Saturday, July 24, 2010

When What To My Wondering Eyes Did Appear!

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
(Click pictures to enlarge)

"The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough." ~ Rabindranath Tagore
A rare freeze in the Monarch butterfly wintering habitat in Mexico severely depleted the population that would return to our area this spring. The expert at the botanical garden told us this was why they seemed late this year. Of course, this is the first year we have planned for butterflies with the new garden beds, so I really hadn't noticed. Butterfly weed, milkweed... these are the ONLY food that the Monarch caterpillars eat. So, I started plants from seed and also obtained roots as well. I planted groupings in six areas of the flower beds and four additional areas along the preserve. Several garden blogs told of Monarch laying their eggs on the butterfly weed seedlings before they were even put in the ground. I watched and searched the leaves and waited... but nothing; not even so much as a sighting of a Monarch.

A Monarch... rare for our yard.

Then one day in early July, we saw a lone Monarch fluttering out over the preserve. It came to rest just at the edge, on my blooming butterfly weed. I was delighted but perplexed... where were the rest? All the other butterflies come to the flowers in droves... the black swallowtail is trying to cover the poor fennel plant with caterpillars and eggs... (I counted 35 caterpillars there today). So, where are the Monarch caterpillars? Where are the Monarch eggs?

Monarchs drink the milkweed nectar and the caterpillars eat the leaves.
They are "pooping" machines... see the black frass.

I missed the black balls of "frass" (caterpillar poop) when I snapped the picture of the Monarch, but later as I looked out over the fennel, I saw to my surprise on the butterfly weed... a caterpillar... a Monarch caterpillar... and a big one at that! Then I looked closely and found another and another and another. Most were large and plump and I couldn't figure out how we missed them. The leaves of the plants were ragged and the caterpillars had obviously been there for some time. How did I miss them? All in all, I counted fifteen Monarch caterpillars. I knew they were poisonous to birds from eating the milkweed so I didn't worry too much about the extra day it would take to get the habitat inside set up for them.

Monarch butterfly caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) Posted by Picasa

But I should have worried; when I went out to gather them, most were gone. Out of fifteen caterpillars, I found only six to take inside. What happened to them? Probably other predators that are not affected by the noxious poisons they store in their bodies... wasps or spiders or small lizards ate them. It seems that almost all Monarch caterpillars left outside in the garden, disappear or are eaten by something. I brought the six I found inside where they went through whole sprigs of milkweed leaves in a few hours. Fortunately, they did not finish off ALL the milkweed before the time came for them to settle down for their metamorphosis. Funny though, even with all that leaf destruction, I still see new tiny leaves coming out on the sides of the bare stems again already.

Next stop.... the Happy Dance. (to be continued)

(end of post)


kenju said...

The Monarchs are so gorgeous. I have not seen any yet this year. There are plenty of yellow and blue ones, but the monarchs haven't arrived here yet.

Solve a problem for me?  for the last 2 days, everytime I leave the house with my camera, the lens fogs up so badly that my photos look misted. HOw can I keep that from happening?

Sandra said...

simply breathtaking and awe inspiring. my favorite is that beautiful catepillar. we do not get monarchs in our yard, so i might have to buy butterfly weed, we have 6 different types, but not this one. my other thought is how dare they call that beautiful orange flower a weed? thanks for all the info.

Ginny Hartzler said...

What beautiful shots!! And even the caterpillar is so very pretty, before he even becomes a butterfly! what a shame about the others being gone, eaten I guess. Your photos are always so sharp and lovely.

Lori said...

Your photos are amazing!  This looks so much like the milkweed that grows in the flint hills of Kansas.  Beautiful!