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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Little Herds Bug Banquet brings Eating Insects to Austin, Texas

More than 150 people turned out to sample a variety of foods made with insects at Little Herds’ Future Food Salon event held at the Brazos in Austin last Wednesday.

Cricket flour polenta

Cricket flour polenta topped with tempura fried veggies at the Little Herds Future Food Salon. YUM. Photo by Monika Maeckle

LIttle Herds, an Austin start-up and wannabe trade association for human grade entomophagy (that’s the consumption of insects as food) partnered with Alimentary Initiatives of Toronto, Canada, to host the bug banquet.

The evening capped a day when the three leaders of North America met in Toluca, Mexico, just 75 miles from the ancestral roosting sites of the Monarch butterfly.   By the end of the day, some of us had consumed mealworm and cricket snack mix for the first time (along with other entomophogical selections) and the decline of Monarch butterflies and other pollinators rose to prominence on the radars of Presidents Barack Obama and Enrique Peńa Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada.

Bob Rivard and cricket polenta

Bob Rivard samples cricket flour polenta topped with tempura fried veggies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Is there a connection here?

Absolutely.   The consequences for continuing to destroy our natural landscapes and manage the planet only for the benefit of Homo sapiens include an inability to feed the expected nine billion people who will inhabit the earth by 2050.  Just read this 185-page report, Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security,  assembled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Serious concerns exist regarding our ability to feed the world as a burgeoning population will require us to produce twice as much food as we do today.  Sooner or later, those of us in the United States will join the two billion folks in other countries that tap more than 1,900 insect species for their high protein, low carb, low-fat, and extremely easy-to produce sustainable production needs.

Aruna Handa, Alimentary Initiatives

Aruna Handa, Founder of Alimentary Initiatives of Toronto, passes a bowl of crickets and grasshoppers.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

A small group of us went ahead and took the plunge last week.   We tried cricket flour polenta with tempura fried veggies, collard greens with mealworms, butternut squash soup with crunchy mealworms on top and dark chocolate drops topped with grasshoppers.

Most tasty were the delicious Chapul brand protein bars.  I prefer the Thai flavor, a chewy mix of coconut, ginger, lime, dates, almond butter, cashews–and of course, dehydrated crickets.  With 190 calories and 8 grams of protein, the bars are a nutritional bargain.

Don’t scoff.   It wasn’t that long ago that we snubbed sushi.   Swallow raw fish?   And now the Japanese mainstay can be found at most local grocery stores.  Won’t be long and insects will achieve the same status.

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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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Catalina Trail, Dr. Chip Taylor, Black Witch Moths, Tomato Hornworms and IMAX Movie make Top Posts of 2012

What were the most-read stories at the Texas Butterfly Ranch this year?  Beyond the homepage and the “about us” tab, these were the most widely read posts over the past 12 months.  Take a look and happy holidays to you.

#1  Catalina Trail, founder of the Monarch Butterfly Roosting Sites, Lives a Quiet Life in Austin

Our most-read blogpost written in 2012 is the story of Catalina Trail, a lovely, quiet woman who ‘s role in Monarch butterfly natural history was relatively uncelebrated until

Catalina Trail, always a bit of a free spirit, traveled the hemisphere in the 70s.

Free spirit and itinerant traveler Catalina Trail traveled the hemisphere in the 70s. Photo copyright Catalina Trail

recently.    We consider it a privilege to have made her acquaintance and found a friend in Catalina this year.    She lives just 75 miles up the road in Austin, Texas.

#2   The Intriguing Black Witch Moth, Large, Batlike and Harmless

This enormous dark, batlike moth loves to rest under eaves and around doorways, a habit that results in quite a “startle factor” when flushed, as explained by our friend and

Black Witch Moth Female

Black Witch Moth Female, photo via www.whatsthatbug.com

entomologist Mike Quinn.  The drought seems to have helped the moth’s population grow and extended its migration, making it more common than usual this year.

#4 Desperately Seeking Milkweed:  Monarch Butterflies Appetites Create Milkweed Emergency

This post created a bit of a stir, as it called out a local nursery for selling chemical laced milkweed to a friend who was feeding hundreds of Monarch caterpillars.   Read on

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed.  Photo via Sharon Sander

for tips on determining if milkweed bought from local nurseries is riddled with systemic pesticides that spell death for Monarch caterpillars.

#4  Tomato Hornworms, Loathed by Gardeners, Morph into the Magnificent Sphinx Moth

Gardeners often can’t tolerate the tomato hornworm, which appears in early summer and decimates those heirloom and cherry hybrids so painstakingly tended.   But the chubby

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Look at that face! Tomato Hornworm on Jimsonweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

green “worm” is actually a caterpillar that morphs into a gorgeous pink-and-black moth that hovers and dances much like a hummingbird.

#5  Chasing Monarchs on the Llano River with Dr. Chip Taylor

It was a butterfly evangelist’s fantasy come true, to tag Monarch butterflies with one of the foremost experts on Monarchs on the planet, Dr. Chip “Orly” Taylor, founder of

Dr. Chip Taylor, Founder of Monarch Watch

Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist program that has been a fixture of my autumn each year.   Read about my kidnapping Dr. Taylor from a conference in Kerrville for a quick trip to our Llano River ranch to take the pulse of the 2012 migration in  October.

#6   FAQ:  Is it OK to Move a Monarch Chrysalis?

This post gets a lot of action when folks find a lonely Monarch or other butterfly chrysalis in an inopportune spot.    We frequently are asked if it’s ok, and if so, how to relocate the

Queen and Monarch Chrysalises

Sure it’s ok to move chrysalises to a safer spot. Photo by Monika Maeckle

chrysalis to a safer, perhaps more welcoming place.  Here’s tips on how to do it.

#7 IMAX Film Might be as Good As it Gets for Monarch Butterflies 

The fabulous IMAX film, Flight of the Butterflies, opened in September, just as we were anticipating the Monarch migration.    All the hubbub surrounding the film’s debut made it seem that the 3D footage assembled by SK Films might be as good as it could possibly

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan –Photo courtesy SK Films

get for Monarchs this year–and that is likely the case.   Monarchs may have had their worst year yet, numbers-wise.  Texas Butterfly Ranch later reviewed the film in this post.

Other favorite posts that were written in years past:

Butterflies Made a Darwin Doubter out of Valdimir Nabokov

I continue to be perplexed why this post consistently ranks as one of the most read in Texas Butterfly Ranch history.  Perhaps referencing the conservative Discovery Institute is what continues to provoke readers. Hmm.

Milkweed Guide:  Choose Best Plants for Monarch Butterflies

This plant guide for Texas milkweeds has been a perpetual most-viewed post since it was published in November of 2010.   Time for us to update it, which we hope to do soon.

Antelope Horns Milkweed

Antelope Horns Milkweed is a great choice for Texas gardens and wildlscapes.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

“Common” Painted Lady Butterflies Providing Not-so-Common Insights on the Development of Tiny Flying Robots

The Painted Lady butterfly, Vanessa cardui, claims the title as most common butterfly in North America–and inhabits almost every corner of the globe.  The multi-colored flutterers brag five white spots on each black-and-orange forewing and have been tapped

Painted Lady Butterfly

The Painted Lady Butterfly is being studied to develop micro aerial vehicles, MAVs.

for elementary school science classes for years since they are readily available and can complete their life cycle on an artificial diet.  In the wild, Painted Ladies host on thistle and a variety of common weeds.

But now this common butterfly is helping scientists figure out the intricacies of micro aerial maneuvering in a study at John Hopkins University that will hopefully lead to refinements in a new class of tiny flying machines:  micro aerial vehicles,  or MAVS.

Painted Lady butterflies tapped to develop MAVs

Painted Lady butterflies tapped to develop MAVs: CLICK to view the video.

A team of researchers at the Maryland campus has received funding from the U.S. government to study flight in butterflies with the intent to develop tiny flying robots that can be used for intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, and search-and-rescue missions.

Butterfly inspired flapping wing MAV "micro aerial vehicle"

Butterfly inspired flapping wing MAV "micro aerial vehicle" --photo courtesy Harvard University

“We look to nature for inspiration,” said Tiras Lin, an undergraduate mechanical engineering student at John Hopkins who is working on the study.  ”What can we learn from the flight…of a butterfly?”

A lot, apparently.

Lin and his team used three high speed 3-D cameras to closely observe tthe Painted Lady’s amazing agility and maneuverability.  Click on the second photo in this post to see the video and some of the fascinating footage.

He compared the creature’s aerial maneuvers to those of an ice skater, suggesting that like a spinning skater, they “alter their moment of inertia” depending on whether they want to speed up or slow down.

Rajat Mittal, a professor of mechanical engineering at John Hopkins and who is overseeing the study, pointed out that mechanical engineers typically are well-suited and successful at designing large things like aircraft or ships” but when it comes to designing small things we are fairly deficient.”

The Painted Lady is providing insight and inspiration, making her not so common after all.

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Calling Monarch Taggers: Arrival of Monarch tags from Monarchwatch signals Monarch Butterfly Migration is Here

Monarch Butterfly tags arrived this week from Monarchwatch, the organization, along with my friend Jenny Singleton, largely responsible for my fascination and love of butterflies.  For those unaware, each Fall millions of Monarch butterflies head home from Canada to roost in the oyamel forests of Michoacan, Mexico for the winter.  Lucky for us, the Monarchs must pass through the Texas “funnel” to arrive at their destination.

With our location on the Llano River, we are sometimes the host to masses of these migrants who roost in the riverside pecan trees and take nectar breaks on the Swamp Milkweed, Goldenrod and Cowpen Daisy.  In 2008, we tagged almost 600 in a lucky strike that had our team of Monarch taggers working overtime. But it doesn’t always work out that way.   Monarch season was a bit of a bust for us last year when they chose a more easterly route along the Gulf Coast and skipped us entirely.  We only tagged 20 in 2009.

Citizen scientists just like me and you capture Monarchs in our butterfly nets and attach special stickers like those at left on a particular cell of their wing.  Don’t worry, the scientists at Monarchwatch at the University of Kansas developed a special adhesive that doesn’t harm them but lasts.  These stickers are numbered and we note the sex, as well as the date, time and place the Monarch was tagged.  We record this info onto a datasheet sent at the end of the season to Monarchwatch.  They then load all that into a database that will be cross referenced with recovered tags in Mexico.

The Monarchs we see here in Texas in the fall are the likeliest to complete their trip and arrive in Michoacan where they will roost for the winter, wake up, mate, lay eggs and die.  The cycle begins again.  Their bodies are recovered  by stewards of the nature preserves in Mexico, tag numbers are recorded, matched up to the data sent by taggers, and shared online.

Usually 1,000 – 1,200 tags are recovered each year, and two of our almost 600 tagged in 2008 were found in the spring of 2009. Of course the point of the tagging program is to provide empirical details that help scientists learn where the Monarchs come from, how far they fly, how they find their way. While much is still unknown, when it comes to the unique phenom of the Monarch Migration, the questions are as interesting as the answers.

You can tag Monarchs in your yard throughout Texas this time of year.  Keep an eye out, as they are passing through–the Migration is on and will get more intense through the end of October.

For my local friends interested in helping tag at the ranch this year, please leave a comment or send me a message and we’ll try to work out a schedule.  And for others who want more info on Monarch tagging in Texas, check out this handout from Texas Parks and Wildlife.