Milkweed Shortage Sparks “Alternative Fuels” for Hungry Monarch Caterpillars

Monarch butterflies have made their way to Texas, but unfortunately not much milkweed greets them upon arrival.  A harsh, dry winter preceded by drought and schizophrenic weather have left the sought-after perennial a no-show in many Texas gardens–and on roadsides and ranch land.

Milkweeds, that is, any Asclepias species, are the host plants to Monarch butterflies and the only plant on which they will lay eggs to continue their life cycle.

PUmpkin fed Monarch

The Monarch butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar. Photo by Ellen Reid

Reliable DPLEX correspondent Harlen Aschen wrote to the listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly fans that on a 1000-mile trip from Port Lavaca, Texas, past San Antonio to near Abilene and back around Austin “we saw no blooming milkweed.”

Not good.

Yet that hasn’t stopped a tenacious group of butterfly lovers from raising caterpillars and hatching butterflies on “alternative fuels.”

Professional butterfly breeders have been experimenting for years to keep their livestock well nourished when host plants become scarce.    Many of us who raise butterflies at home, especially in a year like this, also seek alternatives, since local nurseries seem to be having a hard time getting milkweed and keeping it in stock.   The recent news that the Monarch butterfly migration may soon become extinct because of a loss of milkweed habitat is driving the demand.

So what’s a hungry caterpillar to do?

Hungry caterpillars on milkweed seedlings

My boys are hungry! Six Monarch caterpillars have pretty much decimated this pot of milkweed seedlings planted in February. Good thing I have another one. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s a quandary.   At my house, I planted Tropical milkweed seeds in February and have several pots growing, including two filled with seedlings only two inches tall.  This will sate my caterpillars for a few days, at most.

I’m hoping that by the time the hungry cats finish up the tender seedlings, my garden milkweeds will have taken off.  Or perhaps local nurseries will get more milkweed in stock.

Over on the DPLEX list, butterfly buffs–and the Monarch caterpillars–are getting resourceful.  Several folks mentioned that by the time the caterpillars get to their fifth instar, or their final stage, before morphing into a chrysalis, they will eat pumpkin and cucumbers.

That’s right, folks.   See it with your own eyes.

Monarch caterpillars eating pumpkin

No milkweed? No problem. In the fifth instar, Monarch caterpillars will eat a variety of pumpkins. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

“The butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar.  The one on the right was reared on milkweed,” Ellen Reid wrote via email all the way from St. Arnaud, Victoria, Australia.  ”We couldn’t distinguish between them in any way.”

Reid shared a photo of “pumpkin frass”–orange colored butterfly poop which is produced in volumes in the final stages of the caterpillars metamorphosis.   Usually the frass is dark green or even brown, but “pumpkin frass” looks like the food that fueled it.

Paul Addington tried feeding his Monarch caterpillars cucumbers.  It worked.

Monarchs eating cucumbers

Monarch caterpillars in the fifth instar will eat cucumbers. But they have to be FRESH cucumbers! Photo courtesy Paul Addington

“These cats are eating the skin of the cucumber,” relayed Addington. “These were organic, but still felt like they were waxy, so [they were] heavily scrubbed first.”

Addington said the caterpillars indeed preferred milkweed when given a choice.  ”All 52 of mine finished on cucumber, looked great and joined the wild,” he said, adding     “UPDATE: must be fresh, crunchy cucumbers.…two-weeks-in-the-fridge cukes were rejected with enthusiasm….what an uproar!”

Pumpkin frass

The frass, or butterfly poop, of pumpkin fed Monarch caterpillars reflects the food’s orange tint. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, chimed in to the conversation, letting folks know that the alternatives have been known for a while.   “These alternatives have been utilized by many people in the past. They only seem to work for fifth instar larvae that are less than four days from pupating. Many of the larvae will not make these transitions successfully.”

So Monarch butterfly caterpillars appear to be more adaptable than we thought.

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2013′s Top Posts: Moths, Monarch Decline, How to Raise Butterflies, Move a Chrysalis

We close out 2013 as a banner year at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  2013 marked our third year covering the life cycle of butterflies, moths and the plants that sustain them.  We published 35 posts this year and drew 107,000+ page views–up from 42,000 in 2012.   Thanks to all for reading.

The decline of the Monarch butterfly migration led butterfly news this year, with a post detailing the steady downward spiral topping the list.  Interestingly, posts about how-to-raise butterflies and what species of milkweed to plant also ranked highly–apparent responses to the severity of pollinator decline? Hmm.

Below, you’ll find the posts you enjoyed most in 2013.

Monarch butterflies in decline

Dire predictions became reality in November when news reports suggested that  only three million Monarch butterflies would make it to Mexico this year.  For the first time in recorded history, Monarch butterflies did not arrive at their ancestral roosts in Michoacán en masse by Day of the Dead, November 2.  Scientists were concerned at this historic tardy turn.

Monarch graph Journey North

Only three million Monarchs made it to Mexico and may occupy only 1.25 acres of forest this year, a record low. Graph via Journey North

The 2012 season, acknowledged as the worst year for the insects population wise, counted 60 million Monarchs.  In prime years, they numbered 450 million.  Looks like 2013 will hold the dubious distinction of the year the migration came unraveled.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, relayed a similar prognosis earlier in the season when he told the International Butterfly Breeders conference that the butterflies would likely occupy only 1.25 acres of forest in the mountainous roosting grounds west of Mexico City.  At their height, the creatures roosted in 50+ acres of forest.

Chip Taylor and Kathy Marshburn

Dr. Chip Taylor visits with IBBA president Kathy Marshburn at the organization’s combined conference with the Association for Butterflies in November. Photo by Monika Maeckle

How unspeakably sad that the entire population of Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains could fit into a space smaller than a strip shopping center.

People are doing what they can to help Monarchs on the home front

Our two-part feature on How to Raise Monarch Butterflies at Home ranked a top post  with readers.   In April I wrote that I had collected Monarch eggs from milkweed in my  front yard. Subsequent posts detailed step-by-step how easy it is to raise Monarch butterflies at home.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch butterfly caterpillar on milkweed, its host plant. You can raise them at home–it’s easy! Photo by Monika Maeckle

We started with the eggs, watching them hatch and become tiny caterpillars.  We fueled their growth with fresh, pesticide-free milkweed, then followed their whole lifecycle to the chrysalis stage and finally their eclosure to a butterfly. You can do it, too.  Read the two-part series here.

Moths:  Underappreciated, extremely interesting

While we call ourselves the Texas Butterfly Ranch, we try not to be speciesists.  That is, we try not to give too much attention to one species over another—although that’s pretty much impossible given America’s love affair with the Monarch butterfly.

We agree that Monarchs and other butterflies seem to get all the press at the expense of their less celebrated, night flying cousins.  That said, we try to spread the love around.

In fact, two of our top posts in 2013 didn’t even discuss butterflies.  Instead, they profiled two of the more interesting moths you’ll likely find in your gardens.

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

This post on tomato hornworms ran back in June 2012, yet climbed easily into one of the top reads of 2013—18 months after it posted in the height of summer.   Perhaps because so little is written about moths?  Or maybe thanks to National Moth Week, a relatively new celebration launched by the Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission (Friends of EBEC), a group of citizen scientists that focus on the fascinating flyers every summer.  Mark your calendar for National Moth Week 2014, July 19 – 27, as a week that will celebrate their existence.

The truth is that even butterfly loving vegetable gardeners often squish the tomato and tobacco hornworms, which feast voraciously on tomato, pepper and potato plants and other members of the Solanaceae family.  We encourage ceding a few fruits or entire plants to these dramatic caterpillars, which later morph into beautiful Sphinx Moths.

Sphinx Moth caterpillar on Jimsonweed

Look for Tobacco Hornworms on Jimsonweed and your tomato plants.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Then, our story on the mysterious, myth-laden Black Witch Moth: Large, Common, Bat-like, and Harmless drew lots of interest.

This “bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape and its seven-inch wingspan ranks it as the largest moth in North America.  Black Witch Moths are common in Central and South Texas and frequently rest under the eaves of houses near doors, often startling folks as they arrive home.   Generous rains seem to have offered favorable conditions for them this year, as we had many questions about them.

Black WItch Moth Huatulco

Black Witch Moth seen in a kitchen on a full moon night.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The folklore surrounding these harmless nightflyers runs the gamut.  They can be a harbinger of death–or a sign that your future includes a winning lottery ticket.

Butterfly 911:  lack of host plant results in milkweed emergency

This post on a “milkweed emergency” drew plenty of views and the most comments of any post ever on the Texas Butterfly Ranch  (76).

The quandary of too many caterpillars and no milkweed to feed them continues to find readers, especially at the end of the Monarch butterfly season when nurseries and gardens have exhausted their host plant supplies.

Monarch on Milkweed

It takes a lot of milkweed to grow a Monarch butterfly. The caterpillars consume 200x their birth weight in milkweed leaves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Every fall, we receive frantic emails, Facebook posts and even phone calls from people who have plenty of Monarch caterpillars, but no milkweed on hand.   A milkweed shortage pretty much defines the plight of Monarch butterflies throughout the migration landscape.

Frequently, folks will run out to a nursery and buy a fresh pot of milkweed, unaware that plants have been sprayed with systemic pesticides, which can last six months.   This post details how to avoid the sad experience of finding all your caterpillars dead from toxic poisoning the morning after you’ve served them polluted host plant.

How to Move a Monarch Chrysalis

If you can get your caterpillars to the chrysalis stage, they often will build their jade jewel in an inconvenient location.   A post that draws steady interest year after year answers the frequently asked question:  Is Relocating a Monarch Chrysalis OK?

Monarch chrysalis and butterfly

The answer:  yes, you may relocate the creatures once they make their chrysalis.

The post details a few tips on how to handle a Monarch chrysalis with care and do’s and don’ts for successfully relocating them.

Got Milkweed?  Updated guide to Texas milkweeds

Finally, rounding out our top posts of 2013, an updated Milkweed Guide: Choose Best Plants for Monarch Butterflies.    Given the news of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration, the call to plant milkweed and other wildflowers to make sure pollinators—not just Monarchs—continue their life cycle becomes urgent.

Antelope horns

Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns Milkweed on Texas Hill Country roadside in April 2011, photo by Monika Maeckle

We get many questions  in our emailbox regarding which species are best for San Antonio and Austin yards, ranches, or even a vacant lots that beg for a butterfly garden.   Our Milkweed Guide aims to point you in the right direction.

We’ve added a few links below to other favorite posts that we believe merit your time.   We hope they pique your interest.  Let us know by leaving a comment.

To all our readers, mariposistas, MOTH-ers, butterfly lovers near and far–cheers to a healthy, happy 2014.   Plant lots of wildflowers, host and pollinator plants in 2014.   Stay away from pollutants and pesticides. Enjoy and tend your gardens and wildscapes.

See you outside.

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Lots of Butterflies, but No Monarchs on the Llano River this Weekend

It was a disappointing weekend of Monarch tagging.   Again.

This weekend was a repeat of last–with only one Monarch butterfly spotted, none tagged.   I’m betting Monarchs migrated further west.  Or more likely, this year’s crop was extremely thin.  I don’t foresee more tagging weekends this fall.  It’s over.

And honestly, we did not see the masses enjoyed in recent years.   Sightings of 10 – 20 have replaced masses of 100-200.

According to the Journey North website, Monarchs crossed the border into Mexico this week.  That suggests they have passed the Texas funnel.  We may still see singles and strays, but the “massive” migration–a shadow of its former self–has passed.

From Nuevo Leon:  ”Today, Monarchs were spotted for miles over three hours in some parts of Monterrey this morning,” wrote Rocio Treviño of Mexico’s Monarch tracking project, Correo Real, on October 23.  Similar bulletins were cited for Coahuila and Tamaulipas.

Tagged Monarch

Tagged Monarch, raised at home. Many of the Monarchs we tagged this year we raised ourselves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The butterflies have not arrived at their ancestral roosts in the mountains of Michoacán.  On Thursday, Estela Romero, the Journey North correspondent on the ground in Michoacán, reported:

Our graph recording Monarchs’ arrival this week, filled in inside our VW due to the intense rain:   Z E R O on October 24.”

It’s difficult to be optimistic about the future of the Monarch migration.   Every obstacle has been thrown in its path.  Habitat destruction in the flyway, the breeding grounds and the roosting sites.   Drought and climate change messing with the butterflies’ inherent cycles.   Aerial spraying of pesticides and the use of herbicide tolerant crops.   Continued illegal logging in Mexico.

The one good note is that people are paying attention.  We are planting milkweed.   Monarch butterfly festivals are hatching across the hemisphere.  More people are raising butterflies at home.

Last fall, a 3-D IMAX movie, “Flight of the Butterflies” was released, sharing the story of the Monarch migration to rave reviews and multiple awards.  And scientist-turned-eloquent-author Barbara Kingsolver‘s latest novel, “Flight Behavior,” used Monarch butterflies to tackle the complex subject of climate change.

Monarch chrysalises

Happy Monarch butterfly chrysalises.  We fostered many Monarchs from wild eggs and caterpillars this year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Are Monarch butterflies the panda bears of climate change?   The beloved creatures hold universal appeal.   They don’t sting or bite.  They are beautiful and accessible.  They migrate across three countries, serving as a living metaphor for our innate interconnectedness.

Pandas are endangered, Monarchs are not.  But many would argue that the Monarch migration is rushing toward a dangerous path of extinction.

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Migration Update: Llano River Thunderstorms Stall Early Pulse of Monarch Butterflies

What a perfect weekend:  friends and family gathered to assist in my annual Monarch Birthday Tagging weekend.  Lucky me, my October 13 birthday falls smack dab in the middle of peak migration, predicted October 10 – 22 this year by Monarch Watch.

Monarch on the Llano

Monarch butterfly resting on Frostweed on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

En route to the Llano, where Monarchs typically roost in the pecan trees that line our stretch of river, our San Antonio tagging team of Alex Rivard, Veronica Prida and Omar Rodriguez stopped at the Hilltop Cafe 12 miles outside Fredericksburg.   “Monarchs are all over the ranch,” said Johnny Nicholas, the piano playing proprietor.  We were stoked.

Handful of Monarch butterflies on the Llano River this weekend.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Handful of Monarch butterflies on the Llano River this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We arrived after dark, thus couldn’t check the usual roosting and resting spots along the riverbanks until Saturday morning.   On Saturday, Chris Gannon, David Braun and Karen Ford joined us from Austin.  The tag team was complete.

I scouted the scene around 8 AM, paddling my kayak to the “Monarch spot.” Monarch butterflies floated over the pecan branches near the river, a scene that suggested to me that all might possibly be right with the world. “YES!” I said aloud to no one.  ”They’re here!”

Omar and Veronica on the Llano

Omar Rodriguez and Veronica Prida brave the Chigger Islands on the Llano River to tag Monarch butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

After the drumbeat of dreary predictions warning us that 2013 will be the worst year in history for Monarch butterflies, I had just about convinced myself that the days of a robust migration were over.   Seeing the creatures lilting in the breeze, floating above the persimmons and cedars, and lighting on pecan limbs gave me hope that perhaps they would be OK.

But the clusters were small compared to previous years.  The largest group we saw numbered only 20 – 25.  Most swoops of the net garnered only one Monarch at a time.   In the past we’d often capture several in one swing.

Sack full of Monarchs

In 2008: same week, same place. We tagged 500+ in several hours. This year? Only 124 all weekend. PHoto by Clint Howell

Typically we stage a Big Swoop Contest:  who could get the MOST Monarchs in their net in one swoop?  In 2008, my friend Clint Howell nabbed almost three dozen at once.  Here’s what I wrote five years ago–same week, same place, as last weekend.  That year, 2008, was a magnum opus year for Monarch butterflies in our part of the world:

“Our crew of Monarch maniacs competed to see who could snag the most in a single swing: Monika started with 15; David quickly surpassed that by netting 26; then Clint came along and outdid us both by nabbing 35 Monarchs in one swoop.”

So far this year, I take the prize with a mere six.

Chris Gannon and tucker

Chris Gannon and Tucker the Mellow Dog give it their best swoop, chasing Monarch butterflies on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Monarchs seemed tentative on Saturday, as if waiting for the wind to carry them home.  Thunderstorms had been predicted for the entire weekend, but Saturday rose sunny and calm.

They moved around the trees and we tagged more than 100 by dinnertime Saturday–again, in ones and twos.  Most appeared healthy and we recorded an equal number of males and females.   The butterflies seemed uninterested in the abundant nectar lining the riverbanks–Frostweed, Goldenrod, Water hemlock, Cowpen Daisies, Purple Aster and even a Cardinal flower or two.  But Monarchs stayed in the trees, as if resting for their long journey.

Monarch butterfly resting on Cedar

A common sight this weekend: Monarchs resting on Ashe Juniper, a.k.a. Cedar. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Saturday night a magnificent light show graced the sky about the river.  For more than an hour this year’s Monarch Tagging Team sat on the porch and enjoyed heat lightning as it backlit a cloud banket to the North.  Occasional bolts peeked through the clouds, showing itself as some sort of mammoth display of power and light.  The light show continued into early morning until the sky unleashed a thunderstorm that started at 6 AM and continued for 90 minutes, ebbing into a steady drizzle for most of the day with slight interruptions.   Three inches of rain resulted and the Llano River rose half a foot.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars

Not so many caterpillars as last weekend, but plenty of Monarch butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarchs waited out the storm along the Llano River banks.  We returned around noon and tagged a few more, ending the day with a total of 124.

Was this it?  The big mass of Monarchs for 2013?

Jenny Singleton in Menard reported similar results with no huge roosts.  She and her gang tagged 310 over the weekend, chasing them at three different ranches including her place on the Sabinal River where she usually tags 1,000-plus.

“I think the butterflies this weekend are the early pulses,” she wrote as we exchanged text message reports.  ”They’re running really late this year.”

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, agreed in a phone call.   “Monarchs are having their worst year.  And they’re running really late.   I think these are the early pulses.” I hope they are right.   We will see in the coming weeks.

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Caterpillar – palooza on the Llano River: No Monarch butterflies, but caterpillars galore

I was worried that the only Monarchs that I’ll be tagging this year will be ones I raise myself.  Until this guy showed up:

FOS Wild Monarch tagged

First of season wild Monarch tagged on the Llano River. October 2013. Photo by Monika Maeckle

What a beauty.

The perfect male, SLM027, appeared to be recently hatched.   That wouldn’t surprise me since the Llano River this weekend was ripe with Monarch caterpillars, while flying Monarchs were almost completely absent.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars on the LLano River

Caterpillar – palooza on the Llano River. Plenty of caterpillars, but few Monarch butterflies this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The freshly minted specimen above was one of only two Monarchs seen all weekend, and is only the third Monarch butterfly I’ve tagged this year.   That puts me way behind my usual activity, which by now should number in the dozens.  The other two were reared at home. You’ve all heard how this is likely to be the worst year in history for Monarchs.  So I won’t belabor it again.

My friend and fellow butterfly fan Jenny Singleton, who first introduced me to butterflies, shared the hope that a cold front hitting the Llano River this weekend would push down some major pulses from up North and we’d have the usual clusters roosting in our pecan trees.  But as is often the case, Jenny and I were ahead of our time.   Migrating Monarchs had not quite arrived.

Jenny was at her place in Hext, about 40 miles from me and said she didn’t see any, either.  We’re both betting on next weekend.  Monarch Watch predicts the peak migration for our latitude to hit between October 10 and the 22nd.  And judging from reports we’re getting early this week, Monarchs are on the move.

Spangled Fritillary

Spangled Fritillary nectaring on Frostweed. Llano River, Texas Hill Country

Plenty of other butterflies were flying whenever the North wind gales paused to catch their breath.   The dramatic temperature drop and wind gusts appeared to make many insects seek the comfort of the opposite sex, as these pictures of mating Queens and grasshoppers (we call them Jumbos) attest.

Queen butterflies doing it

Queen butterflies snuggle up as a cold front hits the Llano River this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Grasshoppers doing it

Get a room!  Grasshoppers find companionship on the Llano River, Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtail

Eastern Swallowtail, recently hatched, resting in the grass. Llano River, Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The good news is that the Llano River is up substantially from a dreary low flow.   A two-and-a-half inch rain about two weeks ago lifted the waters four feet and scrubbed much of the muck and dredge from its karst bottom.  Plenty of Swamp milkweed, Frostweed, Cowpen daisy, Goldenrod and Purple mistflower await hungry travelers when they finally arrive.   A fresh hatch of Gulf Fritillaries, Eastern Swallowtails and Queens lighted on the nectar feast Saturday afternoon.

Llano River, October 2013

Llano River recovered nicely from a long, hot summer. Three inches of rain raised the river at least a foot.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Interestingly, I found more than 20 Monarch caterpillars in various stages on the milkweed this weekend.  I have never retrieved so many caterpillars at once, so late in the season.   Not sure what that is about, except that perhaps the migration will be a bit late this year.  Upon returning home, my Tropical milkweed was filled with Monarch butterfly eggs.

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Caterpillar Cannibalism UPDATE: Monarch butterfly caterpillar eats another for lunch

In a recent post on caterpillar cannibalism we invited others to share their testimonials of seeing caterpillars eat their brethren eggs or caterpillars.  Edith Smith of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm sent along the following photos that rival a science fiction movie.  Thanks, Edith for sharing the gory–but informative–photos.

Monarch Caterpillar cannibalism

Somebody’s hungry.  Monarch caterpillar eats its brother. Photo by Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

Monarch cannibalism

Monarch caterpillar eats Monarch egg. PHoto by Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

Monarch cannibalism

Monarch caterpillar eats Monarch chrysalis. Photo by Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

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Caterpillar Cannibalism: Monarch butterfly caterpillar eats Monarch egg for lunch

I have heard that when Monarch caterpillars run out of milkweed to fuel their feeding frenzy en route to becoming a migrating butterfly, they can become cannibalistic.  That makes Darwinian sense.   Facing competition and a lack of food, it’s understandable that a creature might eat what’s before it to survive.   Nature can be cruel.

Monarch catepillars and eggs

Not interested:  Monarch caterpillars resisted a snack of a creamy yellow Monarch eggs–unlike a fellow caterpillar hours earlier. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Still, I was surprised this weekend when I watched a Monarch caterpillar retrieved from an aging milkweed plant nonchalantly devour a creamy yellow Monarch egg upon combining the two for safekeeping.    The second instar caterpillar appeared freshly minted, as if it had just shed its skin.  Its tentacles were still stuck to his head, not yet dry or perking up to explore the universe as they often do when in full form.  I’m betting that shedding your skin requires extra energy and works up an appetite.

This caterpillar was hungry.  As soon as I plucked the leaf on which he rested and placed it in a container with a Monarch egg found earlier, the caterpillar quickly gravitated to the egg and began noshing.  It took about five seconds to decimate the egg.  The caterpillar knocked it back like a high protein jello shot.

Later, as an experiment, I put several caterpillars in with several eggs to see if they would do the same.  They did not.  Were they just not that hungry?  Scientists will have to answer that one.

“Cannibalism in monarchs is not unheard of – it usually occurs due to overcrowding and/or insufficient food availability, but this is not always the case,” wrote Jim Lovett of Monarch Watch when the “caterpillar cannibalism” question was posed on a Monarch Watch forum. Most folks here will tell you to give the caterpillars plenty of room and to raise similarly-sized caterpillars together (don’t keep the larger caterpillars with the smaller ones).”

Sounds like good advice.   I generally keep eggs and tiny instars separate from their more voracious brethren.  In the case above, I was moving caterpillars and eggs from the river to the ranch house, holding them together temporarily.

Jacqueline Stearns responded on the same string that she had witnessed Monarch cannibalism.  ”My first cat ever earlier this summer ended up killing my 2nd and 3rd cats and scaring my 4th and eating 3 eggs before I finally figured out what was happening,” Stearns posted on the forum.   She isolated the aggressive caterpillar and segregated the rest by size.   Since, she wrote, “have not had issue with any of the others until just last week. I found my youngest ones fighting and separated them (one is now a chrysalis) so I’m guessing they are safe together now.”

Whew.

Frostweed on the Llano

Frostweed on the Llano River awaits migrating Monarchs. Lookin’ good for a nectar fest in a few weeks. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Meanwhile, on the Llano River this weekend, we found plenty of eggs and caterpillars upon making our milkweed rounds.   Three Monarchs, four Queens were spotted in flight.  Swamp Milkweed stands of Asclepias incarnata are numerous but thin, and we even found one egg on Antelope Horns milkweed, Asclepias asperula.

Parched Goldenrod on the Llano River

Last year, this is what it looked like:  parched Goldenrod on the Llano River served no use to migrating Monarch butterflies except as a place to rest.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Frostweed, a Monarch butterfly mainstay in the fall with its puffs of white flowers, is just starting to bloom.  Goldenrod is still pervasive, but fading.  The timing is excellent for good nectar possibilities a month from now, October 10-22,  when Monarch Watch predicts peak Monarch Migration for latitude 29, which is San Antonio.  Austin, at latitude 30, would be around the same.

Peak Migration dates

Peak migration for San Antonio is predicted to be October 10 -18 according to Monarch Watch. Screengrab and info via Monarch Watch.org

My Monarch Watch tags arrived this week.  I had procrastinated buying them and only ordered 100 this year as I expect another dreary turnout for the migration given the myriad challenges Monarchs face. Weather seems to be cooperating and cooling off, though.

When the small troop arrives, nectar sources should be plentiful, boding a restorative rest stop as they make their way to Mexico.

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Welcome to the World, Lil Joe! Monarch Eggs Retrieved on the Llano River this Weekend

Sometimes a blackhead is a good thing….when it signals the imminent hatching of a Queen or Monarch butterfly caterpillar, for example.

About to hatch caterpillar egg

Black head on Monarch or Queen egg suggests imminent hatching. Soon, Lil Joe was born.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Labor Day usually marks the kick-off of Monarch tagging season for me and my mariposista friends.  Often we gather at the ranch for the three-day weekend, tags in one pocket, notebook in the other, a butterfly net in hand and a rack of babyback ribs slow cooking on the smoker.  We move up and down the banks of the Llano River on foot and in kayaks looking for the Monarch butterfly vanguard, the early arrivals of the magnificent Monarch butterfly migration. Central Texas stream systems are a favorite passage on the long journey from Canada to Mexico each fall, and the first pulse of migrants typically shows up around the end of August.

Baby Back ribs--Yeah!

Monarchs are a Labor Day tradition–as are baby back ribs on the smoker. Photo by Monika Maeckle

These early arrivals often break their reproductive diapause, the state of suspending their sexual activity in order to conserve energy for their long flight.  When that happens, they often deposit eggs on milkweed host plants in our gardens and along the Llano River.

And who can blame them for breaking celibacy vows to take advantage of available sexual, host plant and nectar resources?  The definition of success to an insect is to reproduce.

Pat Epstein paddles for Monarchs

Pat Epstein in search of Monarch butterflies and their eggs on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s why our Labor Day Monarch tagging team makes a point to look not just for butterflies, but for eggs and caterpillars on the undersides of the leaves of Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed.  The native milkweed, a Monarch host plant, blooms pink in late August and early September and awaits butterfly travelers as they journey south.  Science suggests that when the butterflies break diapause they do not migrate. It’s either migrate or reproduce.  Understandably, no Monarch butterfly has the energy to do both.

The good news is that the offspring of those vanguard Monarchs will grow up in about four weeks to migrate.  Their journey will be a much shorter one than that undertaken by those Monarchs who began the trip in Ontario or northern Michigan–about 870 miles compared to 2,500+.  San Antonio or the Texas Hill Country to the roosting spot in Michoacán makes for a much more manageable trip, especially when you are young, energetic, and well-fed on fall blooming nectar plants.

Lil Joe caterpillar

Welcome to the world, Lil Joe! Monarch or Queen caterpillar hatched before my eyes. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Out of approximately 2,000 Monarch butterflies tagged by our team since 2005,  25 of  ”my guys” from Central and South Texas have made it to the ancestral roosts in Michoacán, according to the Monarch Watch butterfly recovery database.  That’s what motivated my friend Pat Epstein of Austin to join me, my husband Bob, and my able assistant Cocoa for daily inspections of the Llano River milkweeds this weekend.

We saw very few butterflies in general—only three Queens, several Gulf Fritillaries, an occasional Eastern Swallowtail and periodic Sulphurs  and Skippers, as well as a hatch of the elegant Amymone, a small peaches-and-cream colored brushfoot.

Swamp milkweed loaded with aphids this weekend on the Llano River.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swamp milkweed loaded with aphids this weekend on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Plenty of bees, aphids, wasps, fire ants, mosquitoes and grasshoppers joined a loud chorus of cicadas as we perused the milkweed stands and observed nectaring on Goldenrod and Snow-on-the-Praire.  Perhaps that 2.5 inches in the rain gauge, apparently from a passing thunderstorm earlier in the week, provoked recent hatches.

We did find several caterpillar eggs, however, including the one pictured at the top of this post. Within hours of retrieving it, the egg turned grey, then black.  About 4 PM the same day, just as I was mopping the ribs on the smoker, Lil Joe, as we named him, was born.

Olloclip camera lens

Olloclip. LOVE this cool 3-in-1 lens that snaps right onto your iPhone. Thanks to Wayne Alexander for the great gift!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The tiny critter measured but a fraction of a centimeter in length.   Honestly, you wouldn’t see him were it not for my handy Olloclip close-up lens, which snaps onto the corner of my iPhone and offers 10x magnification.

Welcome to the world, Lil Joe!

We named him/her for being sweet but wearing a “black hat” like the youngest brother in the epic 60s TV series Bonanza.  

It’s too soon to tell if Lil Joe is a Monarch or QueenAs he/she develops, we’ll be able to tell by how many sets of tentacles display on his striped body.   Monarchs have two;  Queens three.

Female monarch lays eggs on Swamp milkweed on Llano

Female Monarch lays eggs on Swamp Milkweed on Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We observed no Monarchs—until I was packing up a few eggs collected from my kayak.   Right in front of me, I spotted a lone female, the singular sighting of the weekend.  She was  tattered, faded and fertile.   She laid three eggs on a milkweed plant right in front of my boat.  I whipped out my camera and took the shots above and below.

One of three Milkweed eggs

One of three Monarch eggs laid by the female above and retrieved from Milkweed on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Monarch’s eggs will be added to our brood with Lil Joe.  When they hatch, we’ll provide fresh milkweed, clean their caterpillar condos and await their transformation from one stage to another until they form their j-shape and then a jade green chrysalis with gold flecks.   Once a Monarch butterfly emerges, we’ll tag her and send her on her way.

Check back here for updates.

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Caterpillar Quiz: How to Tell the Difference between Monarchs and Eastern Swallowtails

“Hello, I planted dill and it is dying.  The bad news is that tons of Monarch caterpillars are on it.  I’m not sure what to do, or how to keep the dill alive.  Any suggestions?”
–Jennifer L.
Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel, one of its host plants.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel, one of its host plants. Photo by Monika Maeckle

First of all, Jennifer, a Monarch caterpillar would not be found eating dill, since it only hosts on milkweed species.  Host plants–the plant a caterpillar eats and lays eggs on–are often the best clue to what kind of caterpillar is visiting your garden.

In their caterpillar stages, Eastern Swallowtails and Monarchs are often confused with each other.  That’s no surprise, since later in their development, both sport stylish green, yellow, cream and black-striped suits. 

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch butterfly caterpillar on milkweed, its host plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

These two very different butterflies–Monarchs and Swallowtails–grace our Central and South Texas skies regularly.  The migrating Monarch appears in spring and fall during its annual migration.   The Eastern Swallowtail seems to be present just about year-round, except in extreme cold.  

As butterflies, you can’t mistake these beauties for each other.  The Monarch, Denaus plexippus, exhibits orange-and-black markings that resemble a stained glass window.  

Monarch butterfly at the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

Monarch butterfly, with wings closed, on milkweed, its host plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterfly nectaring on milkweed.  PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterfly, with wings open, nectaring on milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The dark blue-and-black Swallowtail,  Papilio polyxenes, boasts elegant cream, gold and orange dots.   Both are large, lovely and can be drawn to your gardens with the right plants.

Eastern Swallowtail

Eastern Swallowtail, wings closed, nectaring on milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail nectaring on milkweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtail, wings open,  nectaring on milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Yet as caterpillars, the Monarch and Swallowtail are often confused with each other, as the email that opens this post suggests.  Here’s a few tips that should help you pass the “caterpillar quiz” in distinguishing the Monarch and Swallowtail caterpillars from each other.

1.  Note the plant the caterpillars are eating.

Checking out the plant a caterpillar is eating generally is the easiest way to tell what kind of caterpillar you’re watching.

Monarchs only lay their eggs on and eat milkweed, members of the Asclepias family.  Swallowtails will host on members of the Apiaceae family, which includes parsley, Queen Anne’s Lace, carrot, celery, fennel and dill.

Swallowtails will also host on plants in the citrus (Rutaceae) family, including rue bushes and lemon, lime and orange trees. If you find a green-striped caterpillar noshing on fennel, it’s a Swallowtail; a stripe-suited chomper chowing down on your Antelope Horns is a Monarch.

Swallowtail showing tubercles

Who goes there?!? Note the yellow “tentacles” which the Swallowtail shows off when bothered. Monarchs don’t do that. Photo by Monika Maeckle

2.  Check the tentacles/antennae.

Monarch caterpillars have tentacles on either end of their bodies.  The ones in front are technically antennae and have special sensory cells, while the ones on the back are “just for show”–to throw off predators.

Swallowtails, on the other hand, don’t always show their antennae.  When bothered or poked, yellow tentacles pop out of their head and emit a distinctive, sickly sweet odor.  Kids are always impressed when you provoke the Swallowtail’s tentacles.

3.  Note the body shape.

Monarch caterpillars’ body type is consistent in its breadth, while Swallowtail caterpillars are thicker in general, and mass into a “hooded” shape at the head.

In answer to Jennifer’s question about what to do about a lack of dill, I suggest planting plenty of it–some for yourself, and some for the caterpillars.   Dill tends to die as summer heats up, so you can also try some of the other Swallowtail host plants.  Rue and fennel have worked well for me, thriving even in our Texas heat.

An emergency run to a local nursery might also be in the cards to pick up some caterpillar food.  Just make sure it hasn’t been sprayed with any systemic pesticides.

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Monarch Butterfly Google Earth Tour Marries Epic Journey With Epic Technology

Some stories never grow old no matter how often we hear them.  Especially when cool, appropriate technologies are tapped to amplify a known tale with delightful graphics and interesting maps.

Monarch Butterfly Google Earth Tour

Google Earth Tour of Monarch Butterfly Migration marries their epic journey with epic technology. Photo via EncyclopediaofLife

Such is the case with the recently released Monarch Butterfly Google Earth Tour, produced by Ari Daniel Shapiro and the gang at Atlantic Public Media and the Encylopedia of Life.

Sometimes technology injected into a natural phenom like the Monarch migration can seem intrusive and inappropriate.  But in this case, Google Earth mapping software lends a new perspective to the Monarchs’ epic journey, providing differing perspectives–from Monarchs’ flying in the sky to citizen scientists on the ground.

What is a “Google Earth Tour“?   As you may know, Google Earth is an amazing 3D virtual globe software program that allows one to travel the world without ever leaving your desk.   Developed by the CIA-funded Keyhole, Inc., and purchased by Google in 2004, the technology makes it possible to give a “tour” of most patches of the planet without ever leaving home.  The program also uses digital modeling data collected by NASA to provide 3D views of faraway places.

Ari Daniel Shapiro

Ari Daniel Shapiro

Shapiro said the idea for the tour resulted from a reporting trip he took to Winnipeg, Canada, last year.   “I visited someone’s home who had a monarch butterfly waystation.  I thought about how far those butterflies had to travel, and the way in which people feel connected to these insects.  It felt like it would make a great story,” he said via email.

Shapiro, like the Monarchs, starts this virtual tour in March in Michoacán.  Environmental geographer Dr. Isabel Ramirez of the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico tells us that Monarchs are “small pieces of sunlight.”

From there, they journey north. Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota’s Monarch Lab details their travels through northern Mexico, the “Texas funnel,” on to the spring ranges in the Midwest and then to the summer breeding grounds further north.   The first half of the 12-minute video provides a view from the butterflies’ perspective, flying high above the varied terrain, stopping periodically to lay eggs and continue the life cycle.   Given the obstacles–ants, birds, wasps, diminished habitat and climate change–their tenacity is remarkable. In her plainspoken Minnesota accent, Dr. Oberhauser declares:  ”Yeah.   It’s incredible.”

Then Shapiro switches gears.   He introduces citizen scientists and butterfly lovers, from Mark Garland and Paige Cunningham in New Jersey to Mary Beth Curry in Sylvester, Georgia.   Garland and Cunningham tag Monarchs near Cape May, and Cunningham likes to whisper “Have a good journey” upon releasing them to fly on their way.  Curry, a teacher, shares Monarch caterpillars with her students.

The story continues into Fall when the butterflies arrive at our famous Texas funnel–the channel through which ALL migrating Monarchs must pass to reach their ancestral roosts in Mexico.   That’s where we come in.

I heard about Shapiro’s project through the DPLEX email list, an old style email listserv that reaches hundreds of professional scientists, citizen scientists, and butterfly lovers.  Journey North had forwarded Shapiro’s solicitation for volunteers in which he invited  contributions of audio files and photos for the project.

________________________________________________________________________

Ari Daniel Shapiro's Email soliciting volunteers to help with Monarch Butterfly Google Earth Tour, November, 2012_________________________________________________________________________

I couldn’t resist, so in early December of 2012, I contacted Shapiro.  My contribution appears in minute 10:51, where he plays my allergy congested sound bite, which describes Monarchs “clustered like grapes” on the pecan trees that line our stretch of the Llano River, a favorite Fall overnight roosting spot.

Shapiro also plugged in a couple of my photos, including a shot of family friend Annie Alice Schenzel of Austin with her back to the camera, netting Monarchs on the Chigger Islands.   The caption reads “Monika Maeckle” and as much as I wish I were 24 years old again, that’s not the case.

Nope, not me.  That's Annie Alice Shenzel of Austin, TX.  That IS my voiceover, though.  Photo via Encyclopedia of LIfe

Nope, not me. That’s Annie Alice Shenzel of Austin, TX. That IS my voiceover, though. Photo via Encyclopedia of LIfe

When the video came out, I contacted Shapiro, but it was too late to make the change.   Lucky for us, Ms. Schenzel is gracious in being misidentified. “I am not even close to being offended by this,” she relayed via email, when told about the mix-up.  Thanks, Annie!

The entire project would not have been possible without the new technologies that bind and sometimes divide us.  In fact, citizen science would be nowhere near its current zenith without crowdsourcing tools like Facebook, Twitter, Google Earth, listservs, Smartphones, and blogs/websites like the one you’re reading.   We would all be marveling alone, unable to share the wealth of magic and information.

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