"What are YOU doing here?"
It was Saturday morning, Jan. 23, and the monarch caterpillar seemed to be sunning itself on a milkweed leaf in our family's pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., a Solano County city situated between San Francisco and Sacramento.
Yes, Saturday, Jan. 23. The dead of winter. A third-star monarch caterpillar.
"Mama Monarch" must have laid the egg in late December, surmised butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has researched butterfly population trends since 1972 and maintains a research website, Art's Butterfly World.
"Evidence of inland winter breeding," he commented. "Nothing surprises me any more..."
Interestingly enough, on the same day that we spotted the monarch caterpillar was the same day that naturalist-photographer Greg Kareofelas, an associate of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, photographed a newly eclosed Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae, in his yard in Davis.
The temperature on Jan. 23 hovered at 60 degrees. Since then, it's dropped into the 30s, with blustery winds, heavy rain and a strong storm uprooting trees and flash-flooding the LNU Lighting Complex burn scar. And it's c-o-l-d--cold enough to borrow Bernie Sanders' heavy overcoat and mittens, and for good measure, add an Elmer Fudd (trapper) hat, the kind you need in Vermont.
But a monarch caterpillar in January in Solano County?
Last year the monarchs in our garden thrived, as the Danaus plexippus population declined throughout the country, and scientists began talking about extinction. Last year we collected more than 300 monarch eggs or caterpillars in our garden, primarily from two of the three milkweed species. We reared and released them, except for the ones we donated to researchers at the University of California, Davis and the University of Nevada to start their own colonies.
Is the January caterpillar healthy? Will it survive?
Seems so. We moved it inside on Jan. 24 in a Bohart Museum butterfly habitat on our kitchen counter, but only time will tell.
Still, it's like spotting the Easter Bunny handing out candy in December or Santa Claus delivering candy canes on Easter Sunday.
2020 was a troubling year for the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus.
USFWS announced Dec. 15 that the iconic butterfly qualified as an endangered species but resources are not available to place it on the high priority list. Translation: no funding. However, USFWS said the "monarchs' status will be reviewed each year by the agency and conservation efforts will continue."
Still, both the Western population, which overwinters along the California coast, and the Eastern population, which overwinters in central Mexico, are declining rapidly. Since the 1990s, monarchs have declined by approximately 80 percent in central Mexico, and by 99 percent in coastal California, scientists say. The threats impacting the monarchs? "Habitat loss and fragmentation has occurred throughout the monarch's range. Pesticide use can destroy the milkweed monarchs need to survive," USFWS says. "A changing climate has intensified weather events which may impact monarch populations."
Incredibly, 2020 was a very good year for monarchs--the best year yet--in our family's pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. We counted more than 300 eggs or caterpillars. We donated some to researchers to establish populations, and we reared some ourselves.
Our entire garden was a'flutter. The monarchs nectared on the milkweed flowers, Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), and assorted other flowers.
Monarch butterflies usually lay their eggs beneath the milkweed leaves, but sometimes we see them laying their eggs on flowers and stems. One memorable day in late summer, we spotted four monarch eggs on a milkweed "floral bouquet." We offer the monarchs a choice of milkweed, primarily: narrowleaf milkweed, Asclepias. fascicularis,and showy milkweed, A. speciosa, both natives; and tropical milkweed, A. curassavica, a non-native. ( As recommended, we cut back or remove the tropical milkweed before the migratory season.)
Let's hope that monarchs will fare better in 2021. Check out the Xerces Society's page at https://xerces.org/monarchs and let's do what we can to help.
Ever seen a back-lit monarch butterfly?
It's like a stained-glass window in a centuries-old steepled church where you cannot see the ugliness of the world, but its beauty.
Monarchs are like that. Those iconic butterflies excite, inspire and transform you, just like stained glass windows.
We captured these images at dusk of a monarch fluttering around an aphid-infested milkweed, a tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, on Aug. 7 in Vacaville, Calif.
The orange butterfly was nothing but a blur until we stopped the action (1/4000 of a second) with a 200mm macro lens mounted on a Nikon D500.
The beauty (the monarch) eclipsed the beast (oleander aphids) in a moment of time.
Unless it encounters a predator or parasitoid or another life-threatening factor, the egg will usually hatch 3 to 4 days after Mama Monarch deposits it beneath a milkweed leaf. As you know, monarchs lay their eggs only on milkweed, their host plant.
If you enjoy macro photography, it's a delight to photograph an egg with a highly specialized lens like the Canon MPE-65mm lens. Or you can observe the tiny egg with a magnifying glass or microscope.
How do you rear it?
Naturalist Greg Kareofelas, an associate of the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California, does it this way:
"I put a single egg on its leaf in a small salsa container (the little plastic ones you would get at a Mexican restaurant). I take a square of toilet paper and fold it into a small square (3/4 of inch), dampen it and squeeze it so it is not sopping wet, just damp, and set the leaf and egg on the top. Put the lid tightly on the container. This keeps a level of moisture in the container. I check the containers daily, changing the toilet paper square to keep from molding."
"I raise the larva in that container until it gets big enough to move to a larger container. As long as you pay attention and check them often to make sure there is no mold or such, I have raised many this way successfully. The tight lid and slight moisture keeps the food plant fresher."
"You don't want loose water in the container, just enough so it is not dry," he says.
Among the many species of butterflies he's reared: the dogface butterfly or California state insect, Zerene eurydice; the Colias behrii, the Behr's sulphur or Sierra green sulfur; and the monarch, Danaus plexippus.
When our family rears monarchs, we usually begin with the caterpillars instead of the eggs. They're easier to find and collect. However, if you see a monarch laying her eggs, you know exactly where to look! Last weekend we watched a monarch deposit her eggs on our tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, and our narrow-leaf milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis. We collected three eggs from the fascicularis and let the others be.
An adult monarch can lay about 400 eggs in her lifetime, Kareofelas says. Only a few survive due to predators and parasitoids and other factors. The major parasitoid in our garden is the tachinid fly which lays its eggs in or on the host or deposits its eggs on the milkweed leaves.
"If you start with the egg, the chance of it being parasitized is really small," says Kareofelas, who has been rearing butterflies most of his life, and especially for the last 15 years.
When the egg hatches into a larva or caterpillar, the 'cat will eat the eggshell first and then go about munching the milkweed. When it gets bigger, it's time to move it into a larger container. You must keep the milkweed fresh, as it can dry out quickly. Kareofelas likes to use water-filled floral tubes and dampened packing foam to keep the leaves/stems moist.
Our family's procedure to rear caterpillars: fill a heavy, wide-bottomed, narrow-necked tequila bottle with water, add sprigs of milkweed and the 'cats, and place in a zippered, net butterfly habitat. We place ours in our kitchen, a tachnid-free environment! Those tachnids can be sneaky! Also, replenish your milkweed and water daily, and remove the frass (excreta) daily.
It's a joy watching the complete metamorphosis, about a 30-day development from egg to larva to chrysalis to adult. The larval stage or caterpillar stage usually lasts 10 to 14 days, during which time the caterpillar will go through five instars (when it molts or sheds it skin). The 'cat will then form a "j" and pupate. The chrysalis stage lasts about 10 to 14 days, and voila! The familiar monarch icon ecloses and it's released back into the garden to start the cycle all over again.
Yes, it's a joy to watch them. But it's not a joy watching a tachnid-infested monarch caterpillar or a chrysalis. (We'd rather the tachnids lay their eggs in such pests as cabbage loopers or tomato hornworms.)
A good place to see butterfly specimens from all over the world is the Bohart Museum of Entomology (now temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the nearly eight million specimens in the Bohart, some 500,000 are in the Lepidoptera collection, curated by entomologist Jeff Smith. He and Kareofelas display and discuss the Lepidopterans during the open houses. In the meantime, watch the moth-butterfly videos on the Bohart Museum page.)
We call it the Fourth of July or Independence Day.
Our 13 American colonies rose up against the monarch of Great Britain, King George III, and declared themselves free and independent.
This weekend, no thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, we won't celebrate with fireworks, parades, picnics, family reunions or baseball games, but we will give thanks to the 13 colonies who gave us our freedom from a troubling monarch.
Today we watched a different kind of monarch, a monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, gain her freedom as she eclossed from her chrysalis.
From an egg to a caterpillar to a chrysalis to an adult..."Welcome to the world, Ms. Monarch."
But first, let Ms. Monarch cling to the Hot Lips salvia, Salvia microphylla, and dry those wings. Let her watch the honey bees, carpenter bees, cabbage white butterflies, Gulf Fritillaries, damselflies, and syrphid flies forage. Let her react when they buzz, bounce or bump into her. Beware of that praying mantis!
She will know when she's had enough...just like the 13 colonies knew when enough was enough and King George III lost his American colonies.