Monarch butterflies have made their way to Texas, but unfortunately not much milkweed greets them upon arrival. A harsh, dry winter preceded by drought and schizophrenic weather have left the sought-after perennial a no-show in many Texas gardens–and on roadsides and ranch land.
Milkweeds, that is, any Asclepias species, are the host plants to Monarch butterflies and the only plant on which they will lay eggs to continue their life cycle.
Reliable DPLEX correspondent Harlen Aschen wrote to the listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly fans that on a 1000-mile trip from Port Lavaca, Texas, past San Antonio to near Abilene and back around Austin “we saw no blooming milkweed.”
Yet that hasn’t stopped a tenacious group of butterfly lovers from raising caterpillars and hatching butterflies on “alternative fuels.”
Professional butterfly breeders have been experimenting for years to keep their livestock well nourished when host plants become scarce. Many of us who raise butterflies at home, especially in a year like this, also seek alternatives, since local nurseries seem to be having a hard time getting milkweed and keeping it in stock. The recent news that the Monarch butterfly migration may soon become extinct because of a loss of milkweed habitat is driving the demand.
So what’s a hungry caterpillar to do?
It’s a quandary. At my house, I planted Tropical milkweed seeds in February and have several pots growing, including two filled with seedlings only two inches tall. This will sate my caterpillars for a few days, at most.
I’m hoping that by the time the hungry cats finish up the tender seedlings, my garden milkweeds will have taken off. Or perhaps local nurseries will get more milkweed in stock.
Over on the DPLEX list, butterfly buffs–and the Monarch caterpillars–are getting resourceful. Several folks mentioned that by the time the caterpillars get to their fifth instar, or their final stage, before morphing into a chrysalis, they will eat pumpkin and cucumbers.
That’s right, folks. See it with your own eyes.
“The butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar. The one on the right was reared on milkweed,” Ellen Reid wrote via email all the way from St. Arnaud, Victoria, Australia. ”We couldn’t distinguish between them in any way.”
Reid shared a photo of “pumpkin frass”–orange colored butterfly poop which is produced in volumes in the final stages of the caterpillars metamorphosis. Usually the frass is dark green or even brown, but “pumpkin frass” looks like the food that fueled it.
Paul Addington tried feeding his Monarch caterpillars cucumbers. It worked.
“These cats are eating the skin of the cucumber,” relayed Addington. “These were organic, but still felt like they were waxy, so [they were] heavily scrubbed first.”
Addington said the caterpillars indeed preferred milkweed when given a choice. ”All 52 of mine finished on cucumber, looked great and joined the wild,” he said, adding “UPDATE: must be fresh, crunchy cucumbers.…two-weeks-in-the-fridge cukes were rejected with enthusiasm….what an uproar!”
Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, chimed in to the conversation, letting folks know that the alternatives have been known for a while. “These alternatives have been utilized by many people in the past. They only seem to work for fifth instar larvae that are less than four days from pupating. Many of the larvae will not make these transitions successfully.”
So Monarch butterfly caterpillars appear to be more adaptable than we thought.
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- Texas Butterfly Ranch Milkweed Guide
- Will the Monarch Migration Become Extinct?
- How to Get Native Milkweed Seeds to Germinate
- Persnickety Texas milkweeds, May Not Lend Themselves to Mass Production
- Tropical Milkweed: To Plant it or Not is No Simple Question
- Desperately seeking Milkweed: Be sure to buy pesticide free plants
- Butterfly FAQ: Is it OK to Move a Chrysalis? Yes, and here’s how to do it
- How to Make Seedballs
- Converting your Lawn to a Butterfly Garden