It is not a good time to be a butterfly.
Especially if you're a monarch butterfly that eclosed on Jan. 5 in cold and rainy Vacaville, Calif. while all--or most--of your counterparts are overwintering along coastal California or in central Mexico. You don't even count; scientists and citizen scientists have already counted the overwintering monarch population and you're not there.
They do not know you exist.
You're nestled inside an indoor meshed butterfly habitat on a kitchen counter. Outside, a storm brews, not unlike the nearby coffee pot gurgling away. Inside, fingers of warmth comfort you. You sip a mixture of honey and water, and then orange juice. You sample the raspberries and blueberries. At night you perch on a rosemary branch. You wake up to the sounds of National Public Radio and the coffee pot gurgling. People come and go and look at you. "What are you doing here?" You ignore them.
You are alone. Your parents met and mated sometime in November. Your 11 siblings and cousins all eclosed on the last of the tropical milkweed, leaving you with basically nothing. You are the last one. A mid-life chrysalis if there ever was one. And now a maverick in the making. It's too cold and rainy to fly.
And then one of those humans comes by with a silkscreened garden flag and lifts you gently out of your zippered habitat. You eagerly investigate your new territory. You see a male monarch and a honey bee looking back at you. Life imitating art, or art imitating life?
Looking back at 2016, monarch butterflies reigned supreme--or at least they did in this Bug Squad blog!
Finding--and photographing--a tagged monarch butterfly (firstname.lastname@example.org A6083) in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. on Labor Day, Sept. 5, highlighted the year. The migratory butterfly, a male, was part of a research project led by Washington State University entomologist David James, who maintains a network of Pacific Northwest citizen scientists who rear, tag and release monarchs (Danaus plexippus).
Turns out that Steve Johnson of Ashland, Ore., a member of the Southern Oregon Monarchs Advocates (SOMA), reared A6083. Johnson tagged and released the monarch in Ashland on Aug. 28, which means "that it flew 285 miles in 7 days or about 40.7 miles per day" to reach Vacaville on Sept. 5, James related.
Amazing! Amazing and serendipitous for several reasons: (1) I'd written a piece about James' research in October 2014, alerting readers to watch for tagged monarchs (and never expecting to see or photograph a WSU-tagged butterfly in our own backyard) (2) WSU is my alma mater, and (3) our family rears monarchs as a small-scale conservation project to help the declining monarch population.
Our pollinator garden caters to bees and butterflies. For the monarchs, we provide four species of milkweed, ranging from narrow-leaf to broadleaf, and grow such nectar-producing plants as Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) to butterfly bush (Buddleia), and Lantana.
This year our monarch-rearing season proved quite lengthy; it crept into winter. Monarchs continued to lay their eggs throughout November, with chrysalids forming in December. Today the reared-and-released tally is 62 and counting...counting because No. 63 eclosed Dec. 29 and has not yet been released, and No. 64 is still a chrysalis.
"Monarch Moms" and "Monarch Dads" and "Monarch Kids" differ in their rearing activities, but the concept is the same: protect them from predators and parasites. Otherwise about 97 percent of the eggs never complete the cycle of egg, caterpillar, and chrysalis to adult. We rear our caterpillars indoors in a zippered, meshed butterfly habitat (purchased from the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis), but some laundry bags will suffice. We fill a heavy, flat-bottomed, narrow-necked tequila bottle with water and just add milkweed and 'cats. There they munch on milkweed, pupate, and eclose. The best part of rearing monarchs? Releasing them. The lift-off, the flutter of wings, and it's time to be a butterfly.
A look back at the WSU traveler and a view of the monarch life cycle that unfolded in our pollinator garden:
It all started in mid-to-late November when 12 caterpillars surfaced in our pollinator garden in Vacaville. What! What are you doing here? Didn't you get the memo?
We'd just reared and released 54 monarchs. We'd just winterized the garden, pruning back the plants except for one flowering tropical milkweed. We'd leave that for the pollinators, and then, it, too, would freeze.
Well, so would the 12 monarch caterpillars.
Twelve! A dozen hungry, hunkered-down striped ‘cats. Talk about challenges! Too cold, too rainy, too little food and too many predators to survive.
Without a second thought, we brought them inside, tucked them into two zippered, meshed butterfly habitats (from the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis) and fed them milkweed. There they munched away, at times appearing to “sway” to soft classical music or “shake” to the harsh political news on National Public Radio. Friends and relatives came and went, glancing quizzically at us and the 'cats. “What are you going to do with them?”
A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.
“She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can't save all these starfish. You can't begin to make a difference!”
The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”
The old man looked at the girl inquisitively and thought about what she had done and said. Inspired, he joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.
Could these monarchs be starfish?
It was the holiday season and it was beginning to look a lot like chrysalids. The ‘cats, all 12 of them, each formed a “J.” Then came the chrysalids, those gorgeous gold-studded jadelike jewels--Mother Nature's magic, Father Time's gift, and humanity's treasure. The chrysalids held their own, in belligerent testimony to the monarch butterflies that didn't get the memo: “Reproduction is over!”
Despite the severity of the season outside, the monarchs thrived on the care and warmth inside. They fluttered around, dined on raspberries, orange juice and sugar-water, and roosted on the sides and ceiling of the butterfly habitat while National Public Radio “entertained” them.
What to do? Consider them “starfish” and drive “The Monarch Eight” to an overwintering spot along coastal California? (We'd just been to Santa Cruz, a 226-mile round trip, on Nov. 14.) Release them in Vacaville on a wing and a prayer? Or transport them to the Bohart Museum for “bed and breakfast” and public observation?
A friend who's an educator, a naturalist, a photographer, and an insect and gardening enthusiast came up with the ahh-so-perfect plan. Rita LeRoy, the 26-year “farm keeper” at the Vallejo City Unified School District's Loma Vista Farm, (a 5-acre outdoor classroom that provides hands-on educational activities involving plants and animals for children of all ages and abilities), told us of her pending trip to the monarch overwintering sites in Santa Cruz and said she'd be delighted to take them there.
So off the Vacaville-bred and reared monarchs went on Wednesday morning, Dec. 28 with the Good Monarcharians from Vallejo. Unlike Rita and Walter, however, the monarchs didn't know where they were going. One minute they're listening to NPR on a kitchen counter in Vacaville, and the next thing they know, an hour-and-a-half later, they're joining their buddies in Santa Cruz. Whoa! How did that happen? How'd we migrate that fast?
Rita LeRoy, known as "Farmer Rita" at Loma Vista Farm, released them, one by one, starting at 1 p.m. at the Lighthouse Field State Park. Flight! Freedom! Friends! One monarch lingered on her finger--probably the one that had eclosed the day before. The others did not linger. “The rest flew away to meet their new friends,” she related.
The overwintering site proved breathtaking, with the sun showcasing the hundreds of the iconic orange, black and white butterflies dancing in the warm breeze. “There were so many butterflies,” she marveled. “It was amazing.”
What a happy ending to a story about a small-scale conservation project that began in Vacaville and took flight in Santa Cruz. First we humans gave them roots; then we gave them wings.
Now this story has legs. “I enjoy learning about the interconnections in nature so I can share this information with the students,” said Rita-the-teacher (and a 25-year 4-H leader). “Monarchs are excellent example of the interconnection between plants and animals and the need for people to assist with the conservation of this beautiful creature.”
Yes, monarchs can be starfish, too.
It was about a Sacramento, Calif., family with eight children. The journalist/father, Tom Bradford, wrote a column for the fictitious Sacramento Register.
"Eight Is Enough!" the father declared.
He was wrong.
Eight is not nearly enough--that is, when it comes to rearing monarchs. Like a growing number of folks, we set out to do our part--a small scale-conservation project--to help the declining monarch population.
All season long, monarchs showed up to lay their eggs on the four species of milkweed in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
- Asclepias tuberosa
- Asclepias speciosa
- Asclepias curassavica
- Asclepias fascicularis
So to protect them from predators and diseases, we'd bring the caterpillars indoors and place them in a meshed, zippered butterfly habitat, purchased from the Bohart Museum of Entomology. There they munched away on milkweed, pupated, and voila! Adult monarchs ready to stretch their wings. Off they fluttered: to sip nectar, to mate, to migrate.
Fast-forward to mid-November. We walk out in the garden and spot something we shouldn't be seeing. Monarch caterpillars, munching away on the remaining tropical milkweed.
Just when we thought the season was over in November, it wasn't. Just when we thought the final count was 54 monarchs reared and released, it wasn't.
The November 'cat population: 12. We brought them indoors and began feeding them the last of the milkweed.
Of the 12 caterpillars, eight are now beautiful monarch butterflies.
The most recent three to join the monarch menagerie: one eclosed on Saturday, Dec. 24 (Christmas Eve); one on Sunday, Dec. 25 (Christmas Day), and one today, Tuesday, Dec. 27.
More monarchs to come...eight is not nearly enough!
Next: decision time for the eight monarchs.
Didn't they get the memo?
So we brought them in, zipped them into our mesh butterfly habitat from the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, and began feeding them the last of the milkweed.
Would they make it? Maybe.
"I'm Dreaming of a Green Chrysalid..."
The first caterpillar formed a J.
"It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Chrysalis."
A gold-rimmed jade green chrysalis appeared, looking very much like a Christmas tree ornament or a precious gem.
"It's Chrysalis Time in the City..."
Soon, 10 more chrysalids formed. One more to go. Look, No. 12, don't get into a mid-life chrysalis or anything. Do your thing. Please.
Finally, on Dec. 15, the last caterpillar pupated. Twelve chrysalids.
And just like magic (Nature's magic), a stream of butterflies began eclosing. Today we have five monarch butterflies and seven chrysalids.
We expect more eclosures. There may be a Tiny Tim among them. That happens. But no sign of the protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) or tachinid flies that make the most of the "hostest with the mostest" (they lay their eggs in the caterpillars and eat the host from the inside out).
What to do with the five monarchs? It's rainy and cold. Wait for a warmer day and release them? Help them along by traveling to an overwintering site? Offer them "bed and breakfast" at the Bohart?
Meanwhile, “Christmas” and "Chrysalis" seem inseparable.
We're no longer "dreaming of a white Christmas" here in central California. Our Christmas is green (chrysalids) and orange (adults.)
Happy holidays to all!