- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
It's no fun having a "hole in one."
A hole in your butterfly habitat.
So, here it is September of 2016 and we're at home rearing monarch butterflies as part of our small-scale conservation project to help the declining population.
The project involves growing several species of milkweed in our pollinator garden, and when we see caterpillars, we "bring them in." We fill a broad-based, narrow-necked Patron tequila bottle with water, add milkweed and 'cats, and tuck the bottle inside a zippered, pop-up mesh habitat (some call it a cage) to protect them from predators (like birds) and parasitoids (like tachinid flies). The butterfly habitat occupies a corner of our kitchen counter.
So, one day in September, I think: "Why keep the monarch habitat on our kitchen counter when it's so nice and shady and breezy by the crape myrtle tree in our backyard?"
So, I place the habitat on a wooden bench next to the crape myrtle. Ah. Mother Nature at its finest. Several caterpillars are in the "J" position (their position before they pupate) and several are chrysalids.
All's right with the world, right? Wrong.
The unexpected happens. The caterpillars begin shriveling. The chrysalids turn gooey brown. And right before my eyes--I happened to be in the yard at the time--I see tachinid fly maggots "bungee jumping" from their hosts. The maggots are sliding down their white mucus strings. Gleefully sliding, I think.
Tachinid flies, you see, lay their eggs inside a living host, such as a monarch caterpillar or chrysalis. They eat the host from the inside out, kill the host, and maggots emerge. They're white at first but darken and harden to the color of coffee beans as pupae. The adult flies emerge, all ready to mate and start the life cycle all over again.
But how did they get into the thinly meshed habitat? How?
It is then that I notice a single, tiny, ragged hole in the netting. And oh, look! Another tachinid fly is trying to slip in.
I photograph Exhibit A, B, C and D; clean the cage with bleach and water; and vow that the butterfly habitat is best inside, not outside.
A hole in one is no fun.
- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
For a couple of months now, we've been watching the monarch caterpillars slowly disappearing from our milkweed plants. We'd see fifth instar 'cats one day, and the next day, they'd be gone. Then we'd see the Western scrub jays flying through the yard and landing near the plants. Culprits!
Okay, we thought, we'll get some bird netting to circle the milkweeds. The net kept the birds out but not the 'cats. They crawled out of the bird netting right into the beaks of the birds.
Okay, we thought, how about some tulle or wedding veil-type fabric or those zippered hampers to pop over the plants? Those worked better. Not as many escapees.
But what really worked was bringing the caterpillars into the house and placing them into the butterfly habitat containers (from the Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis). Daily we'd feed the 'cats bouquets of fresh milkweed tucked into a narrow-throated, flat/wide-bottomed bottle. I think that in its other life, it was a tequila bottle. It went from borrowed tequila bottle to butterfly bottle.
The first one to eclose was a male. The second one, a female. Releasing them was pure joy.
Then today, two more eclosures. First, a male. Then a female. As soon as their wings dried, we released them. The male fluttered rather clumsily (okay, it was his first flight). The female preferred to soak up some sunshine as she clung tightly to a butterfly bush.
If we hadn't brought the caterpillars into the house, would they have reached the adult stage? Probably not. Scientists say that only 10 percent make it from egg to adult in the wild.
Watching the transformation from egg, to caterpillar, to a gold-studded jade-green jewel (chrysalis) to an adult is just plain exhilaration and jubilation. Such bliss. No wonder monarch conservations are addicted. It's like watching the miracle of life unfold.
Hollywood actors and actresses who deliver their acceptance speeches at the Academy Award ceremonies have nothing on us.
We Monarch Moms and Dads can deliver A-'Cat-emy Award presentations, too. (Of course, we have butterflies in our stomachs because we're not used to being on stage.)
"First we'd like to thank the nursery for providing these narrow-leafed milkweeds. Then we'd like to thank the Good Earth for providing such a healthy environment to allow the growth of these plants. Then we'd like to thank Mr. and Mrs. Monarch for..um...getting together, and Mrs. Monarch for kindly laying her eggs on these plants. Mrs. Monarch, that was really very nice of you! Thank you so much!"
"And finally, we are here to tell you that change is good. It can transform you. You say you don't believe that a leaf-munching caterpillar can become a glorious butterfly? Let us tell you what the word, metamorphosis, means to us. Met-a-more-for-us. More for us. More for the world. (Applause, standing ovation) Thank you, thank you! Monarchs rule!"