Monday, June 28, 2010

Raising monarchs

Another post to mull the natural world and enjoy urban nature.

I'm raising monarch butterflies again. There is quite a bit of common milkweed in my front yard, and some swamp milkweed in the backyard. I think the common variety just showed up uninvited, but I'm thrilled to have it because I love to have monarchs flitting through the yard, and milkweed is the only plant where the female will lay eggs, and they only plant the caterpillars will eat. The swamp milkweed works too, but the common milkweed is larger, sturdier, and I can pick the leaves and stems without significantly reducing the overall plant population. And the caterpillars eat a lot when they get big.

So far, I've had one butterfly hatch from an egg I found. Two more chrysalises are hanging in the container on the porch. I have two small caterpillars munching on a big spring of milkweed, and about five possible eggs waiting to hatch. Here's a good web site, if you want to start doing this. That site doesn't have all the pretty pictures, but the information is good. You can also google how to raise monarchs to find more info.

You can see some photos from last year. My camera isn't good enough to take photos of the tiny eggs or the caterpillars until they get big. I didn't even manage to take any decent photos of the chrysalises, so the only stages I have are large caterpillars and the butterflies.

The best way to find eggs is to watch when a female lays the eggs on the milkweed. You can sometimes find the eggs just by looking under the leaves, but they are often eaten before you can get to them. The small caterpillars are often eaten by other bugs before they can grow big. That's why I take the eggs inside and raise the caterpillars indoors.

First we have what the caterpillars look like when they are getting big. It is sort of scary how fast they an grow. In two weeks they go from barely visible, about the size of the comma in this sentence, to a couple inches long. Just before they are ready to form their chrysalis, they start wandering around the cage, looking for a place to hang upside down and pupate. 

Then, two weeks later, the chrysalis - which has been jade green - turns dark, and you can see the butterfly inside. That's the stage I couldn't photograph well, but I included the best photo I had. You can see much better photos of this stage on this web page. 

When they just start to emerge, the butterfly's wings are crumpled. The butterfly has to hang for most of the day to pump up its wings and then dry them. The butterfly always emerges in the morning, so if I go away and leave it for the day, I come home to a perfect, fresh butterfly, waiting to be released into the world. I've only once kept them overnight, and that was when it was too cold and rainy for them to fly away. I put some sugar water and flowers into the cage for the butterfly to drink.

Usually, as long as the weather is warm and dry, I come home and take the container outside to release the butterfly. It is both joyous and a little sad to see the orange and black form fluttering away into the night.