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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Mostly Native Urban Butterfly Garden Outperforms Lawn Anytime in San Antonio

Last year about this time, we detailed a turf-to-bed conversion in the front yard of our rent house in the downtown Lavaca neighborhood of San Antonio.  We thought it would be helpful to share what happened over the past year on that small square of yard, thoughtfully converted from a drought damaged lawn to a mostly native butterfly garden with a bit of edible landscape thrown in.

The garden is located in Southtown, near downtown San Antonio.  What follows is a month-by month lowdown of a Year in the Life of an Urban Butterfly Garden.   Hopefully you’ll be inspired to get busy and start your own.

January, 2012

Future butterfly garden in Lavaca

Austin transplants hold down the fort at our future Lavaca neighborhood butterfly garden in downtown San Antonio, January 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It actually started in November of 2011.

At the time, work and personal circumstances pulled me back to San Antonio after 12 months of temporary duty in Austin.   I joined my husband at a distinctive green-built downtown “Cube,” one of a pair of rentals conceived by progressive architect/urban pioneer Hilary Scruggs of Operative Ventures.  Our plan was to live there one year while building a house on a nearby empty lot just a mile away on the border of the historic King William district.  We’re now well into Year Two of that plan.

The Cube’s front yard St. Augustine was badly burnt from months of 2011′s historic drought.   Scruggs agreed to let me have my way with part of the yard, planting it as a butterfly garden and edible landscape.

Austin to San Antonio translplants

Austin to San Antonio transplants: rue, milkweed, bulbine and some favorite lantanas.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Because I become irrationally attached to certain plants, I choose to recycle them, digging them up from one yard and moving them to another.   The prior year, upon moving from our large family home in Alamo Heights to Austin, I took along several beloved favorites from my well-established butterfly garden–a large rue bush, several milkweeds, reliable red and mealy blue sages, and a couple of bulbines.  These same plants, and a few new ones, made the 75-mile trek to Austin and were now returning with me.

In December, we  prepped the area via solarization, using mulch and newspaper to kill the turf.   Six-10 layers of newsprint or cardboard covered by three-four inches of mulch and  steady South Texas sunshine will typically kill grass and weeds in just a few weeks, creating a decent environment for transplants, which we installed right away.   Then, we waited.

February

One of the mainstays of my urban butterfly gardens has been various types of daisies, all members of the Helianthus family.  I love dramatic sunflowers in early spring and have a fondness for Cowpen Daisy, because it blooms from March to November and takes our Texas heat so well with little water.

Last year I planted daisy, sunflower and milkweed seeds indoors in  February.   The milkweed would be used for “caterpillar food,” when Monarchs started arriving in March.

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

March

By the time of our last official estimated freeze date, March 15, Mammoth Sunflower and  Cowpen Daisies started indoors were transplanted to the front yard.   Our transplanted milkweeds were already hosting dozens of migrating Monarchs, who graced us with eggs which we gladly brought inside for fostering.

Mammoth sunflowers were transplanted in early March.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Mammoth sunflowers were transplanted in early March. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy

Cowpen Daisy became the foundation of the Lavaca butterfly garden.  Transplanted up front in March, 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars brought inside for fostering, harvested from our front yard, March 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars brought inside for fostering, harvested from our front yard, March 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The hungry critters devoured sprouts of Tropical mlikweed we had planted in pots specifically for their consumption.

We also installed a few tomato, okra and pepper plants, and of course parsley, rue, and fennel, which double as Swallowtail host plant as well as culinary herbs.

April

Our first happy sunflower bloomers showed themselves in late April.  Unfortunately,

Happy Mammoth sunflower and a variegated fritillary, April 30, 2012  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Happy Mammoth sunflower and a variegated fritillary, April 30, 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

garden vandals saw fit to decapitate our sunny soldiers, leaving their seed heads drooping in the breeze.  In one case, a 12-foot tall sunflower was beheaded by a teen walking past.  A worker installing a fence for a neighbor called her out.   The girl dropped the sunflower head and another passing teen lay it on our front porch.  Such are the travails of the unfenced urban garden on a well-trafficked sidewalk.

May

May brought the first tomatoes and a couple of okra.   Cowpen Daisies flushed their yellow blossoms, drawing Bordered Patch butterflies, which use them as a host plant.

By now, Swallowtail butterflies regularly visited the garden, nectaring on the prolific daisies and leaving their lovely, round eggs on our fennel and my well-traveled rue.

Eastern Swallowtails love fennel, parsley and rue.   They show up in late spring and keep coming all summer.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtails love fennel, parsley and rue. They show up in late spring and keep coming all summer. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail caterpillar

Acrobatic Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Swallowtail caterpillars are highly entertaining, and sport crazy yellow tentacles that seem to reach out and fathom the universe when bothered, giving off a weird scent. Kids love them.

June

The sunflowers were losing their charm as the weight of their heavy heads caused them to slouch forward in sad fashion.   Sparrows and cardinals started perching on their stiff stems, pecking the protein-rich seeds.

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

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

Tomato and Jimsonweed plants became common hosts for Tomato and Tobacco hornworms, which later morph into the beautiful Sphinx moth.    Loathed by gardeners, I find these caterpillars charming with their eight V-shaped marks on each side and a signature horn on the rear.  Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm, closely resembles its tomato preferring cousin, but shows seven diagonal white lines on its sides and a curved horn.

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Look at that face! Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed.   PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Because they are moths, the caterpillars drop to the ground, cover themselves with earth to later rise as a large, hovering night-flyer.

 July

Fourth of July brings peak summer–long, hot days.   Daisies, milkweed, Jimsonweed and sages are taking the heat well.  Sunflower seeds are ready for collection from their tired, dried heads–here’s how to harvest them.

July:  Time to harvest sunflower seeds.  Just scrape them from the flower head with a spoon. Photos by Nicolas Rivard

We also had our first brood of Bordered Patch butterfly caterpillars on our Cowpen Daisies.   The fuzzy black critters decimated a few leaves, but the birds soon came and made quick snacks of most of them.

Bordered Patch butterfly: Quick change artist?

Bordered Patch butterfly on Cowpen Daisy.   July 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

August

We start to see Queens in late summer.  Queens, Danaus gillippus, share the multiple charms of Monarchs, Danaus plexippus.  Both flaunt large size, flashy, striped caterpillars, and chrysalises that resemble a jade crystal, flecked with gold.

Queens are back in town

Queens are back in town. Here, on  Tropical milkweed..  Male Queens adore Gregg’s Purple Mistfower.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

If you have flowers blooming during the most brutal summer days, you’re likely to see the burnt orange creatures.  Like Monarchs, Queens lay their eggs only on milkweed, but they nectar indiscriminately.  Males have a penchant for Gregg’s purple mist flower.   Apparently they extract minerals necessary for their virility from the native perennial.

September

Late August and early September signal the start of the Monarch migration in our part of the world.  We usually buy our tags from Monarch Watch in August and tag the first Monarchs over Labor Day weekend.

Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.

Labor Day Monarch tagging, 2012:  Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch Watch has run the citizen scientist tagging program for more than 20 years.  Hundreds of thousands of butterflies have been tagged in the two decades by nature lovers like you and me.   The data collected by those citizen scientists has helped piece together the many mysteries of the Monarch migration.

We’ve tagged about 2,000 over the years and had 26 recoveries from the forest floor in Michoacan.  Here’s how to tag Monarch butterflies, if you’re interested.

October

April and October are always some of the best months in the garden in South Texas.  If you’re lucky and plan ahead, you can still be pulling okra off your plants, get a second round of tomatoes and harvest some peppers.

Lavaca butterfly garden, October 2012.  Cowpen daisy is a rock star foundation plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Lavaca butterfly garden, October 2012. Cowpen daisy is a rock star foundation plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Perhaps now you can see why I love the Cowpen Daisy so much.   The plant just keeps on giving blooms.  The more you cut it back, the more it puts out.  You can shape it into a hedge, let it grow tall and gangly, or chop it short and bushy.  And of course the butterflies love it.

Cowpen Daisy continues to bloom through the fall, drawing all kinds of butterflies

Cowpen Daisy continues to bloom through the fall, drawing all kinds of butterflies as a nectar source. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed in October, 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Butterflies and other pollinators are ubiquitous this time of year because the weather is so perfect for blooms.   

November

November is a great time to collect seeds for next year’s butterfly garden.  It’s prime time for planting many native wildflowers, too.
Some dislike the brown woody look of native annuals that must be  allowed to “go to seed” in order to produce blooms next year.   But for me, the seeds add to the charm of these reliable plants.
Lavaca garden, November 2012

Lavaca Butterfly garden, November 2012. Some Cowpen Daisies are spent–good time to gather seeds for next year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin. November 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

And while you’re gathering those seeds, the butterflies just keep on coming.  Our typical first freeze in San Antonio is supposed to be in mid-late November, but climate change has made that so unpredictable that we, like the birds, butterflies, bats and bees, should seize every sunny, warm day and make the most of it.

December

The last month of the year is a good time to make use of those seeds you’ve collected.  Brush them off the sidewalk, put them in a brown paper bag and share them with friends.

Seeds for next year

Seeds for next year, gathered from Lavaca garden, December 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

 We also like to make seedballs for ranch wildscaping and guerilla gardening projects. The recipe is easy, inexpensive, and makes for a great group activity.
Rollyo seedballs--why wouldn't you?

Rollyo seedballs–why wouldn’t you?   Makes a fun group activity.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

Looking back over the year, can you believe how much life–and fun–can be culled from a small butterfly garden?   A modest patch of earth populated with appropriate, native and well-adapted plants beats a vast green lawn anytime.

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Oh, those Crazy Chrysalises: Bringing Caterpillars Inside Can Result in Chrysalises in Surprising Places

Judy Nevin of San Antonio was concerned about Monarch chrysalises she’d been monitoring in her garden this week.   One had crawled under some plant cloth and frozen when the temperatures dipped below 32.   Another had relocated to a former basil plant and formed its green, gold-flecked container on a dead limb, perhaps to emerge on a day like those we experienced this weekend when the sun warmed parts of Bexar County to springlike temperatures in the 70s.

Swallowtail chrysalis on electrical chord of a flat-iron

This Swallowtail wandered 25 feet from its host plant across a dining room to form its chrysalis on an electrical chord in a nearby bedroom. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“I had two chrysalises until two nights before last,” said Nevin by phone.  One froze and she brought the other inside.

Our schizophrenic weather, freezing one day and balmy the next, has provoked frequent questions from readers about what to do with chryalises found in the winter.  Should you bring them inside?   And why do they form away from their host plant?

chrysalis in hat

Monarch chrysalis formed inside my hat! Photo by Mike Quinn

Bringing a chrysalis inside for protection from the elements is a judgement call.  We already covered the quandary of moving late season caterpillars indoors in this December post.    The same logic applies to chrysalises.   Will you be around to release the butterfly or do you plan to keep it inside if the weather is ornery?  Do you have nectar for it–either artificial or natural?  Depending on where you live and the time of year, the newborn butterfly may have few prospects for food or mating.

Monarch chrysalis on an indoor plant cart

Wheels up! Monarch chrysalis formed on the wheel of this indoor garden cart. The caterpillar’s host plant was directly above the wheel.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Again, there’s no “right” answer here.

As for caterpillars forming their chrysalises AWAY from their hostplants, this is common practice.  We’ve brought hundreds of caterpillars and chrysalises inside, and yet it still provokes smiles when we find a chrysalis in an unlikely place.

MOnarch chrysalis on napkin

Monarch chrysalis formed on a napkin at my kitchen table. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We’ve found them under chairs, on curtains, napkins, blank walls, glass windows, and other unexpected locations.

Monarch chrysalis on wall.

Monarch chrysalis on wall. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Once a Swallowtail chrysalis wandered 20 feet from the host plant in my Austin apartment to form its chrysalis on the electrical chord of a flat iron.   Another time a Monarch caterpillar I was transporting to a speaking event in my car wandered away during the drive.  Later I found the chrysalis inside my summer straw hat. I moved the perfectly formed chrysalis to a stick, tying its silk button with dental floss to a horizontal branch so it could hang vertically until it was ready to emerge.  A week later, it did, nonplussed.

Monarch Chrysalises

You can tie Monarch chrysalises onto a horizontal stick with dental floss to keep a close eye on them. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We’ve also made the dreary discovery of a perfectly formed dead butterfly that eclosed and was belatedly found–under a couch, near a window, or on the floor by a glass door when we were away for the weekend.  A sad event, and something to consider should you bring in a chrysalis from the cold.

Why do these intriguing creatures wander so far from what they know so well and what has sustained them?

Chrysalis on agave

Safe place to form a chrysalis? We think so. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Scientists suggest this is a survival mechanism.   If a caterpillar forms its chrysalis on the host plant and other caterpillars defoliate it, that leaves the chrysalis more visible and vulnerable to predators.   My personal unscientifc theory is that caterpillars need a quiet spot to transform themselves into a completely different lifeform. Growing wings and planning your first flight must require deep concentration.

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A Year in the Life of A Butterfly Garden: From Turf to a Butterfly Host and Nectar Garden, with Edible Landscape In Between

OK, no excuses people.  Time to get outside and get the butterfly garden going.  It’s not hard.  Doesn’t take all that much time.  And every day it inspires.  For proof, check out the slideshow below.

Turf to bed conversion: What are you waiting for?

Turf to bed conversion: why wait?

The photos below reflect 12 months in the life of a butterfly garden.  On November 17, 2010, I converted the Bermuda grass infested front yard of  my Austin apartment into a productive, fun and fascinating butterfly garden and edible landscape.  A year later, I’m leaving it behind and moving back to San Antonio to begin another yard transformation.

For help getting started, check out Part I and Part II of our Turf to Bed Conversion Series.  All the drought-damaged lawns around Austin and San Antonio beg to be converted from turf to beds.

Fair warning: a butterfly garden has the occasional dose of drama.  Consider the case of my Heirloom Tomato Thief.

In June, someone stole the perfectly robust, ripe heirloom tomatoes I had incorporated into my butterfly landscape.   I only had two tomato plants, so this was especially aggravating.  Each day I passed  these plants en route to work via the walkway from my apartment to the car, and was clocking their optimal harvest time.

Just as they reached their prime, a thief snatched the purply red tomatoes from their destiny as a Caprese salad.  Then someone chopped down my remaining six-foot tall sunflower a day later.  These garden violations drove me to borrow a digital game camera and bungee-cord it to a tree, where it snapped photos every five minutes for two days.  The backside of the alleged tomato robber was captured by “the Gardencam”–but she wasn’t.  Take a look.  Nothing conclusive, but I felt a bit better and the thievery stopped.

Butterfly gardens can make productive use of even a small plot.  In my limited space, I raised dozens of caterpillars and butterflies, grew handfuls of fruits and vegetables, and burned calories, worked on my tan, and made new friends as neighbors walked by commenting and asking questions.

What’s stopping you?  Your butterfly garden is waiting.  Make it happen.  Let us know if you have questions, and good luck!

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In the Butterfly Garden, Part II: Transplants and Seedlings to Make a Vibrant Butterfly Garden in Downtown San Antonio

Last week we encouraged you to head into the garden to smother your dead turf with layers of newspaper and mounds of mulch.  This week the turf-to-bed conversion continues.

After giving your new beds  time to settle (with welcome help from recent Central and South Texas showers), you can start plugging in transplants and later, begin seedlings for the spring.

Coming soon: Butterfly Garden at "the Cube" in San Antonio, TX 78210

Coming soon: Butterfly Garden at "the Cube" in San Antonio, TX 78210

I like to recycle plants from one garden to another.  As I mentioned in Part I, last year I moved to Austin from San Antonio and took several plants from my Alamo Heights butterfly garden with me. A large rue bush, several milkweeds, a couple of bulbines–these plants made the 75-mile trek to Austin.

Now I find myself returning to the Alamo City.  I’ll take a few favorite plants back–some of the original San Antonians, as well as Austin finds.   Our new living quarters will be a green built downtown “Cube” (Leed-certification pending) conceived by progressive architect/urban pioneer Hilary Scruggs of Operative Ventures.   The front yard plot has a grey water system that recycles shower, bath and dishwater for landscape irrigation.  That has been an interesting learning experience (more on that another time).

Last week I prepped the area via solarization, using mulch and newspaper to kill the turf.  Now I’ll install a few plants.

Future butterfly garden. Hilary Scruggs "Cube" has a grey water sprinkler system

Future butterfly garden. Hilary Scruggs' "Cube" has a grey water sprinkler system

Here’s what I’m digging up and moving from my Austin bed:

Several milkweeds–brought from my Alamo Heights garden
Rue–the same one I moved from Alamo Heights
Bulbines–moved two from Alamo Heights
Lantana–bought in Austin, will move them to SA
Indigo spires–bought in Austin, will move them to SA
Red sage–bought in Austin, will move them to SA
 

Fresh transplants will be added shortly, such as:

Italian Parsley–buy at local nursery
Dill–buy at local nursery
Fennel–buy at local nursery
 

Milkweeds, of course, are the Monarch butterfly and Queen host plant and will ensure plenty of caterpillars.  In late March, the Monarchs leave their overwintering roosts in Mexico, laying the first eggs of the migratory season in Texas.  Milkweeds transplanted now will die back with freezes, but bounce back in the spring.  Many species of butterflies enjoy nectaring on Milkweed.

San Antonio milkweed, born in Alamo Heights, will return home after a stint in Austin

Tropical milkweed, born in Alamo Heights, will return to San Antonio after a stint in Austin

This well-traveled Rue bush will return to San Antonio next week

This well-traveled rue bush will return to San Antonio next week

My well-traveled rue bush is a sturdy, heat tolerant perennial that plays host to the Eastern and Giant Swallowtail butterflies and blooms yellow in the heat of summer.  As soon as the weather begins to warm, the black and blue butterflies deposit their golden yellow eggs on rue, Italian parsley, dill, and their apparent favorite–fennel.  For some reason they don’t care for the curly parsley and I don’t either.  The Swallowtail caterpillars are highly entertaining, and sport crazy yellow tentacles that seem to reach out and fathom the universe when bothered, giving off a weird scent. Kids love them.

Swallowtail on Fennel

Plant fennel now so you can have Swallowtail caterpillars in your butterfly garden this Spring

Another plus to using these herbs as a foundation for your butterfly garden: you can eat them, harvesting leaves and seeds for cooking.  Fennel bulbs can be braised and used raw in salads.  As temperatures rise in June, the herbs will bloom and go to seed, useful for next year or as an addition to dips, yogurt or sprinkled on toast or pizza.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.   After plugging in the transplants by simply cutting a hole in your mulch-covered newspaper, you can  propagate more butterfly plants by starting them inside with this year’s seeds. Cowpen Daisy, milkweed, Frostweed, sunflowers, and Jimsonweed can all be perpetuated by a shallow planting in plastic seedling trays with potting soil.   Get the plants started  indoors, water regularly, and they’ll be ready to transplant in the ground after danger of frost is past (usually March 15).

Cowpen Daisy seedlings in January 2011

Cowpen Daisy seedlings in January 2011

This year I might try pellitory or nettles, which host the Red Admiral butterfly.  Passionflower, host to Zebra Longwings and Gulf Fritillaries, also makes my wish list. Friends at the Austin Butterfly Forum rave about the woody Flaming Acanthus, the host plant to the Crimson Patch butterfly.  That would be a new species for me, and apparently hummingbirds love it.

Until then, my winter garden will remain sparse, as the solarization process breaks down the turf, creating fertile soil.  Likely I will supplement with winter lettuces–arugula, frisee, chard and kale–probably in a container.  Then, later in the spring, we’ll add tomatoes, okra, and peppers or eggplant.   Mixing edibles into the butterfly garden makes for a continuum of interest and activities.  If you’re not enjoying the butterflies or collecting caterpillars, you’ll be harvesting fresh produce.

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Tracking the Monarch Butterfly Migration? Check out these Social Media and Online Resources for Staying Informed

The Monarch Butterfly Migration is underway, and social media and online resources make it easier than ever to track the butterflies’ progress as they leave the nectar in the North for their ancestral roosts in the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico.

Two Monarch butterflies on Vitex in Ft. Worth, Texas -- photo by Teddi R. Zonker-Vissers

Here are my favorite online resources for tracking the Monarch migration.

Journey North

Billed as the nation’s premiere citizen scientist project for children, Journey North tracks wildlife migrations and seasonal change.   This time of  year, they post a weekly migration update on Thursdays based on observations from Monarch butterfly enthusiasts of all ages, from Canada to Mexico.   Here’s an excerpt from a recent report:

Roosts: Fewer, Smaller, and Short-lived
So far this fall, only 43 roosts have been reported compared to 156 reports last year at this time. (See chart.) This year’s roosts have also been small. Most have had only a few hundred butterflies and the largest contained about 1,500. Last year at this time, the largest roost had 10,000 monarchs (See photo.) This fall’s roosts have also been short-lived.

Written for kids and educators, Journey North offers loads of tools and resources for teachers and others on the Monarch butterfly migration. The site also invites participants to report their sightings and collates the information for online viewing.  The database provides an interesting thumbnail sketch of the migration in real time.

Monarch Watch

While Journey North devotes itself to wildlife migrations besides Monarch butterflies (they also monitor hummingbirds, whales and birds), Monarch Watch brags Monarch butterflies, all the time.

Based at the University of Kansas, Monarch Watch founded the citizen scientist tagging program embraced by thousands of us who tag Monarchs each fall.  Its comprehensive website at www.monarchwatch.org offers information on how to tag a Monarch, raising milkweed, rearing Monarch caterpillars, and a database of all the Monarch tags recovered in Mexico, so those of us who tag can search and find if any of our butterflies made it home.   The site also posts predictions for when the peak migration will occur at your latitude, all based on Monarch Watch scientists’ well-researched opinions.

Equally interesting is the Monarch Watch blog, where Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor waxes scientific about the State of the Union of Monarch butterflies.   Dr. Taylor’s annual population status reports are must-reads for entomologists and those of us who care about Monarch butterflies.

Monarch Watch Facebook page

But the most fun and timely way to track the Monarch butterfly migration is to keep an eye on Monarch Watch’s Facebook page.  With its 6800+ fans, the page offers a delightful daily stream of photos, insights, observations, questions and links from across the country.

Monarch Watch Facebook page

Monarch Watch Facebook page: never a dull moment

Be sure to click on the “everyone” tab so you can read firsthand what Monarch maniacs from all over the country are seeing in their gardens and wildscapes.   Butterfly wranglers post chrysalis pictures, caterpillar snapshots and digital documentation of how they’re lending a hand to a unique natural phenomenon that scientists believe is under severe threat.  Here’s a sampling:

Mike Reim  Spotted some Monarchs (dozen or so) resting in our cedar trees on our acreage in Purcell, OK and some in Norman, OK on the OU Campus.

Laurie Walz  Here at Latitude 40, we had a major group of butterflies eclose two weeks ago, but seen no eggs since. I’m down to 1 fifth instar and 8 chrysalises. Are we through for the season, or will things pick up again?

Ann Rogerson Weaver  Big weather change here….93 degrees on Friday and 60 degrees on Sat. I released 26 Monarchs yesterday morning and this morning there are still 21 of them hanging around on my front porch. Guess they don’t like the cooler temps. They have zinnias and sedum flowers for nectar, but don’t appear to be eating. Still have 79 caterpillars feeding and think they will be my last….eastern NC

I almost always learn something from the Monarch Watch Facebook page.  Here, questions find answers, veteran caterpillar wranglers offer wisdom born from hundreds of hatched chrysalises, and the sharp folks at Monarch Watch set the gang straight if someone posts an inaccuracy.  The photos are also AMAZING, like the one above, shared on Facebook by Teddi R. Vonker-Zissers.

Social media serves the Monarch butterfly migration well.  All we need now is a Monarch butterfly Twitter feed to post real-time check-ins from the clouds.  Any volunteers?

No Fireworks this Fourth of July, But How About Those Synchronous Fireflies?

In our part of the world, drought and wildfires have hindered butterfly season as well as Fourth of July celebrations.  The Austin Butterfly Forum announced at their June meeting that their recent butterfly count was the bleakest ever.  ”We had 25 species and 26 people, compared to the usual 40 or so,” said Dr. Dan Hardy, program chair of the event.  ”We’re just waiting out the weather.”

Eastern Swallowtail Hatches in June after forming chrysalis in October the prior year

This Eastern Swallowtail hatched this week after nine months as a chrysalis

Cities and counties from Austin to San Antonio and well into the Texas Hill Country–the collective place we think of as the Texas Butterfly Ranch–have declared fireworks and burn bans this season.    Rain will come, but until then we must lay low, minding our watering schedules, celebrating the occasional Swallowtail (the one picture here hatched this week, after “overwintering” since October!), and keeping our fingers crossed that a hurricane system will restore the water tables in time for the Monarch migration this fall.

Take a look.   They’re not Christmas lights.  They’re fireflies.

Given the circumstances, this is a year to celebrate Independence Day with some natural fireworks like those featured in a recent New York Times story on the synchronous fireflies of the Great Smoky Mountains.  Apparently the males of this particular species blink their lights in unison every evening for two weeks in June to make it easy for the females to find them. The boasting boy insects exist only in Southeastern Asia and the southern U.S.

Happy Fourth of July and enjoy the show.

How to Raise Butterflies-to-Be: Rearing Caterpillars the Topic at Monday’s Austin Butterfly Forum

Ever wonder about the best way to raise caterpillars at home for fun?  I do, and experiment all the time–with mixed success.  That’s why I’m so looking forward to the Austin Butterfly Forum’s “How to Raise Caterpillars” meeting on Monday, April 25 at the Zilker Botanical Center.   The show starts at 7 PM and it’s free.

Eastern Swallowtail Caterpillar

Tips for raising Eastern Swallowtails and other caterpillars will be covered at the Austin Butterfly Forum on Monday

San Antonio butterfly lovers, I encourage you to make the drive Monday night.  The chance to learn such esoteric skills directly from passionate butterfly enthusiasts doesn’t happen that often–and it’s free.  Also, it’s a great chance to connect with your community of fellow butterfly enthusiasts.

According to organizer Dan Hardy, several Forum members,  all of whom have years of experience raising caterpillars and hatching butterflies, will lead the session.  You’ll learn:

  • Which butterfly species are best for novices
  • How to trouble shoot illness and disease
  • What kind of gear you need to get started
  • Where to find eggs and caterpillars and how to transport them, plus
  • How to watch for females laying eggs.

“We’ll talk about all the ways caterpillars get into trouble, ” says Dan, a pathologist by training, matter-of-factly. “Problem is, there’s rarely a cure!”

The Austin Butterfly Forum was founded in 1993 and is a nonprofit organization devoted to education and enlightenment about butterflies, with occasional forays into moths.  The membership includes about 50 hobbyists and butterfly gardeners.   Dan says several bonified entomologists participate as well, as do moth lovers.

Sounds like my kind of crowd. Hope to see you there.

PS.  The Austin Butterfly Forum will also hold an all-day workshop on Saturday, May 7 at the same location.  The session runs 10 AM – 4 PM, costs $35, and will offer the basics of butterflying, identification, gardening, and caterpillar rearing tips, as well as a guided walk around Zilker garden.  The fee gets you lunch and set of plants to get started.  For more information, contact Jeff Taylor, 512.825.8368.

Gardening Good for Your Health AND for the Butterflies

Lots of action in the butterfly garden this week with Swallowtails and Monarchs depositing eggs, hatching into caterpillars and going chrysalis at their own pace, keeping butterfly gardeners and others active and entertained.

Eastern Swallowtail Caterpillar on Fennel

Eastern Swallowtail Caterpillar on Fennel

The Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar above was discovered as an egg on our dillweed last week, brought inside and has since made himself comfortable on the kitchen table with a vase full of fennel.  We found the Monarch eggs and tiny caterpillars below on the underside of our milkweed plants in a front yard that was converted from turf to beds last fall.

Monarch eggs and caterpillars on milkweed leaves

Monarch eggs and caterpillars on milkweed leaves[

While Swallowtail host plants of fennel, dill, rue and parsley plants are easy to secure, we’re hearing reports in San Antonio that local nurseries are lacking milkweed, although shipments are expected this week.  Austin appears to be well supplied.

 

Meanwhile, butterfly reports from the University of Houston listserv, an email list used by butterfly fans to exchange information and ask questions, suggest another pulse of Monarch butterflies is en route from Mexico.  Keen observer Brush Freeman reported 110 Monarchs observed in a field near Utley on Saturday, a report from Dewitt County had 180 – 200 monarchs spotted in one afternoon,  and one Mustang Island naturalist wrote that “the last couple of days have seen lots of Monarchs cruising over the park.  Until now we have seen one – two a week, but starting Thursday, I counted over 50 at different times and places so there were probably a lot more.”

That all makes a great case for getting out early and often to the butterfly garden. Venture into the yard and monitor your host plants.  When you create a welcoming environment, butterflies and their offspring will reward you with visits.

Another motivation:  a recent study by Texas A & M University finds that those who garden, enjoy better quality of life than those who don’t.

The study focused on those 65 years or older, but my guess is that gardening is good for you no matter your age.   See you outside!

Second Annual Native San Antonio Festival to Feature Butterfly Talk on Swallowtails and Monarchs

The San Antonio Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas is staging the second annual Native San Antonio Festival this Saturday, March 26 from 10 – 2 PM at the Land Heritage Institute.

Activities include tree giveaways, a native plant sale, nature and butterfly walks, hay rides, music, Longhorn steers, arts, crafts and family fun.

I’ll be joining several other speakers in a series of programs that explore our native resources.  Here’s the line-up:

11 AM–Curanderismo: Herbs for Healing, Don Jacinto Madrigal and Dr. Elizabeth Portella

Noon–Mission Reach Plants, Lee Marlowe, San Antonio River Authority

12:30 PM–Monarch and Swallowtail Butterflies and Their Plants, Monika Maeckle, www.texasbutterflyranch.com

1 PM–Students Love Natives!, Dave Mathews, Environmental Sciences teacher

1:30 PM–Feral Hog Control, Matt Reidy Texas Parks and Wildlife

The event is free and open to the public.  The Land Heritage Institute is across from the Toyota Plant on the Medina River at 1349 Neal Rd., between Applewhite and Pleasanton Roads.  Hope to see you there.