Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Twenty-Five Years of Monarch Butterflies

It started as a kindergarten project for my son. I volunteered to find milkweed and butterfly eggs. With no idea how to do that, I did what I always did, found a book about it. Then I searched parks, edges of the roadway, and examined weeds anywhere I could find them. Unsure if any of my weeds were milkweed or had an egg on it (it's amazing how many little dots of stuff are on weeds), I put the plants I had the most hope for into jars (with holes in the lids) and put them above the kitchen sink. 

Then I promptly forgot about them.

A couple weeks later my husband said, "There's a butterfly in one of your jars of dead weeds." I jumped out of bed and ran to check. I was much more excited than my five-year-old. Now I knew exactly what milkweed looked like and I had a better idea about the eggs too. 

Milkweed is the tall tree-like plant

What I didn't know was how far this little hobby would go. In Texas I started to find butterfly eggs on the plants about April. As soon as milkweed started to pop out of the ground there were butterflies laying eggs on it. In New York I found Monarch eggs late in the summer. I've found them as late as October too.

The eggs are tough to photograph. They're a pinprick of creamy white. Oval shaped and miniscule. Milkweed bleeds a sticky white substance that will ooze out of the plant if it's scratched or broken. The drops are flat. Eggs are much smaller. But there are aphids and other things on the plants. You'll have to figure it out if you want to raise them. A magnifying glass could help.

Monarch Caterpillars

It can be a big job. The caterpillars eat a lot. They also poo a lot. I used plastic shoeboxes, cut a large rectangle out of the top, and hot glued in window screen for the eggs and caterpillars. Every day I carefully cleaned out dried up milkweed and put in fresh. I had masking tape on the sides of the boxes with daily numbers written in marker to keep track of how many eggs or caterpillars were in each box. That way I never threw out the babies with the trash. 

When the caterpillars turned into a chrysalis and firmed up (never touch a chrysalis or a freshly hatched butterfly), I'd carefully remove the chrysalis from the roof of the plastic box. Chrysalises attach with webbing and it's easy to gently grasp the stem of a Monarch chrysalis and tug it free. The webbing will come with it.

I'd hook the chrysalises onto the top of a larger cage. I used large safety pins to attach them (through the webbing, handle a chrysalis with extreme care). 

Monarch Chrysalis

It still thrills me to watch a butterfly hatch. There is a general timeline for how long it takes an egg to hatch, the caterpillar to eat a lot of milkweed and grow into a big caterpillar, attach to the roof of a cage/stem of milkweed/bottom of the dining room table when they escape, shed their exoskeleton and form a chrysalis (not a cocoon, that's something else), and eventually become a butterfly. When they hatch it takes time for their wings to expand, they're wet and touching them will ruin them until they've dried and their wings are firm.

When I lived in New York I started tagging my butterflies before releasing them. Monarch Watch through the University of Kansas has an incredible program and sells the tags. We'd carefully log in each butterfly, sex, date, location, and set them free! My family and I learned about the migratory pattern of these amazing butterflies. We learned that they live only a couple weeks and head north in the spring and summer laying eggs. At the end of the season they hatch smaller butterflies that migrate all the way to Mexico (and other places). Those are the ones to catch and tag. They won't be laying eggs. They are on a mission to survive the winter. 

Monarch on Milkweed

From experience we learned not to collect milkweed from the edges of cornfields because for some reason the caterpillars tended to die when they ate it. We endured a few summers of exploding chrysalises due to a parasite that lays its eggs inside Monarch caterpillars. My kids may never get over that summer and they're adults now. 

There are far less Monarch butterflies now. I know this just from my personal experience. It didn't take much effort to raise a thousand of them ten years ago. Now, trying to get a few healthy ones is work. Many of the chrysalises are deformed now, and the parasites reign in Northern Pennsylvania and the places I haunt in southern New York. 

My husband jokes that their numbers are dwindling because I don't try to hit the thousand mark anymore. I'm not certain why their numbers are down. To me there's a direct correlation to those parasites. I'm not a scientist, just a nature lover and a woman who volunteered to help a kindergarten teacher twenty-five years ago. I fall in love so easily.

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