Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Skeletal Remains And A "Moving" Experience

Skeletal remains of the fennel with the culprits in plain view.... black swallowtail caterpillars.
(Click pictures to enlarge)

"Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar." ~ Bradley Millar
August is "butterfly" month; the time of year when butterflies are in the passion of procreation at a heated pitch. Some are laying eggs to hatch and enter the chrysalis stage to overwinter and others are seeking to create the population that will migrate south. I am overrun.... with caterpillars. To date, we have had three batches of black swallowtails take flight.... total number 24. They have completely destroyed three dill plants and almost did the fennel in back in early July. The fennel rebounded after clever, or at least partially clever netting of the plant (Except for that one female that somehow found a way under the net), and by removing the eggs as soon as they were deposited. I also admit that I removed small caterpillars and put them in the bird feeder for the somewhat stupid goldfinch who can't seem to realize that they have a smorgasbord of live protein just a few feet from the thistle. Still when she moved to the parsley, I relented and we even bought parsley bunches at the store to take care of the caterpillars we brought inside.

In the last week, the swallowtails have gone nuts and I could not keep up with the monitoring and they have now destroyed the parsley, yes really, it is just sticks... no leaves. The fennel was on its last lap and loaded as pictured with caterpillars in all instar stages.

But it wasn't just the swallowtails.

Monarch caterpillar... a milkweed eating machine Posted by Picasa

To date we have had fourteen Monarchs emerge and take flight. Four are ready to emerge any morning now. The Monarchs only eat milkweed. I planted a bucket load of milkweed and different varieties. Some bloomed with orange flowers and had smaller plants and leaves. Others grew tall and almost bushy and did not bloom at all this year. Most of these I grew from seed. I put six groupings of plants in the flower beds and another three groupings of milkweed out next to the preserve. It took me most of the summer to be able to see the tiny single eggs the Monarch lays and it was not until July that we saw the caterpillars. I would look and look and suddenly there they were, large and eating up a storm. I have cut the milkweed back after they have stripped the leaves and it re-grows the leaves, but in the last two weeks the Monarchs seem to be in a frenzy, just as the others. So, I started bringing in caterpillars and setting up new houses and used an old cracked plastic fish tank and screen lid to start another and I have cut milkweed and cut milkweed and still they show up. In addition to the four chrysalides that are ready to emerge I have 18 in newly formed chrysalides and over 25 still eating. They can go through six large sprigs of milkweed leaves in one night. And still I found more and more caterpillars.

Monday it became clear that the milkweed would not make it through until the last group hatched and emerged and the Monarch left for migration. My largest patch of milkweed was completely stripped of the leaves and like the fennel, only skeletal remains of the stems were seen. Poor caterpillars were walking on the ground to try and find more milkweed. I called the Norfolk Botanical Garden and asked if they needed any.... no, but I could bring them and put them out in the outdoor butterfly garden. They had milkweed but they would have to fend for themselves in nature. I called the Butterfly Society to see if anyone else raising them had more milkweed... but no one answered my plea.

So, yesterday morning, Stephen and I went to the botanical garden. I took two containers with screened lids. I collected the black swallowtail first. They don't like to be handled so I cut the fennel they were attached to off into the container. I got them off the parsley and removed all the remaining eggs I could find. In total there were 32 black swallowtail caterpillars. Most were in the middle to late instars. Then I started gathering the Monarchs. I had told the lady at the botanical garden that I thought we had about 30 Monarch caterpillars still outside but I was wrong... really, really wrong. When I had collected all that I could find, they numbered 80.

At the botanical garden, they pointed me to the huge patch of fennel and we let the black swallowtails go on the leaves and on the ground at the base of the fennel. I think the sheer number of the Monarchs took the lady by surprise and she suggested we put them out in the wild butterfly maze. It was a different type of milkweed with large pods, native but invasive. The Monarchs are better behaved than the swallowtails and the caterpillars will walk onto your finger and then on to the plant. We tried to spread them out a bit but I know that within a few days that patch of milkweed will look dilapidated. Even though they had to endure a long moving experience and new and different tasting milkweed and even though they too have to brave the elements in their quest to become regal butterflies, at least they won't go hungry.

Of course, when I returned home, I had to clean out all the caterpillar frass (poop) from the (now) four butterfly houses in the sunroom and cut more stems and leaves to feed the ones I kept. In the process, I found five more that somehow hid away from me in the morning morning and magically appeared last night. I check every milkweed leaf for eggs and brush them off now.

Oh, some of the wild milkweed pods were breaking open, so I took some seed. The garden lady said this was "sneaky" invasive, so we are going to plant them out at the edge of the preserve... along the road and on the other side of our section. Perhaps then we will be able to handle the numbers next year.

(end of post)


Sandra said...

I am entranced by the photos and blown away by the story. your photos are wonderful to behold. that first one i stared at for a while and will show it to my hubby. thanks for shariing your butterfly summer with us. cant wait for next year

kenju said...

I am impressed that you would go to the trouble to do all that, and I'm proud of you for it.

We have trees that overhang our deck and the amount of caterpillar poop that is deposited on our deck and chairs is overwhelming. It's bad enough when it is dry, but when it rains - it turns into a slimy mess that is nearly impossible to clean off. It's the only part of summer that I abhor.

Madeline said...

Wow!  Great photographs!  Nature at work!  It is amazing to see what makes our word go round.

Celia said...

Amazing, you're running your own butterfly rescue, I was thrilled with your story.  Picked your page up from kenju's Imagination page, and had to go look up toad houses per your comment.  Didn't know there was such a thing, cool. 

Scarlet said...

I found your blong via Carmi and Utenzi.
What beautiful caterpillars you have in your yard. Your photos are divine, and it's wonderful to see someone doing their bit to support local wildlife!
It must feel very satisfyinf seeing those beautiful butterflies take flight!

Ginny Hartzler said...

Good grief! It seems this is becoming a full time job! But you are so sweet and tender hearted for taking them to the botanical garden. I'm loving the pictures, the caterpillars are amazing looking, even from far away.

colleen said...

A caterpillar tree. I'll be on the lookout for those.  I think I saw my first monarch today but it flutterd by so fast.

Col said...

What an unbelievable adventure.  I find that the  caterpillars themselves are  beautiful... but the numbers quite intimidating.  Lovely photos!<span>

Paul Nichols said...


Michelle from Rambling Woods said...

What a lovely sight...I belong to Monarch Watch and I do hope that this winter is kinder than last...that awful weather was horrible for the monarchs and the poor people who live in that area. The illegal logging makes the hills so vulnerable to flooding and some folks were killed... Fingers crossed for a better year.....