Saturday, July 26, 2008

Butterfly Ranching

A few weeks ago, I chanced upon the first monarch butterfly caterpillar for "Monarch Ranch 2008." It finally hatched last Wednesday (the day I left work early).
It was a pretty female and I released her on the lantana flower blooming on the deck. I like the way her colors coordinate with the blossoms, don't you?
I also have a couple of swallowtail cocoons in a large jar on the kitchen counter. These butterflies take longer than monarchs, but I'm hoping maybe one day this week they will hatch. I think they're probably going to be Black Swallowtails because I found the caterpillars on some wild parsnip I was cutting down.

I like the way their chrysalis is color-camouflaged to match the object it's attached to.
I'm guessing this one is green because that's the generic color? (if it was attached to a plant stem instead of a clear jar)
While I was off on Wednesday afternoon, I took advantage of the time to search for monarch caterpillars and eggs to re-populate the monarch ranch. My personal choice is to start with eggs or very tiny caterpillars because there's less worry about parasitic wasps or flies laying their eggs in the caterpillar.
Here are some eggs (you should almost always find the eggs on the underside of common milkweed leaves).
Here are some more common milkweed leaves with tiny caterpillars and an egg. This gives you an idea of how small these are--you have to look really carefully when scanning underneath the leaves.
Once I bring the leaves in the house, those with caterpillars on them can go directly to the "ranch." The leaves with eggs I put in a separate dish--this guarantees that the eggs don't accidentally get eaten when the larger caterpillars are munching on the milkweed leaves. I monitor the eggs and when they're almost ready to hatch, I cut off the portion of the leaf (with the egg still attached) and place it in the ranch on a fresh milkweed leaf.

I can hear you asking......"but how do you know when the egg's ready to hatch?" and here's a picture to show you:I'm still working on my close-up photography skills, but I think you can tell the egg on the left has gotten really dark on the tip--that's the little caterpillar's head! The egg on the right is still completely white. When they hatch, they're about the size of this letter "I"--soooo tiny! But they grow fast and in a couple of days they've doubled in size.

I'm fortunate to have lots of common milkweed growing in several places in the backyard and if I was a good planner, I would pick a bunch of milkweed leaves and keep them in a baggie in the fridge, but I usually have enough time to pick fresh leaves every morning. I transfer the caterpillars to their new leaves and yesterday's old, dried-out leave goes in the compost bucket.

Once they hatch into monarch butterflies, I release them in the backyard where there are plenty of purple coneflowers blooming for them.
Compared to last year's records, my first monarch (also a female) was released on July 30th, so I'm actually a week ahead this year! I grew and released a total of 19 monarch butterflies last year and right now I have 6 eggs and 3 caterpillars for the ranch. My goal for 2008 is to beat last year's total by 5 (an increase of 25%). I also ordered my monarch tagging kit and a butterfly net from MonarchWatch. Last year I tagged 10 monarchs that I raised and also some wild ones I caught in the backyard (but I can't find that record sheet right now). Watch for future Monarch Ranch updates in the coming weeks.

While I was searching the milkweed patches, I also came upon this little spider in a really lovely web. Does anyone know what kind of spider this is? It was very long and skinny.

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I would also like to wish a "Happy Birthday" to my Sissy, who's enjoying an excellent time in Ely, Minnesota, shopping at the Blueberry Arts Festival and feeding fish guts to bald eagles on beautiful Snowbank Lake. Hopefully she'll bring back some good photos to share on my blog.


Anonymous said...

Great post. I really liked seeing the photos from the entire lifespan of the monarch.

RuthieJ said...

Thanks ScienceGuy! Do you have any thoughts on the spider??

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad the monarch ranch is in operation again. It was so much fun last year to see them grow and go out on their own. I forgot how little the eggs are. Thanks for the pics and I'm glad you have so many milkweed plants to attract these beautiful butterflies.

Jayne said...

Yay! It's time for Ruthie's Ranch to fire up again! I love seeing your monarch ranch's progress. Happy Birthday to your Sissy! Hope that she got to see lots of eagles. :c)

Mary said...

I think we have another Science Chimp here...

wow. You have a field of coneflowers. I'm amazed...

Great post, Chimp.

Mel said...

Hi Ruthie :)
Great post! Lovely butterflies!

Meggie said...

Feeding fish guts to bald eagles....doesn't get much better than that! Happy Birthday to Ruthie's Sissy!! You are always involved in the most interesting projects. Can't wait to follow your caterpillars along their way to becoming beautiful butterflies. Guess I'll have to link onto the Monarch site to learn more about the Monarch ranch.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

This is a fun post Ruthie. Your butterfly rustling sounds like fun too.

Larry said...

That Monarch photo is very colorful! Nice project to take on and Happy Bithday to your sis!

RuthieJ said...

Hi Mom,
Watch for future updates on the monarch ranch. I've seen quite a few monarchs flying around the backyard, so hopefully it will be another successful year for me.

Thanks Jayne (on behalf of my Sissy too!)

Thanks Mare, but I think I've got a long way to go to catch up with THE Science Chimp!
I love my coneflower field too--they're butterfly magnets!

Thanks Mel!

Hi Meggie,
I learned about while I was working at Wild Birds Unlimited--we had a family that had tagged monarchs for years and the more I learned about it the more I knew I had to try it too.

Hi Lisa,
I bet you see LOTS of butterflies in your backyard garden too, don't you? It's nice the monarchs are easy to identify though.

Thanks Larry.

Julie said...

You have incredible patience! I don't think I could do all that you're doing, not while working! Maybe you've answered this in another post that I have yet to read... but why and how do you tag/flag a butterfly?
I was thinking while reading this, that we need more BEES. Ever considered starting some hives?

RuthieJ said...

Oh Julie, bees would be nice, but they REALLY take a lot of patience! My neighbor has several hives and I've also followed along on the beekeeping adventures with the Birdchick blog. Unfortunately, that's something I don't have the financial means or time needed to invest in yet....but definitely something to think about for retirement.
To answer your other question, the monarch tag is a little sticky dot that goes on the wing. I will do another post this summer when I tag the first ones, or you can look back at this post from last summer if you're interested: