Monarch Madness at CEC!
By Judy Buchholz, CEC Volunteer
Monarch butterflies have fascinated me for 60 years or more. I’m not sure where, when or how I first discovered my first monarch caterpillar, put it in an enclosure, watched it change into a chrysalis and then magically transform into this beautiful creature. I was probably 9 or 10 years old. I’ve done it ever since.
When my daughter was about 2 years old we lived in Texas. In September, the monarchs would migrate through the Fort Worth area. Rachel & I would go outside and watch the clouds of monarchs fly by.
“Boofly, boofly,” she exclaimed pointing at the sky.
When she started kindergarten, I was still finding monarch caterpillars and putting them in jars. When they eclosed (a term I just recently learned), I would take the jar to the school and release the monarch. The kids watched and clapped and cheered. When Rachel got just a little bit older, she didn’t want her weird mother showing up with a jar and a butterfly.
Monarch butterflies lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed, called their host plants. All butterflies have different host plants. Swallowtails like tulip poplar, dill, parsley, Queen Anne’s Lace. Spicebush butterflies like sassafras and spicebush.
The monarch butterfly lays 100 eggs, one egg at a time on the underside of a monarch leaf. In about four days the egg hatches and out comes the teeniest, tiniest caterpillar. That’s called its first instar (also a term I learned after volunteering at Cope). The caterpillar molts (after each molt it becomes a bit bigger and is called 2nd instar, 3rd, etc. It takes about 3-5 days between each instar, so it could be 10-14 days before the caterpillar is ready to make its chrysalis. So, if you’ve got the caterpillar in an enclosure, make sure it gets fresh milkweed regularly — clean the poop out of the enclosure. Caterpillars poop a LOT!
Here’s something else that I learned while volunteering at Cope. The caterpillar doesn’t make its chrysalis on the milkweed plant it’s eating. It travels a bit to find the perfect place. It might be on your porch gutter or ceiling, on the nearby cedar tree, on the propane tank or a garden statue. In my enclosures, they climb to the top.
The caterpillar then attaches itself securely with a silky substance and forms a “J” shape. After several hours, the “J” wriggles and wriggles and wiggles until its skin splits and sheds and there, magically, is a gorgeous green chrysalis. It’s so fun to watch if you’re lucky enough to be there at the right time. The beautiful green chrysalis with a yellow/black half ring at the top and three or so yellow dots at the bottom hangs there for about two weeks.
Then the chrysalis will turn what looks like black, but actually the chrysalis is translucent and the wings and body are showing through. Soon, the monarch butterfly ecloses (emerges) from the chrysalis. The monarch comes out upside down then zoom, rights itself, pumping fluids into its wings and waits for its wings to dry and conditions are right to fly off.
And here’s another thing I didn’t know until I started volunteering at Cope. I can now tell the difference between the sexes of monarch butterflies. The males have a black dot on each hindwing and their black veins are typically thinner than those of the female. Now, go out and find a male and a female!
What we seem to hear most about is their migration. The monarchs we see in May, June, July and early August won’t get to vacation in Mexico. These monarchs will hatch, become caterpillars, then chrysalises, then butterflies, then after 2-6 weeks they die. But the process has continued and will continue for a couple more months. There will be several generations. The last generation, often called the super generation, will live 8-9 months as they make their long journey to Mexico.
Come fall, the declining length of daylight triggers a hormonal suppression of breeding behavior. Instead of mating, they fuel up for the trip south. This super generation of monarchs from here will begin heading to Mariposa Monarca Biosphere Reserve in Mexico and parts of Florida. The butterflies west of the Rockies will head for their destinations in various coastal sites in central and southern California.
I’ve written here about me collecting caterpillars and keeping them in an enclosure until they are ready to fly away. I’ve discovered, writing this blog, that there is some controversy about that. Some feel that this is not nature’s way. Some (like me) get excited at the process. Others feel that by capturing the caterpillars, they are saving the monarchs. The main objection seems to be with people who think they should capture every caterpillar they see, releasing hundreds into the wild. Being raised in an enclosure might not make them as hardy as others.
This year I’ve had five monarch caterpillars. One very early and now four, two of which have “flown” the coop and one will probably be eclosed by the time I get home and the last one will probably go soon. I will not look for anymore. I actually decided this before reading about the controversy. I’m sure next year I will have a few caterpillars to watch!
I released my first of the four that I have in an enclosure the other day. It had eclosed on a cloudy, rainy morning. I asked one of my FB nature groups when I should release it. One reply was that that don’t eat for 24 hours so it would be okay to release the next day. That’s what I did. But, that little gal (no dots on her hind wings) just didn’t want to go. She finally crawled on my finger but when I took her out of the enclosure, she just stayed on my fingers. And stayed. And stayed. And stayed. Finally, I put her on a goldenrod beside the porch. She stayed. And stayed. And stayed. After at least an hour, I looked out and she was gone.
Two days later another eclosed. I left it in overnight. The next day was bright and sunny. I unzipped the enclosure and it was out of there! I didn’t even get a chance to see if it were a boy or girl!
One thing I learned last year, sadly, is that the tachinid fly is a parasite of monarch caterpillars. I had several monarch caterpillars in an enclosure. They looked like they were doing quite well. Two or three became a “J” and then they just died, leaving a yucky looking black stringy thing. Very disappointing and sad. I decided that it’s probably not a very good idea to get a fourth or fifth instar (larger caterpillar) because they’ve had more time to get parasitized. Nature isn’t always pretty.
On one of the nature sites that I have joined, several posters have lamented that they are not seeing as many monarch caterpillars this year. The speculation is that our weird spring may have had something to do with it. Early freezes, rain, warm, freeze, cold, warm. Kind of confused the caterpillars. They’re just a little later than usual.
For those of you who might be interested, there is a great FB group, IN Nature, that has lots of posts about butterflies, moths, beetles, snakes, and all things nature. Check it out.
Take a hike on a sunny day where there are wildflowers and enjoy the butterflies — and wildflowers. Hey, Cope would be a great place to do that. Cope has lots of prairie areas with so many native flowers. Right now through the windows, I’m seeing two black morph Eastern tiger swallowtails on something tall and purple (I’m not good at identifying plants).