Saturday, September 1, 2018

A Summer For Raising the Monarch Butterfly

It has been an interesting serendipity summer for me and the Monarch butterfly.  I first learned the word serendipity in the 60's from the folk group called the Serendipity Singers.  The word actually means "the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way".  When I lived in town, I would occasionally see Monarchs.  I thought they were pretty, but didn't really give them much of a thought.  Sixteen years ago we moved to our cabin, and I slowly started to learn more about the nature around me.  I remember the first time I saw a Monarch caterpillar, I didn't even know what it was.  I had to look it up.  I knew they liked milkweed plants, but that was about all.  Milkweeds were just that...weeds.  We used to gather the empty seed pods to make Christmas decorations.  Since then I have written blogs about the Monarch butterfly.

If you read these blogs, you know I found a chrysalis hanging from my dining room window.  I watched the whole process ending with the emergence of the beautiful butterfly, and my daughter and her son raised their first one in a jar.  Since then we have been addicted.  We read that 90% of the butterflies survive to the adult stage if raised inside but only 10% in the wild.  Our success rate has been even higher than that.  There is slightly mixed information about the Monarch becoming endangered or extinct, but we do know the populations are much smaller than years gone by.  It could be weather or environmental issues, but we wanted to help in our small way.

For some reason we noticed a lot of small caterpillars this summer.  I have to admit, I had never really looked for them before.  I only noticed them when they were large and ready to spin.

This is a newly hatched Monarch caterpillar.

I found several little caterpillars in July.  There may have been some in June also but I didn't notice.  Next year I will start looking earlier in the season.  I collected fifteen tiny caterpillars.  I gave thirteen to my daughter, and I kept two.  She had the large butterfly pavilion for raising the painted lady butterflies. Since then I have purchased my own habitat.

At first these tiny caterpillars don't do much.  They are just gaining strength, eating a little and they don't move around much.  When they get to about an inch or a little more, they start moving up the side of the container.  They are ready to molt.  It is hard to see and I couldn't get good photos, but they leave a streak of black.  Since they excrete a lot, I thought that is what this was.  It wasn't, it is the shedding of the skin which they later eat.  After this happens, they climb to the food and start eating a lot.  They grow very fast from this point.

It takes about two weeks for the caterpillar to grow from the newly hatched caterpillar to a full grown caterpillar.

When they are ready, the caterpillars climb to the highest point of the container or habitat.  In one case, it just went to a sturdy part of the milkweed leaf.  They connect and hang in the shape of a "J".

After hanging for several hours, they start to spin the chrysalis.  The spinning process only takes about five minutes.  You can see wiggling inside the chrysalis until it dries and hardens.

Now it's time to wait.  It takes about ten days for the magic to happen inside the chrysalis.  Then slowly the bright green turns black.  At this point, you can even see the black and orange through the casing.

When you see the chrysalis turn from black to clear and the butterfly can be seen inside, it is time .  It breaks through and the Monarch butterfly emerges.

The emerged butterflies take a few hours to dry and gather strength.  When they spread their wings and flap them a bit they are ready to be released.

At this point they should be tagged with a small sticker that goes on the underside of the lower wing.  It has a number that is registered.  Records should be kept of the sex, location, date and tag number.  We didn't know anything about this.  Next year we will do things correctly.  We learned a lot this summer, but we still have a lot to learn.  When the Monarchs are released, they either sit on the ground for a while or fly to the nearest tree to rest and gain strength.  After 24 hours, they begin to eat and continue on with their short life cycle.

This is a female Monarch butterfly.

It is easy to tell a female from a male.  A male monarch has black dot on each side of the lower wing.  Interestingly we hatched mostly females.  Since I didn't keep good records, I don't know the amount of each.

This is a male Monarch butterfly with two black dots.

In a few days the last of the chrysalises for this summer will have been released.  We will have saved about forty Monarchs.  It is small contribution, but it was a nice summer activity.