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.
We walked into our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., this afternoon to cut a few tropical milkweed stems to feed the indoor caterpillars, and there, hidden beneath a leaf, was a tiny caterpillar.
Well, hello, there! Aren't you a little late? The monarchs have been overwintering along coastal California for a couple of months. Your parents did not get the memo.
This uncharacteristic weather we're having--autumn temperatures soaring into the 70s here in recent weeks--means the milkweed is still growing and the caterpillars are, too.
We've pruned all of the tropical milkweed down to the ground except for one plant that's still flowering. We're keeping it. Food is scarce for the honey bees, syrphid flies and other pollinators.
Meanwhile, Tiny Caterpillar is a new addition to our indoor habitat. Ours is just a small-scale conservation project of rearing and releasing monarchs to help boost the declining monarch population. So far this season, our total is 54. That's 54 that may have been eaten by birds or consumed inside-and-out by parasitoids such as the tachinid flies, which lay their eggs inside the caterpillars or chrysalids. Overall, about 2 or 3 percent of the monarchs make it all the way through their life cycle, from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult, scientists estimate.
Here are the basics of how we rear them, but all Monarch Moms and Monarch Dads do it differently.
- Grow milkweed species, the host plant of the monarchs. We have four different species in our pollinator garden:
--Asclepias fascicularis, narrowleafed milkweed
--Asclepias speciosa, broadleaf milkweed
--Asclepias tuberosa, a Midwest favorite
--Asclepias curassavica, tropical milkweed
- In addition to milkweed, plant other nectar-producing plants for your monarchs and other pollinators. The monarch favorites, at least in our yard, include Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), an annual that grows here from April through November (in fact it's still blooming), butterfly bush (Buddleia), and Lantana.
- When you see caterpillars on the milkweed, you'll need to protect them from predators, such as birds, tachinid flies and wasps by bringing them indoors. Add water to a heavy, narrow-necked, flat-bottomed bottle (we use Patron tequila bottles, compliments of our friends). Tuck the milkweed stems, with the 'cats still on the stems, in the tequila bottle. Then place the bottle in a meshed, zippered butterfly habitat, such as the ones from the Bohart Museum of Entomology. You can also buy meshed, zippered laundry bags from stores.
- Be sure to keep the milkweed fresh. Mist it lightly, and add new milkweed daily. Clean the frass from the bottom of the habitat.
- Watch caterpillars eat their fill and then pupate. You'll see the jade-green chrysalids, rimmed in gold, hanging from the top of the habitat.
- When the monarchs eclose, wait for their wings to dry before releasing them. We usually release them after four or five hours--if it's not cold or rainy. Food? They usually won't eat for 24 hours. If the weather is inclement and we can't release them right away, we feed them. We dip a cotton ball into a mixture of honey and water, and place it on a tray, along with a fresh flower or a slice of fruit, such as cantaloupe or watermelon. Some folks feed them a sugar and water mixture. Some use sports drinks such as Gatorade. Mona Miller, administrator of the Facebook page, Raising Butterflies and Moths for Conservation, tells how to feed monarchs on her YouTube channel. She uses 2 tablespoons of water (heated) and 1/2 teaspoon of raw organic honey (more amino acids and protein). She cools the mixture and places in a colorful cap lid (yellow, red, orange).
- When it's time to release a monarch, we just unzip the container. Sometimes we gently cradle the monarch, and then open our hands and watch it go. Some monarchs take off immediately. Others linger on our hands or head for a nearby plant.
- After you release each batch of monarchs, clean the container with soapy water and a little bleach.
Some excellent resources to get you started and keep you going:
- Xerces Society: Monarchs for Conservation and Project Milkweed
- The Beautiful Monarch, Facebook page administered by Holli Webb Hearn
- Raising Butterflies and Moths for Conservation, Facebook page administered by Mona Miller
Counting butterflies before they eclose from their chrysalids is sort of like counting chickens before they hatch.
We've done both: raised chickens and reared butterflies.
Fact is, you never know if a butterfly will eclose. The old adage of "Don't count your chickens before they hatch" rings true, as does "Don't count your butterflies before they eclose."
We've reared and released a total of 20 monarch butterflies this year in Vacaville, Calif. It's a small conservation effort, true, but what a difference it's made for those 20 monarchs! Now three chrysalids remain. Unlike the others, all three chrysalids are outdoor chrysalids. Two are hanging in an aquarium setting and look viable. One is tucked inside a zippered mesh laundry hamper and shows no sign of life or pending life.
The "no-sign-of-life" chrysalis turned from jade green to black on Nov. 15. Aha, we thought. We'll get a butterfly within 48 hours. That was the case with our indoor chrysalids once they darkened. (Note that a chrysalis looks like a gold-studded green jewel for about 10 days before it darkens. Then the monarch ecloses and hangs onto the transparent pupal case until it unfolds and dries its wings.)
This time nothing happened. We could clearly see the wing pigment. Hello, you in there! Time's up! Are you coming out or what?
Hmm, we thought. Maybe this is a "what." Cold weather delaying the eclosure? The "P" word--parasitized? The "D" word--diseased or dead?
So we contacted butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis. He's been monitoring butterfly populations in central California for more than 40 decades (see his website). He's the author of Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions (California Natural History Guides), a book, by the way, that's available in the Bohart Museum of Entomology gift shop on campus as well online.
It's not parasitized, he said, or it would not have developed the wing pigment.
Then Shapiro's keen eyes detected this: "On the dorsal surface there is a kink in the integument and there is a lot of intersegmental membrane showing. I think your beast developed to the pharate adult and died uneclosed--three weeks ago."
He recommends we keep it hanging for a few more days to see what happens. "The integument should fall off and you can inspect the pharate cadaver!"
Well, let's see. One down and two to go and then it's all over until next year.
Oh, wait, don't count your monarchs before they eclose...
The Monarchs are on the move.
In the late summer and early fall, the Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) head for the California coastline or central Mexico to overwinter.
"Monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains travel to small groves of trees along the California coast," according to Monarchwatch.org. "Those east of the Rocky Mountains fly farther south to the forests high in the mountains of Mexico. The Monarch's migration is driven by seasonal changes. Daylength and temperature changes influence the movement of the Monarch." See map.
It's a good day when we see a single monarch in our Vacaville, Calif. garden re-fueling for the migration. It's a great day when we see two. It's a super, super wonderful day when we see three. It's a time for cartwheels, handstands and pirouettes.
Only a Monarch can get us that excited. Gulf Fritillaries, Western Tiger Swallowtails, and Anise Swallowtails come close. Mourning Cloaks, Painted Ladies and Acmon Blues? Not so much.
The aptly named butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) draws them all, offering nectar they can neither resist nor refuse. Another nectar favorite in our garden is the Mexican sunfllower (Tithonia).
The female Monarchs are still laying eggs on our milkweed. The result: two chrysalids are hanging in our butterfly habitat container (purchased from the Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis),
Soon, we hope, two more adults will begin that amazing migratory journey to Santa Cruz? Pacific Grove?
Who knows? Right now they're precious jade-green jewels studded in gold. We can see the outlines of the treasures they hold.