Monarch Champions: San Antonio elected officials submit to butterfly’s charms

It doesn’t get much better for a butterfly evangelist than to have hometown elected officials raise Monarch caterpillars at City Hall. That’s what happened less than a year after the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) named San Antonio its first Monarch Butterfly Champion City.

Mikey the Monarch at Zoo

Does your Mayor do this? Mikey the Monarch raised by San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor’s office, released at the San Antonio Zoo. Photo via Twitter

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor set the bar for the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge (MMP) on December 9, 2015. That Wednesday, she made San Antonio the nation’s first and only Monarch Butterfly Champion City by committing to all 24 action items recommended by NWF to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat. Actions include installing pollinator gardens, encouraging citizen science, hosting a butterfly festival and changing landscape ordinances and city mowing schedules.

Mikey the Monarch caterpillar takes lunch at San Antonio City Hall. Courtesy photo

Taylor’s office raised her first Monarch, named Mikey, almost exactly a year later. Since Mikey emerged when it was too cold to fly   (temperatures hovered in the 40s), the San Antonio Zoo offered its flighthouse as a “butterfly B and B” until the weather warmed.

District 1 City Councilman Roberto Treviño became a  Monarch butterfly buff in October after attending all three events that comprised San Antonio’s first Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival. Treviño, an architect by training, served as a docent during the dozens of one-on-one tag- and-release demonstrations the Festival staged October 22. After accepting a milkweed loaded with two eggs and a couple of caterpillars as a gesture of thanks, Trevińo succumbed to the flashy orange-and-black butterflies’ charms–even releasing a Monarch butterfly at City Hall with Jonah Nirenberg, son of District 8 City Councilman Ron Nirenberg.

Treviño posted updates on his caterpillars’ progress on Facebook and had a sign at his City Hall office reminding visitors to shut the door because butterflies were in progress. “It’s such an opportunity to share the wonder,” he said.

To date, more than 240 cities have signed the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge. Only one – McAllen, Texas – has become a Monarch Champion City like San Antonio. The National Wildlife Federation is looking to expand the popular program to Mexico.

“The San Antonio administration and landscape team have really committed themselves to Monarch conservation,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch,  the citizen science organization that tracks the migrating butterflies at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. San Antonio was the first city to call Monarch Watch’s Milkweed Market after the pledge, ordering 1,000 plants which have been planted in pollinator gardens around town.

Progress in the Alamo City has been consistent and impressive. Pollinator gardens have replaced invasive species along the San Antonio River South Channel and new gardens have been created at Phil Hardberger Park, Woodlawn Lake, UTSA, at the San Antoino River Authority and at many private residences. In April, four city agencies featured the Monarch butterfly on their Fiesta medals – the Mayor’s Office, SAWS, CPS Energy, and the San Antonio River Authority. A survey of 400 locals conducted by the Texas Butterfly Ranch website found the SAWS medal was the best.

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San Antonio has hosted two Monarch butterfly festivals since the Pledge was signed. The San Antonio Zoo’s first Monarch Fest took place in early 2016 and will take place this year March 4 and 5. In October, the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival took place at the Pearl wowed an estimated 5-7,000 people. Plans are underway for a repeat.

According to Cathy Downs, a Monarch Conservation Specialist for the national citizen scientist program Monarch Watch, more requests for teacher training on how to use Monarchs in the classroom occurred in 2016 than prior years. And working closely with the NWF, local Monarch advocates are about to finalize the first San Antonio Monarch Conservation Plan as the City’s Sustainability Office integrates pollinator friendly guidelines into its strategic plans.

More pollinator habitat, sustainability plans, Fiesta medals, and Festivals are in store for 2017. But perhaps our most powerful tool in Monarch and pollinator conservation is one we should leverage more often: encounters with “the wonder” Monarchs generate. Giving caterpillars to elected officials and other with influence, affording them the opportunity to witness metamorphosis first hand may be just the inspiration we need. Try it. Let us know how it goes.

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Weather extremes create quandary: what to do with late season butterflies?

The first week of 2017 can be likened to the worst of a bad relationship, vacillating between hot and cold so drastically we’re left perplexed. What to wear–sweater and long johns or shorts and a t-shirt?

Mikey the Monarch

San Antonio Mayor’s Mikey the Monarch hatched and was released at the San Antonio Zoo flighthouse on January 5. The temperature outside was in the 40s. Photo courtesy San Antonio Zoo

Imagine what that’s like for butterflies and other cold-blooded creatures.The first six days of San Antonio’s New Year had temperatures swinging from 29 to 81.

Such drama will continue. With cozy pockets of our urban heat islands creating perfect microclimates for year-round host plants, Monarchs, Queens Gulf fritillaries and others continue to lay their eggs irrespective of the seasons. The eggs will hatch, morph into caterpillars which some of us won’t be able to resist bringing inside and raising to the chrysalis stage. Then on a mild winter day–like last Tuesday or Thursday when temperatures climbed to 81 and 71 respectively–a glorious, perfect butterfly will hatch.

Then what? It’s 29 degrees outside.

Generally, butterflies won’t fly when temperatures are less than 55 or 60 degrees. And after spending weeks fostering an egg, then a caterpillar, and finally a chrysalis to the point of becoming a butterfly, the idea of unleashing it into a cold, wintry wind seems brutally unacceptable.

“Cold weather does a number on all insects. That’s a given,” said entomologist MIke Quinn, who runs the über helpful insect education website Texasento.net.

I’ve stopped raising butterflies at home in the winter because the stress of having to deal with these late season beauties cancels much of the fun for me. After December 1, I let Nature do her thing.

But I get that many can’t resist having colorful creatures lilting around your home or office providing their unique charms in the dead of winter.

Our butterfly friendly Mayor Ivy Taylor hatched Mikey the Monarch on January 5. Mikey got a free ride to the San Antonio Zoo to live out the rest of his life in the climate controlled flighthouse filled with coddled milkweed and other plants the Zoo keeps in its greenhouse. Education manager Laurie Brown said Mikey may be released to the elements if temperatures warm up.

Our friend, District 1 City Councilman and Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival docent Roberto Treviño got lucky with a milkweed plant we gave him in November. The gift included one fifth star Monarch caterpillar and one Monarch chrysalis. Yet Treviño ended up with four extra butterflies-in-progress. Unbeknownst to us, several eggs were hiding in the milkweed plant.

Councilman Treviño tagged and released the Monarchs, which hatched around Thanksgiving. He’s hatched several Queens since, the last of which emerged this week  on a chilly winter day. His strategy? Hold the butterflies indoors until the weather warms up, then release them on the San Antonio River.

San Antonio City Councilman Roberto Treviño’s Thanksgiving Monarch. It was a boy. Photo courtesy Roberto Treviño

This Queen hatched in January in Treviño’s office. Check out the frass on the keyboard and around the computer. Photo courtesy Roberto Treviño

Caterpillar found its way to the computer plug to make its chrysalis. Hey, it’s warm back there! Photo courtesy Roberto Treviño

Is San Antonio a butterfly friendly city or what? Photo courtesy of Roberto Treviño

So for those who can’t resist fostering butterflies in winter, here’s some tips for dealing with late season butterflies, recast from a 2013 blogpost.

Entomologist Quinn suggests if you bring in found caterpillars, eggs or chrysalises, park them on a screened porch or cool garage to slow down their development in anticipation of warmer weather. Quinn points out that some butterflies overwinter in the chrysalis stage (like Swallowtails) while others, like Monarchs, overwinter in the adult, butterfly stage.

If you have adult butterflies and want to hold them for warmer days, Connie Hodson, a butterfly breeder and owner of Flutterby Gardens in Tampa Bay, Florida recommends sponges–scrubbers, actually–soaked in grape- or punch-flavored Gatorade laid out in shallow dishes in a butterfly cage.

Queens on sponges

Baby, it’s cold outside: soak scrubbers in Gatorade so butterflies can fuel up for when the weather turns. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Since butterflies taste with their feet, you have to set them on the sponge so they can “taste” the fake nectar, whetting their appetite. At that point, they’ll extend their long proboscis and slurp some fuel to power their flight.

You can try bringing in cut or potted flowers and laying out a spread of overripe fruit in the butterfly cage. Cotton balls soaked in sugar-water and apple juice are

Queens in the cage

Queens were not too keen on my offerings of fruit, flowers and sugar water. Photo by Monika Maeckle

another option. I’ve had mixed success with this. Sometimes the butterflies accept the smorgasbord, but mostly not.

Butterfly breeder Barbara Dorf of Big Tree Butterflies in Rockport likes to use tried-and-true hummingbird nectar–four parts water to one part sugar. She said a shallow dish or the top of a plastic container work well as a feeding station.  Lightly misting the sides of the cage with water helps the butterflies stay hydrated. “All you can do is keep them til a good warm day,” said Dorf.

Hodson pointed out that recently hatched butterflies are not hungry for the first 24 – 48 hours, so if sun is in tomorrow’s forecast, just wait. If days pass and the weather hasn’t turned, continue offering fresh nectar surrogates and keep spritzing the netting of the cage.

If the butterflies resist the sponge or scrubber, Hodson suggested taking a Q-tip, dipping it in the Gatorade and gently touching the creatures’ proboscis so they get the hang of it.

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How to tag a Monarch butterfly in six easy steps

NOTE:  The following post ran in September of  2012, but warrants reposting today.  Happy tagging!

One of the most common questions we get at the Texas Butterfly Ranch is how the heck do you tag a Monarch butterfly?

Ready to tag some butterflies?

Ready to tag some butterflies?

It’s pretty straightforward, really.  You’ll need a butterfly net, a clipboard or mini notebook and a writing utensil to record your findings.   You’ll also need tags issued by Monarch Watch ($15 for 25 tags).    I recommend a hat and camera, too.

Before you go, apply sunscreen or insect spray if you use them, then wash your hands thoroughly.   Monarchs and other butterflies are more resilient than we think, however, Deet, Paba  and other chemical contact with their scales, wings and bodies should be avoided.  There’s no need to sterilize your hands or wear gloves.  Just wash your hands.

Monarch Watch tags and data sheets

You’ll need Monarch Watch tags and data sheets to tag Monarch butterflies. And a butterfly net.

When should you go tagging?  I like late mornings after my second cup of coffee.   By then, the butterflies have had a chance to warm up their bodies and are out flying and nectaring.  Remember, butterflies won’t fly if the temperature is less than 60 degrees, so late mornings and afternoons on sunny days are ideal.   Right before sunset is good, too, especially when they’re migrating.  In the Hill Country in October, masses of Monarch butterflies will often drop from the sky around dusk and look for roosting spots—usually in protected tree limbs and often near water sources.

Ready for some tagging?  Here’s how to do it.

  1. Locate butterfly

Millions of migrating Monarch butterflies will pass through the “Texas funnel” on their way to their ancestral roosts in Michoacan, Mexico, over the coming weeks and months.    According to Monarch Watch, peak migration for San Antonio and Austin will be October 2 – 22.

Frostweed is a fall favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies.

Frostweed is a fall favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Typically, we see a first pulse of vanguard Monarchs around Labor Day in the Hill Country and in our San Antonio and Austin gardens.  In September we’ll consistently see individual Monarchs trickling through town.  By October, groups will show up and form evening roosts in trees and large bushes like Poverty Weed along our rivers and other protected locations.

The best places to see them are along our streams and rivers where late season blooms offer a nectar rich rest stop.  Monarchs fuel up on their journey south, so anywhere with late season butterfly-friendly flowers—native and Tropical milkweeds, Gregg’s Purple mistflower, Cowpen daisies, Frostweed, Goldenrod, lantana, for example—should draw them, as well as other butterflies.

Your own garden, if it has butterfly-friendly flowers blooming, should draw Monarch butterflies.  Look, observe, wait.   And be patient.  For some prime Monarch butterfly spotting, stop by the Milkweed Patch along the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River this fall.

2.  Net butterfly

Netting a Monarch butterfly—or any butterfly for that matter—is more challenging than it looks. The flitting creatures exhibit extreme skittishness and their compound eyes afford them a 360-degree field of vision. The slightest movement can send them sailing.

When I first started tagging Monarchs, I diligently chased them in flight. After slipping in the river more than once and skinning my knee after tripping down the steps at my house while in hot pursuit, I resolved to only try and net Monarchs when they’re roosting or nectaring. I’ve witnessed several ace netters with excellent hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes, and a sniper’s aim nab butterflies in flight, but I’m not among them.

Monarch nectaring on swamp milkweed

It’s easier to net Monarch butterflies when they’re nectaring. Sneak up on them from behind.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Suggestions:  wear low-key clothing that blends into the environment, move slowly, keep quiet and sneak up on them from behind.  Once you swing your net, the butterflies will scatter.  It resembles fishing in that sense;  when you cast your line, the fish get spooked and flee, but they’ll be back. After a few minutes, the butterflies will resume their activities—nectaring, resting or roosting.  Or they may fly out of your reach.

Once you get a butterfly in your net, be sure to flip the net sock over the circle of the rim—otherwise the clever insects can slip out.   With the net sock folded over the net structure, they will remain in your net.

Annie Schenzel demonstrates proper net technique

Annie Schenzel demonstrates proper net technique. See how the net sock is draped over the rim? No butterflies can escape.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Some folks take the net down to the ground after they swoop the butterfly into the net to ensure the butterfly doesn’t escape.   This is especially helpful when you capture many at once.

3. Collect butterfly/butterflies from net

Once the butterfly or butterflies are in the net, gently reach in and clasp an individual in your cupped hand, wings folded together if possible.  (No insecticides or sunscreen on your hands, please.)  The butterflies will flail around in the net, so try to calm them by folding their wings closed and gently pressing the net fabric on them. Also, try holding the butterfly upside down;  it seems to calm them.

Keep the net closed so that other butterflies don’t fly out as you remove the one in your grasp, then pull out your catch and take a look.

Tracy Hamilton shows how to retrieve a Monarch from the net.

Tracy Hamilton shows how to retrieve a Monarch from the net.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

4.  Examine butterfly, establish its sex.

This is when you examine the butterfly to determine its sex.   Open the wings gently and look for the two pheromone sacs on the lower half of the butterfly’s wings.  If you see two black dots, it’s a male.  If not, it’s a female.   Also note the state of the butterfly—is it

Male Monarch Butterfly

Male Monarch Butterfly: it’s a boy! See the two black dots on the veins of his lower wings? Those are pheromone sacks–supposedly they drive the lady butterflies CRAZY.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

weathered and raggedy, or fresh and healthy?  If the butterfly is extremely worn out and highly unlikely to make it to Mexico, refrain from tagging it.  Let the poor creature fly off.  Note the info on your data sheet or notebook, as well as the tag number.

Raggedy Monarch butterfly

Raggedy Monarch butterfly. I don’t tag beat-up butterflies like this. Doubtful she’ll make it to Mexico. Plus, don’t want to waste tags.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

5.  Remove tag from sheet and adhere to butterfly

Holding the butterfly between two fingers with wings closed with one hand, remove a Monarch Watch sticker from the tag sheet.  I like to use my thumbnail and get them on the tip of my nail so they’re easy to slip onto the discal cell of the butterfly’s wing. Some people like to use a toothpick to lift the tag from the paper.

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

Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Place the tag on the discal cell, as illustrated in the tagging sheet sent to you by Monarch Watch.  Press gently, but firmly.  Congratulations!  You’ve tagged a Monarch butterfly.

Press the tag onto the discal cell in the middle of the lower wing, as shown.

Press the tag onto the discal cell in the middle of the lower wing, as shown. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Make sure you’ve noted the tag number, butterfly’s sex, any other useful data, on your data sheet or notebook.

6.  Release

Open your grasp and let the butterfly go.  If you’re so inclined, send her off with a kiss and best wishes for safe travels to Mexico.

Off she goes!

Off she goes!   Photo by Monka Maeckle

After the Monarch migration season, send all your data to Monarch Watch by December 1 so it can be entered into the online tag recovery database.   In the spring, you can check  to see if any of your Monarchs were recovered in Mexico.

Monarch butterfly recoveries

Of about 2400 Monarchs tagged, we’ve had 28 recoveries in Mexico.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Good luck with your tagging.  Please let us know how it goes.

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Butterfly FAQ: How to move a Monarch butterfly chrysalis

One of the most frequently asked questions we get this time of year, especially in a rebound season like 2015, is how to move a Monarch chrysalis.

Janine Robin wrote via email last week that she found six Monarch chrysalises in her backyard in Folsom, Louisiana.  “Most are in a safe spot, but two are on a large clay pot. They are secure, but in the afternoon sun for about three hours.  Should they be moved?”

Monarchs on pot

Two Monarch caterpillars made their chrysalis on Janine Robin’s outdoor pot. Photo by Janine Robin

Good question.   That’s a judgement call.   Caterpillars are pretty intelligent about locating their chrysalises in safe places.  But like all of us, sometimes they misjudge.

For example, the Queen chrysalis pictured below formed on the edge of my kitchen door.

Queen chrysalis on door

Queen chrysalis on door. Not a good spot to hatch a butterfly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

I didn’t even notice until today (and I looked for her!) when I found a smashed newborn Queen caught in the door.  Sadly, she perished.

So if the chrysalis is in a dangerous or inopportune spot–or, if you just want to witness the magical moment of eclosure, when it hatches–then yes.  Move it.

The tricky part is often getting the chrysalis OFF of the surface to which it is attached without damaging the chrysalis itself.

You may have noticed that before caterpillars make their chrysalis, they are very still and quiet for about a day.  I like to think that they are deep in thought during this transformative stage.  It must take a lot of concentration and mindfulness to morph caterpillar legs into butterfly wings.

But what’s actually happening is they are spinning a vast silk web that you often don’t notice.  If you rub your finger on the surface around the stiff, black cremaster, which serves as a hook to hold the chrysalis in place, you’ll feel a thin, soft layer of silk.  That’s what you need to gather up to remove the chrysalis safely.  See the slide show below to learn how.

How do you know if the chrysalis is in a dangerous spot?

Newborn Monarch butterfly

Newborn Monarch butterfly will hang for about two hours before ready to fly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Consider that the newly hatched butterfly will spend about two hours hanging from its empty chrysalis shell while it’s wet, crumpled wings drop and form properly. It’s advantageous for the butterfly in this delicate state to have something to climb on or cling to–a stick, netting, paper towel, leaves.

Winds blow. Animals or people walk by and brush up on the butterflies–possibly knocking them off. As Janine Robin wrote today, “Of the two chrysalises on the large clay pot, the lower one either fell off or was brushed off by an armadillo, possum or raccoon….I think it’s damaged.” Robin said she was able to reattach the chrysalis with a spot of glue.

Also, if after hatching the butterflies fall and can’t climb back up (which seemingly could happen in the above pot and appears to be what happened with my Queen), their wings will dry crumpled and they will die. Having an easy-to-grab surface or twig/branch/leaf to grab would definitely help hoist heavy, damp wings in the event of a fall.

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                     All slide show photos by Monika Maeckle

For more on this subject, see our previous post: Is moving a Monarch chrysalis OK? Yes, and here’s how to do it.

Meanwhile, check out the slide show above to master the tricky task of getting a chrysalis off the surface to which it is attached.  Good luck, and let us know how it goes.

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Eastern Black Swallowtail Butterflies Everywhere: Here’s How to Raise Them at Home

Monarchs generally make headlines, but the Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar and butterfly also merit attention.  Especially in this mild, wet year.

Swallowtail Monarch caterpillar

Frequently confused in the late caterpillar stage: Swallowtail, on the left on rue, Monarch, on milkweed on the right. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In my downtown plot, every fennel, dill and rue plant is loaded with Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars. Even along the Llano River, we’re finding hungry Swallowtail cats on wild carrot and parsley.  One hungry critter decimated three newly-planted Finochio seedlings down to the nub.  Yes, butterfly gardening is full of compromises–like sharing your herbs and edibles with a slew of hungry caterpillars.

Swallowtail fennel

Down to the nub! Swallowtail caterpillar devoured three new Fennel seedlings. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That said, just like Monarchs, Eastern Black Swallowtails wear black, green, yellow and white-striped suits in their later caterpillar stages, and are fun to raise at home.  Unlike Monarchs, they make an amazing saddle-type chrysalis, sport amusing tentacle-like “tubercles” that reveal themselves when disturbed, and are vexing in their unpredictability.   Since several readers haved asked about raising Swallowtails this season, we’re recycling a post from July, 2014, that offers tips on how to do it.

How to Raise Eastern Swallowtail Butterflies at Home

Monarch butterflies get all the press, but the Eastern or Black Swallowtail, Papillio polyxenes, a large blue, black and gold and cream-specked beauty, flies in our neck of the world from April through November.   The Texas native provides lots of action in the garden when Monarchs are elsewhere.

Eastern Swallowtail

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

We’ve been getting questions about raising Swallowtail butterflies in recent weeks. The wet June has made for a long season for dill, fennel, parsley and rue the plants on which Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs.  Below are tips for raising them at home.

Eastern Swallowtail egg on Dill Weed

Eastern Swallowtail egg on Dill Weed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

First, locate the eggs. The tiny yellow spheres perch prominently on the leaves of dill, fennel, parsley and rue. Check your plants frequently, as wasps, ladybugs, spiders and others will slurp up these protein pops as soon as they are spotted.  When you’re looking, you may notice some clear, dry, empty spheres, exactly the size of the eggs.  Those are empty egg shells already visited and consumed by predators.

Swallowtail egg

Close-up of Swallowtail egg on dill. Photo by Monika Maeckle

I usually snap off a piece of the plant with the eggs on them and take them inside to rest in a jar with the lid loosely closed.  Don’t worry about “smothering” the egg.   They’ll do fine until they hatch, usually within four days.

Once the little guys hatch, you’ll want to provide fresh air to prevent mold from growing on the host plant.  Bring in some sprigs of fresh plant and put them in the jar. I usually leave the eggs alone until the caterpillars are big enough to spot with a naked eye–generally two days.   You’ll see they’re tiny and hard to monitor, so again, leave them alone and just provide fresh air and fresh host plant until they grow bigger.

After a few days, you’ll see a small black creature, perhaps 1/16th of an inch long.  If you look closely, you might notice a white or orange band in the middle of the body.  That’s your first instar, or stage, Swallowtail caterpillar.  They will eat quietly and consistently for several days before they morph to the next stage.   They’re rather nondescript and not yet as interesting as they will become.  Just wait.

Swallowtail

First instar Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar on rue. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Up until this point, I may have had the Swallowtails in a jar or container with a loose lid or netting.  But now it starts to get interesting and I like to watch them eat and grow, although it can make a small mess.

Usually I gather fresh host plant and put it in a vase with newspaper underneath so I can observe the caterpillars literally grow before my eyes. The newspaper catches the frass, or caterpillar poop, that the caterpillars produce in volume.  The small, black odorless pellet-like droppings may seem gross, but they’re actually not.  Well, maybe for some people.  Generally I will set such a vase in a highly trafficked place in my home or office so I won’t miss the action in the course of any day. (Yes, I’ve been known to take caterpillars to work.)

Swallowtail bouquet

Bouquet of Swallowtail caterpillars in vase on fennel. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars will continue to eat and morph for about 10 days.   What’s amazing is how different they look at each stage.   As they move through their instars, they completely transform, going from the unremarkable black cat with a white band to a prickly orange, white and black form, then to a black, green, yellow and white-striped creature often confused with Monarch caterpillars.

Throughout the process these boys eat voraciously–lots of fresh host plant.  In our hot Texas summers, I find dill expires early in the season but that Swallowtails will easily transition to the more abundant and heat-hardy rue or fennel.   At the ranch we have wild parsley and I have brought that home for feeding.  Once I bought organic fennel or parsley at the grocery store to feed a slew of Swallowtails when I had run out of fresh host.  The caterpillars didn’t seem to like it much (like us, they prefer FRESH greens) but they ate it in the later stages.

Swallowtail showing tubercles

Who goes there?!? Note the yellow “tubercles” which the Swallowtail shows off when bothered. Photo by Monika Maeckle

One of the most amusing aspects of raising Swallowtails is their interesting tentacles.  When they get to the last stages, they show distinctive yellow antennae when poked or bothered. This orange forked gland, called the osmeterium, shows itself when the butterfly perceives danger.  Upon the slightest nudge or threat, the 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.

Swallowtail caterpillar sheds its skin. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail sheds skin. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars will continue to eat, shed their skins and morph to the next stage over about 10 days until they get to the fifth instar at which time they will cease eating and seek a quiet place to form their chrysalis. Swallowtails are famous for wandering far from the host plant and taking their time to emerge from the chrysalis at unpredictable times.  Monarch caterpillars are generally reliable in taking 10-14 days to eclose, or make the transition from chrysalis to butterfly.

Swallowtails, in contrast, can take a few weeks to many months to emerge.  Their unpredictability is also manifested in the varied color of the chrysalis that results from the final morphing.   Sometimes brown, sometimes green, you just never know what color a Swallowtail chrysalis will be.

Swallotwails wear chrysalis coats of many colors. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtails wear chrysalis coats of many colors. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Because Swallowtails can wander, it’s smart to contain them in a cage when they get large enough to bust their stripes and go chrysalis.  I use a net laundry hamper and simply put the vase inside.

Swallowtail

The Swallowtail will bow its head and make a silk button and saddle before going chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Swallowtail, when ready, will stop eating.  He will bow his head in an upside down J-shape, and spin a silk button to attach itself by its head to a twig, branch or net siding.   He then makes a silk saddle to hold itself snugly in place for the time it takes to transform its DNA into a butterfly–again, an often unpredictable amount of time.   Some Swallowtails will overwinter to the next season, depending on the conditions present at the time of forming the chrysalis.

Newborn Swallowtail butterfly with sister chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Newborn Swallowtail butterfly with sister chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

When the day finally comes, though, you will know because the chrysalis will turn dark, then clear. Thereafter, the Swallowtail will emerge when ready.

Give it a few hours to allow its wings to harden. When she starts beating them slowly, you know she’s ready for flight. Take her outside and send her on her way.

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How to Raise Eastern Swallowtail Butterflies at Home

Monarch butterflies get all the press, but the Eastern or Black Swallowtail, Papillio polyxenes, a large blue, black and gold and cream-specked beauty, flies in our neck of the world from April through November.   The Texas native provides lots of action in the garden when Monarchs are elsewhere.

Eastern Swallowtail

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

We’ve been getting questions about raising Swallowtail butterflies in recent weeks. The wet June has made for a long season for dill, fennel, parsley and rue–the plants on which Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs.  Below are some tips for raising them at home.

Eastern Swallowtail egg on Dill Weed

Eastern Swallowtail egg on Dill Weed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

First, locate the eggs. The tiny yellow spheres perch prominently on the leaves of dill, fennel, parsley and rue. Check your plants frequently, as wasps, ladybugs, spiders and others will slurp up these protein pops as soon as they are spotted.  When you’re looking, you may notice some clear, dry, empty spheres, exactly the size of the eggs.  Those are empty egg shells already visited and consumed by predators.

Swallowtail egg

Close-up of Swallowtail egg on dill. Photo by Monika Maeckle

I usually snap off a piece of the plant with the eggs on them and take them inside to rest in a jar with the lid loosely closed.  Don’t worry about “smothering” the egg.   They’ll do fine until they hatch, usually within four days.

Once the little guys hatch, you’ll want to provide fresh air to prevent mold from growing on the host plant.  Bring in some sprigs of fresh plant and put them in the jar. I usually leave the eggs alone until the caterpillars are big enough to spot with a naked eye–generally two days.   You’ll see they’re tiny and hard to monitor, so again, leave them alone and just provide fresh air and fresh host plant until they grow bigger.

After a few days you’ll see a small black creature, perhaps 1/16th of an inch long.  If you look closely, you might notice a white or orange band in the middle of the body.  That’s your first instar, or stage, Swallowtail caterpillar.  They will eat quietly and consistently for several days before they morph to the next stage.   They’re rather nondescript and not yet as interesting as they will become.  Just wait.

Swallowtail

First instar Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar on rue. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Up until this point, I may have had the Swallowtails in a jar or container with a loose lid or netting.  But now it starts to get interesting and I like to watch them eat and grow, although it can make a small mess.

Usually I gather fresh host plant and put it in a vase with newspaper underneath so I can observe the caterpillars literally grow before my eyes. The newspaper catches the frass, or caterpillar poop, that the caterpillars produce in volume.  The small, black odorless pellet-like droppings may seem gross, but they’re actually not.  Well, maybe for some people.  Generally I will set such a vase in a highly trafficked place in my home or office so I won’t miss the action in the course of any day. (Yes, I’ve been known to take caterpillars to work.)

Swallowtail bouquet

Bouquet of Swallowtail caterpillars in vase on fennel. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars will continue to eat and morph for about 10 days.   What’s amazing is how different they look at each stage.   As they move through their instars, they completely transform, going from the unremarkable black cat with a white band to a prickly orange, white and black form, then to a black, green, yellow and white-striped creature often confused with Monarch caterpillars.

Throughout the process these boys eat voraciously–lots of fresh host plant.  In our hot Texas summers, I find dill expires early in the season but that Swallowtails will easily transition to the more abundant and heat-hardy rue or fennel.   At the ranch we have wild parsley and I have brought that home for feeding.  Once I bought organic fennel or parsley at the grocery store to feed a slew of Swallowtails when I had run out of fresh host.  The caterpillars didn’t seem to like it much (like us, they prefer FRESH greens) but they ate it in the later stages.

Swallowtail showing tubercles

Who goes there?!? Note the yellow “tubercles” which the Swallowtail shows off when bothered. Photo by Monika Maeckle

One of the most amusing aspects of raising Swallowtails is their interesting tentacles.  When they get to the last stages, they show distinctive yellow antennae when poked or bothered. This orange forked gland, called the osmeterium, shows itself when the butterfly perceives danger.  Upon the slightest nudge or threat, the 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.

Swallowtail caterpillar sheds its skin. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail sheds skin. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars will continue to eat, shed their skins and morph to the next stage over about 10 days until they get to the fifth instar at which time they will cease eating and seek a quiet place to form their chrysalis. Swallowtails are famous for wandering far from the host plant and taking their time to emerge from the chrysalis at unpredictable times.  Monarch caterpillars are generally reliable in taking 10-14 days to eclose, or make the transition from chrysalis to butterfly.

 

Swallowtails, in contrast, can take a few weeks to many months to emerge.  Their unpredictability is also manifested in the varied color of the chrysalis that results from the final morphing.   Sometimes brown, sometimes green, you just never know what color a Swallowtail chrysalis will be.

Swallotwails wear chrysalis coats of many colors. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtails wear chrysalis coats of many colors. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Because Swallowtails can wander, it’s smart to contain them in a cage when they get large enough to bust their stripes and go chrysalis.  I use a net laundry hamper and simply put the vase inside.

Swallowtail

The Swallowtail will bow its head and make a silk button and saddle before going chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Swallowtail, when ready, will stop eating.  He will bow his head in an upside down J-shape, and spin a silk button to attach itself by its head to a twig, branch or net siding.   He then makes a silk saddle to hold itself snugly in place for the time it takes to transform its DNA into a butterfly–again, an often unpredictable amount of time.   Some Swallowtails will overwinter to the next season, depending on the conditions present at the time of forming the chrysalis.

Newborn Swallowtail butterfly with sister chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Newborn Swallowtail butterfly with sister chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

When the day finally comes, though, you will know because the chrysalis will turn dark, then clear. Thereafter, the Swallowtail will emerge when ready.

Give it a few hours to allow its wings to harden. When she starts beating them slowly, you know she’s ready for flight. Take her outside and send her on her way.

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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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Celebrate the Winter Solstice with Seedballs this Saturday

This Saturday at 11:11 AM, the sun will move directly over the Tropic of Capricorn and we’ll experience the official start of winter–the December solstice. The sun will set on Saturday at 5:40 PM, clocking only 10 hours and 15 minutes (and 35 seconds if you’re counting) of daylight.  This starts the march toward spring and marks the longest  night and shortest day of the year.

Earth

Get ready for a long night this SAturday, December 21.  It’s the winter solstice.  Photo via NASA

In 2012, millions of survivalists, doomsday believers and new age spiritualists bought into the false notion that the world would end on the day of the winter solstice.  A false reading of the Mayan calendar accounted for the madness.   And here we are again, noting the first day of winter and the march toward spring.

Let there be seedballs

Let there be seedballs! Mark the march toward spring and help make next year’s wildflowers happen by making seedballs.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

At my house we choose to celebrate the arrival of winter with an annual rite of making seedballs.   Some folks bake Christmas cookies.  Others craft tamales.   We like to mix soil, clay, water and seed with a generous dash of chile pepper to make seedballs, a facilitator of wildflowers, the nectar sources and hosts for next year’s butterflies.

What are seedballs?

Introduced in the 70s, seedballs are a form of “guerilla gardening” whereby seeds, soil and clay are mixed together into tidy germination bombs that are said to have an 80% higher success rate than simply broadcasting seeds onto soil.  Adding red potters’ clay to the mix protects the seeds from being blown away by wind and a dash of chile pepper makes the seeds less tasty to insects and birds.

Seeds for Seedballs

Collect seeds now for seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Generally, seedballs don’t require watering and you should NOT bury or plant them.

Simply toss them in a vacant lot, your front yard, or a wildscape situation like a ranch or roadside.  Wait for rain to melt away the clay casing, and nature will do the rest.

Monika Maeckle, Annie Schenzel, Shelley Ericson make seedballs

Seedball party?  Count me in.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

Seedball recipes vary as much as those for Christmas cookies.  Some seedball aficionados recommend a 3:2:1 ratio of soil, clay and seed, adding nutrient rich ingredients like worm casings or other natural fortifiers.  The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center encourages a concoction that includes sifting, humus with good bacteria intact, your local soil, and

What do you need to make seedballs?  Seeds, soil, clay and water

What do you need to make seedballs? Seeds, soil, clay and water–and chile powder.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

sand.  I’ve had great success using three parts local or potting soil, one-two parts red potter’s clay powder (purchased from a pottery supply) and one part seeds. The clay binds the ingredients and keeps the balls intact.  Add water until you get a workable dough that allows you to roll a spoonful of seedball mix into a ball that doesn’t stick.  If you find that your seedball dough is too watery, just wait.  The soil soaks up the excess liquid with time.

Mix well until you get a consistency that easily formed into seedballs.

Soil, seeds, red clay, water–and chili pepper. Mix until you get a consistency that is easily formed into seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Put them on newspaper to set up and then add my secret ingredient: red chile pepper.  The pepper discourages insects, birds and other critters from denigrating or eating the seeds, giving them a better chance at germinating and becoming wildflowers for pollinators.

Seedball properly planted

Seedball properly tossed.  Throw them wherey they won’t compete with grass. Make sure it has contact with soil. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Once the seedballs set up, usually after 24 hours, store them in paper bags for later use or toss them right away.

When you toss them, make sure they land where they can make contact with soil, as in the photo above.    If the seedballs have to compete directly with grass, leaves or forbs, germination rates of the seeds decrease.

Remember to use only native seeds for wildscaping situations. Good luck and let us know how it goes.

Seedball

Seedball improperly tossed. Make sure it makes contact with soil. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Texas Butterfly Ranch Seedball Recipe

  • 3 parts local soil or potting soil
  • 1 – 2 parts red potter’s clay powder, also known as “terracotta powder” at pottery supply stores
  • 1 part native wildflower seeds
  • Water, as needed.
  • Newspaper and cookie sheets for drying seedballs
  • Stainless steal bowls or pots for mixing
 
 ****
 
1.  Assemble ingredients.
2.  Mix soil, clay and wildflower seeds together in bowl.  Mix well.
3.  Add water to attain dough-like consistency, much like tart or pie dough
4. Pinch off or use spoon to grab gumball-sized amounts of the mix.  Roll between your palms to get round form.  Drop onto newspaper covered cookie sheet to dry.
5.  Sprinkle generously with red chile pepper.  Let set for 24 hours.
6.  Toss and wait.  Nature will do the rest.

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Baby, it’s Cold Outside: What to do with Late Season Butterflies?

A frequent question this time of year:  what to do with a late season butterfly?

Crazy, unpredictable weather has become routine.  “Fall” is an extension of a lesser summer while “Winter” constitutes cool evenings and days punctuated by sunshine and temperatures that climb into the 70s.  For mariposistas–those of us who love butterflies and enjoy raising them at home–the blending of the seasons is a mixed bag.

Queens on sponges

Baby, it’s cold outside: soak scrubbers in Gatorade so butterflies can fuel up for when the weather turns. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Here’s the good news:  as long as host plant is available, butterflies will lay eggs, resulting in caterpillars and future flyers.  That means more butterflies, even in November and December.

The tough part comes when the butterflies hatch and it’s freezing outside.  Generally, butterflies won’t fly when temperatures are less than 55 or 60 degrees.  And after spending weeks fostering an egg, then a caterpillar, and finally a chrysalis to the point of becoming a butterfly, the idea of unleashing it into a cold, wintery wind seems brutally unacceptable.

Unfortunately, when weather turns harsh for butterflies, we can’t all take the route of Maraleen Manos-Jones, the “butterfly lady” of Shokan, New York.  Last November,   Manos-Jones convinced Southwest Airlines to fly her and a late season Monarch to San Antonio so the creature might have a better chance of joining her butterfly siblings to  roost in the mountains of Michoacán for the winter. Read that amazing story here.  

Just last week, I experienced a similar conundrum:  a dozen Queen chrysalises had hatched from eggs collected in late October.  But as they emerged and readied for flight, a serious cold front hit San Antonio, dropping temperatures into the 30s.

Cold weather for butterflies

Brrrrr. Too cold to release freshly hatched butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The cold spell would remain for several days–and then, temperatures would climb into the 70s.  What to do with the butterflies in the meantime?  They had to eat.

I brought in cut flowers and laid out a spread of overripe fruit in the butterfly cage.   Cotton balls soaked in sugar-water and apple juice were strewn on shallow dishes.

The butterflies refused my nectar feast.

On day three, I turned to my butterfly breeder friend Connie Hodson of Flutterby Gardens in Florida.  Connie has raised tens of thousands of butterflies and has moody weather in Tampa Bay similar to ours in South Texas.

Hodson recommended sponges–scrubbers, actually–soaked in grape- or punch-flavored Gatorade laid out in shallow dishes in the butterfly cage. Since butterflies taste with their feet, you have to set them on the sponge so they can “taste” the fake nectar, whetting their appetite.   At that point, they will extend their long proboscis and slurp some fuel to power their flight.

Queens in the cage

Queens said “no thanks” to my offerings of fruit, flowers and sugar water. Photo by Monika Maeckle

If the butterflies resist the sponge or scrubber, Hodson suggests taking a Q-tip, dipping it in the Gatorade and gently touching the creatures’ proboscis so they get the hang of it.

“They’re not hungry for the first 24 – 48 hours,” Hodson assured me by phone.  “Give it a try.”

I did, and it worked.  Two days after the Gatorade buffet, temperatures climbed into the high 60s.  On that sunny Friday, I took the cages outside, unzipped the door, and off they went.

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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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