Saturday, October 3, 2015

Helping the Monarch Butterfly

I have been checking milkweed plants for monarch caterpillars since mid-July to no avail, until I happened to look at the one surviving plant I'd transplanted at Woodlawn Nature Center  while doing some work out there. We found three caterpillars! Two were very tiny. My husband brought them home on the milkweed and put the top of the plant in water. They munched, munched, and munched. We transferred them to a critter cage to contain them better, but couldn't find one. I assumed we had left one behind. We brought them home so we had plenty of access to milkweed and could feed it every day. 

Each day I sent a child outside to get a new leaf from the milkweed plant to feed the caterpillars. We could see them munch, munch, munch. As we cleaned up the old leaves, we found the missing caterpillar, much larger than his siblings. We put paper towels in the bottom of the cage to catch the frass (yes, poop!). As they grew larger, the frass became little pellets. We cleaned the cage out regularly and put the used leaves near milkweed plants just in case there might have been an egg or missing caterpillar on them. We brought the caterpillars to nature preschool at Woodlawn Nature Center when we talked about senses. The children loved exploring the caterpillars gently, with some saying the cats were their favorite part that week! 

Two of the caterpillars suffered from black death. Sad! The largest survived, making a J-hook at the top of the critter cage. First, they make a silk pad and attach themselves to it. They then hang in a J pattern. These aren't the greatest photos, but we happened to make it home as it changed from caterpillar to chrysalis. It started getting green at the bottom as it wiggled it's exoskeleton off the top. Soon, the green patch covered the caterpillar to form the chrysalis. It wasn't quite done, as it wiggled inside of there, changing form and shape to get into the traditional monarch chrysalis look. Here is a video of the process. For a real time look, check out this video.

The chrysalis or pupa form lasts about 10-14 days. During this time, we just waited and watched until one day, we came home to a butterfly! The now clear case was left behind.

Of course, we were pretty excited. We went out to let it go, yet it was a cool and windy day. We asked for advice on the Monarchs and Milkweed Facebook group and they suggested letting it rest overnight and then letting it out during a sunny part of the morning as it was already late in the afternoon. 

We have lots of asters blooming in the from yard, perfect for a late season drink of nectar. 

And off it went! There are tracking programs available, which would be neat in the future. We hope it made the long journey to Mexico well, though we know it was very late in the season. 

Why should we help the monarch caterpillar? For most of us, we won't need this information until next summer, but we can start thinking about it now. 

Reasons to Help Raise Monarch Caterpillars
1. There is a great sense of wonder to watch a caterpillar (and egg, if you find them early enough) transform into a butterfly. There is a greater connection to the natural world and a sense of stewardship that is developed. 
2. What a great way to learn about life cycles! We saw the changes first hand rather than reading about them in a book. 
3. If we want our grandchildren to see monarch butterflies in the Midwest, we need to help their survival. The numbers have drastically declined recently, in large part to less milkweed available and pesticides on the milkweed available. 
4. In the wild, only about 10% of the caterpillars make it to butterfly stage. In captivity, about 90% make it. This is great evidence to help! 
5. As citizen scientists, we can make a difference and improve the natural world around us. 
6. It's absolutely fascinating! 

Basic Materials Needed to Raise Monarch Caterpillars
1. Access to lots of milkweed. Expect to use about 1 leaf a day per caterpillar. 
2. Some type of enclosure to keep them safe. I've seen critter keepers, mason jars, recycled plastic containers, etc.
3. Paper towels to catch frass and cleaning supplies. 
4. About 5 minutes of time daily to feed, clean up the cage.
5. A large mesh enclosure is helpful but not necessary. 

Other Ways to Help
1. Plant a pollinator garden! Butterflies will need nectar once they start flying. Have flowers all season long that feed the monarch will be helpful. Converting even just a small patch of our lawn to native flowers is helpful. We did this over the last year in a section near our bird feeder. I love seeing some color out there each season. Check out this list of possibilities. 
2. Plant milkweed or just allow it to grow. I watched milkweed grow as I passed a nearby elementary school over the summer. I was so sad to see it mowed down before school started again. I would like to talk to them to see if there could be a good compromise there. 
3. Thank others for growing milkweed. Our neighbor has a patch of milkweed. I saw him outside and said thanks for letting it grow. He thought I was joking and said he'd been meaning to take care of the weeds. I told him my gratitude was sincere and told him the importance of the plant. They last all season! I'll ask him for some of the seed pods to share with others. 
4. Share the plight and hope for monarchs. 
5. Share seeds with others so more milkweed can be planted in our area.

from Monarch Watch

Resources to help the Monarch
Monarch and Milkweed Facebook Group--Besides all the pretty pictures, this group was a great learning experience. These people are fanatic about monarchs, with some raising hundreds of milkweed each. They are a wealth of information and advice. 
Monarch Watch--This is a one stop link for educational resources, news, and suppliers for anything milkweed or monarch related. They also sell the tracking chips. 

Want to go the extra mile? 
Consider making a Monarch Waystation! We are looking into this for next year! They make it easy and give you a list of possible plants and general planting and care instructions.