The third instar monarch caterpillar we found munching on the remnants of our cut-back milkweed on Jan. 23 in Vacaville, Calif., is now an adult butterfly fluttering around the neighborhood.
We brought the caterpillar in from the bitter cold and heavy rain and reared it in our Bohart Museum of Entomology habitat. Did it like the kitchen? The coffee brewing, the dishes rattling, and NPR sharing information on the declining monarch population?
A strange new world, for sure. But there it was safe and sound. Well, apparently sound.
It pupated on Feb. 4, forming a spectacular jade green chrysalis. Then we waited. And waited. And waited some more. It usually takes 10 to 14 days for a monarch to eclose but this one took 20 days.
We could see our little buddy's iconic orange wings through the transparent chrysalis. We joked about having a gender revealing party. Male? Female?
Finally, on Feb. 24, a healthy male eclosed. We don't usually name the monarchs we rear, but this one we named "Perseverance" after NASA's 2020 Perseverance rover looking for signs of life on Mars.
We released Perseverance on Feb. 25 on an abnormal spring-like day. For 10 minutes, he warmed his wings. Then he fluttered away as if he knew where he was going and what he was going to do when he got there. Monarchs are like that.
"Safe travels, Perseverance," we called after him.
In a previous Bug Squad blog, we likened our "winter monarch caterpillar find" to seeing the Easter Bunny delivering candy in December or Santa Claus handing out candy canes on Easter Sunday.
"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..." Indeed, he saw and recorded a monarch in Sacramento on Jan. 29, 2020.
In 2020, we collected more than 300 monarch eggs or caterpillars in our pollinator garden, primarily from two of the three milkweed species. We reared and released them or donated them to researchers at the University of California, Davis and the University of Nevada to start their own colonies.
The magical metamorphosis, the incredible transformation from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult, never ceases to amaze. Neither does the Chuang Tzu philosophy: "Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, she became a butterfly."
Just when Perseverance thought the world was over, he became a butterfly.
Maybe he will meet up with that monarch was saw Feb. 23--23 miles away in Benicia.
The monarch caterpillar feasting on the tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, in Vacaville, Calif., kept doing what monarch 'cats do best--eat.
She insisted on devouring the leaves as if there were no tomorrow--and today would end soon.
How did we know her gender? Our Danaus plexippus pupated, formed a chrysalis, and emerged. Oh, you beautiful gal!
Folks who comment that someone is "eating like a pig" or "eating like a horse" or "wolfing it down," have probably never seen a monarch caterpillar chow down, scarf it up or shovel it in.
One minute our little 'cat is stretched out on a leaf, binge eating. The next minute the leaf is gone and she's porking out on a second leaf. And scouting for a third.
Eric Carle titled his classic children's book, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," quite well. His little 'cat ate everything in sight: gobbling, guzzling, gorging and gulping down everything from fruits and vegetables to junk food.
Remember the story? First, the little 'cat ate an apple, two pears, three plums, four strawberries, and five oranges but was still hungry. Famished, really. So he ate a piece of chocolate cake, a lollipop, a piece of cherry pie and a cupcake...and more...and he wasn't little anymore.
Many folks sheltering at home during the COVID-19 crisis can certainly identify with the snatch-and-grab menu of "The Very Hungry Caterpillar."
Did someone say "chocolate cake?"
(Editor's Note: Those planting the tropical milkweed in temperate zones (like here in Vacaville,Calif.) must remove or cut back the tropical milkweed by winter. "A protozoan parasite of monarch butterflies, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha or OE for short, can travel with monarchs visiting the plants and become deposited on leaves," explains the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.)
Picture this during National Pollinator Week: five monarch caterpillars and assorted honey bees sharing tropical milkweed.
It was love at first bite. Or love at first sip.
The 'cats kept munching and the bees kept foraging. Neither species seemed interested in the other.
But the adult monarchs definitely showed more interest in the tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), a non-native, than the other two species, both natives, that we planted: the narrow leaf (A. fascicularis) and showy milkweed (A. speciosa).
They laid eggs only on the tropical milkweed, and so far, have produced five caterpillars.
The score to date:
Tropical milkweed: 5 caterpillars
Narrow leaf milkweed: 0
Showy milkweed: 0
Reminder: Folks planting the tropical milkweed in temperate zones (like here in Vacaville,Calif.) must remove or cut back the tropical milkweed by winter. "A protozoan parasite of monarch butterflies, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha or OE for short, can travel with monarchs visiting the plants and become deposited on leaves," explains the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
Yes, indeed. But meanwhile, we're witnessing untold sharing on the wildly popular tropical milkweed by not only monarch caterpillars but honey bees, syrphid flies, bumble bees, carpenter bees, leafcutter bees and sweat bees.
We gardeners and photographers are also drawn to the spectacular red, orange and yellow flowers that add both beauty and color to a cherished pollinator patch in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic...and National Pollinator Week.
Migrating monarchs are fluttering daily into our yard in Vacaville, Calif., one by one, two by two, three by three, and four by four, for a little flight fuel. They're sipping nectar from the Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifolia, and tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica.
They're on their way to overwintering sites, such as the Natural Bridges State Park's Monarch Grove Butterfly Natural Preserve, Santa Cruz.
The park's monarch sanctuary "provides a temporary home for thousands of monarchs," according to the website. "In 2016, 8,000 monarch butterflies overwintered at Natural Bridges. From late fall into winter, the monarchs form a 'city in the trees.' The area's mild seaside climate and eucalyptus grove provide a safe place for monarchs to roost until spring."
The numbers typically peak between late October to mid-November. It's an awe-inspiring place, especially if you rear monarchs. And admission is free. The preserve is open to the public from 8 a.m. to sunset daily, or visitors can participate in a free one-hour tour on Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Meanwhile, scores of monarchs are on their way. Some won't make it. Predators, especially birds, will nail many of them. The weather will deter many others.
We know of at least one that probably won't make it. On Friday, Oct. 27, while we were gathering mllkweed seeds from the Asclepias curassavica, we noticed two lady beetles feasting on aphids.
Wait, what's that beneath that leaf?
Could it be? It was. A monarch caterpillar! Talk about late!
The 'cat is now tucked inside our indoor butterfly habitat, munching on milkweed leaves. With any luck, it will become a mid-life chrysalis and then an adult monarch.
It will take a lot of luck, however, for it to join its buddies in Santa Cruz. Its late start will be exacerbated by the cold, the wind, the rain, the predators....
On a wing and a prayer...
The Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis, has butterflies in its gift shop that will never leave you, never migrate and never die.
Think stuffed animal/puppet in a zippered pouch that resembles a chrysalis. Unzip one section and out pops the familiar black, yellow and white caterpillar. Unzip another section and out pops the iconic monarch butterfly.
Monarchs are just part of the animal menagerie in the Bohart Museum gift shop. Besides the monarchs, you'll see stuffed animals resembling bed bugs, lice, tardigrades and mosquitoes. You'll find t-shirts, sweatshirts, books, posters, jewelry, insect collecting equipment and insect-themed candy, all ready for gift-giving. Proceeds benefit the Bohart's many educational and public outreach activities.
And now, mark you calendar! In keeping with the widespread interest in monarchs and other butterflies, the Bohart Museum is hosting a special open house, "Eggs to Wings: Backyard Butterfly Gardening," on Sunday, March 19. The event, free and open to the public, takes place from 1 to 4 p.m.
Meanwhile, other open houses, all scheduled from 1 to 4 p.m., will share the spotlight:
Sunday, Jan. 22: 1 to 4 p.m.: “Parasite Palooza: Botflies, Fleas and Mites, Oh, My”
Saturday, Feb. 18: (varying times throughout campus): Biodiversity Museum Day, an opportunity to explore 11 UC Davis collections
And toward the end of the academic year is the campuswide UC Davis Picnic Day, an annual open house set Saturday, April 22. The Bohart Museum will greet thousands of visitors from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The insect museum's regular hours are from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. The gift shop is open year around. The museum is closed to the public on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and on major holidays. Admission is free.