetles and other creatures, I monitored the plants for monarch eggs. I was very happy to see that I had both eggs and a few quarter-inch caterpillars moving about my milkweed.
Until I didn’t.
Read part 2 here
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