Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Let's Talk About Monarch Caterpillars

My next couple of posts are going to be devoted solely to talking about monarchs, so hopefully these will answer any questions you might have in case you're thinking about raising monarchs for yourself.

By now, you've probably heard or read the news that the monarch numbers (and butterflies in general) are all down this summer--perhaps due to the chillier and wetter than usual weather many of us have been experiencing this summer.

I've been finding quite a few monarch caterpillars in the backyard this week and here's a look at my re-populated monarch ranch.

Here are 4 large caterpillars I found on 2 plants the other night.
Monarch ranching is a really fun project that you might want to pursue with your kids or grandkids (or even on your own as I do!). So let's say you want to start a ranch, let me share some tips with you for going out and finding some caterpillars yourself.

First of all, you've got to find some Common Milkweed--the caterpillar's favorite food source. Hopefully you'll have some of this growing in your backyard or somewhere nearby. (And of course, you don't want to pick any that's been sprayed with chemicals.) The best thing to look for is a leaf that's been munched on. If you're lucky, the caterpillar will still be there and if you're really lucky, the caterpillar will be on top of the leaf!

Another clue to look for is poop (frass) on the leaves below where a caterpillar might be. The bigger the frass, the bigger the caterpillar you'll find.

Here's a lucky find--3 caterpillars on one plant, but notice that 2 are hiding underneath the leaves.

If you do find some caterpillars to populate your ranch, remember that you'll have to continue feeding them. I usually pick several leaves while I'm out there and store them in a baggie in the fridge. Once the caterpillars get bigger, they're eating machines, so you have to make sure you've got enough food to keep them fed until they turn into a chrysalis.

And speaking of chrysalis, take a look at what I also found yesterday........
A monarch chrysalis in the wild!! In all of my 50 years on this earth, it's the first time I've ever seen one! I was trimming back this huge milkweed patch next to the driveway because it had gotten too overgrown and was obstructing our view when backing out. The breeze just happened to blow this leaf back and I spotted the chrysalis. Thank goodness I didn't cut this stalk off before I saw the chrysalis.

Here's what it looked like when the leaf was just hanging--what amazing camouflage!

So I decided to remove this chrysalis from the leaf and add it to my ranch to see if it would hatch. Did you know you could do that? Let me show you how I did it. And before I go any further, I should tell you that I learned this from Dave, my monarch monitoring/bluebirding/master naturalist mentor.

Because this leaf would die before the butterfly hatched and the chrysalis has to hang in order for the butterfly to develop properly, I had to get it off the leaf.

See that little black "stem" at the top of the chrysalis? It's very stiff and hard, so this is what I'm going to attach a hanging thread to. That will allow me to tie the chrysalis to the roof of my monarch ranch. I put a needle at each end of the thread to make it easier to work with and just tied a good, tight square knot around the black stem.

Before the caterpillar turns into the chrysalis, it attaches itself to the underside of where the chrysalis will hang with a strong patch of silk. My next step was to carefully remove this silk patch from the leaf, so I pulled the handy-dandy Leatherman Micra from my pocket (you carry one of these with you at all times, right?) and gently loosened the silk patch from the leaf.

Once it's loosened, the entire patch was easily removed from the leaf.

Ta-Da!!! A monarch chrysalis ready to be attached to the ceiling of my monarch ranch.

In previous years, I've collected mostly eggs and raised them into caterpillars. This is the first year when the majority of my monarch butterflies will be hatched from larger caterpillars found in the backyard. There is a little bit more risk in hatching monarchs this way, mainly due to the chance of parasitic wasps or flies laying their eggs in the larva. There is no visible evidence when this occurs, but usually what happens is the butterfly is unable to develop due to the parasitic wasp or fly which develops instead inside the chrysalis. I've only had it happen a couple of times, but it's quite disappointing and something that you want to be aware of in case it happens in your monarch ranch.

Before I finish, here is an excellent website (just click on the link) if you're looking for more information on monarchs: Monarch Watch. I also really like "The Butterfly Book" by Don & Lillian Stokes as a reference guide. And I would be more than happy to try and answer any questions you have also. You can leave a comment or feel free to e-mail me (rjknits at msn dot com).

I hope you enjoyed learning more about collecting monarch caterpillars. Next time, I'm going to show you how to tag the monarch butterflies that you've raised in your ranch.


Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

I have several milkwee plants in the yard this year but I have yet to find eggs or cats.

Ruth said...

I have been looking diligently for caterpillars this year and have found none. I have had success raising caterpillars to butterflies the last 3 years, but not on the scale you raise them. I am interested to see how you tag them.

Anonymous said...

You almost want to make me start a Monarch Ranch for myself, you make it sound so easy with pics to prove it. No I probably won't attempt this.
Thanks for the info anyway.


Gaelyn said...

This is facinating. I really look forward to the banding. Why couldn't you just have taken the whole leaf with the cysalis?

RuthieJ said...

Hi Lynne,
I've just started seeing these caterpillars in about the last week, so don't give up hope!

Hi Ruth,
In my backyard, I seem to find the most caterpillars on the few milkweed plants around my compost bin. If you can find one in a particular area, chances are there will be more in the vicinity. Don't give up hope--there are definitely some out there!

Hi Mom,
It is easy--the hardest part is finding them enough fresh, soft leaves to feed them. That's why I let all that milkweed continue to grow in the backyard.

Hi Gaelyn,
I could have taken the whole leaf if there would have been a way to support it in my monarch ranch, but once the leaf dies it gets all curled up and brittle. By removing the chrysalis, I can hang it from the ceiling of my ranch just like the other chrysalis' and it will develop and hatch naturally.

Jayne said...

That's so very cool Ruthie! I don't have any milkweed, but pass a huge patch along some woods on my way home each day. Hmmmm.... may just have to investigate!

Lisa at Greenbow said...

Some great finds Ruthie. It will be fun watching your Monarchs grow.

dAwN said...

This is very interesting Ruthie!
I see milkweed all over the place..I dont know if it is the kind u mentioned..but now I will be looking for the catipillars.
I would like to link to this post in my weekly reader..which is a week late..haa..I should call it bi-weekly reader..
and use one of your that ok?
and i look forward to learning more..thanks

Mama Pea said...

VERY interesting post, Ruthie. Your pictures make it understandable even to me. There sure are a whole lot of things out there in the world that I know NOTHING about!

Thanks for sharing.

RuthieJ said...

Thanks Jayne. Raising monarchs is a fascinating hobby.

Thanks Lisa. I had a butterfly hatched when I got home from work today. It's always so cool to see that miracle on my kitchen counter!

Hi Dawn,
Common milkweed is everywhere I think and the easiest to grow. Watch for the seed pods to break into big white fluffies in the fall.
Link away, my dear, anything to stimulate more interest in monarchs!

Thanks Mama Pea. Up until about 5 years ago, I knew nothing about this monarch stuff either. When I was working at Wild Birds Unlimited, a family that raised and tagged monarchs were regular customers in the store and that's when I first caught the "bug." I had my first monarch ranch on the checkout counter at the store and people were fascinated.

Penelope said...

Fascinating - and so well illustrated and explained!

Anonymous said...

Ruthie, you are so full of good information. . . really, really fascinating.

RuthieJ said...

Thanks Penny, glad you enjoyed it.

Aw Mary Lee, sometimes I think I'm just too darn nerdy! There are plenty of people who would think this monarch obsession is borderline insanity, but I'm loving the chance to learn more about these critters and I'm glad you enjoyed it too.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Ruthie,
I sure enjoy your highly educational and well done presentations. It warms my old heart to see that you are such an excellent teacher even if you don't think so. Your old teacher Dad

Anonymous said...

Hello! I found your site when googling "when to find monarch caterpillars." We live in Vermont and I just went back to a patch of milkweed where we found several caterpillars this time of year a couple of years ago. We found nothing. Do you think the butterflies will be laying eggs early/late this year? We found a lot of snails on the milkweeds...


purlbaker said...

Hi; Great site! I live in Northern Wisconsin my grand daughter came home from school today with a picture of a Monarch catepiller and said the teacher told her to bring one to class tomorrow. We have an entire field of milkweed, not a catepiller anywhere. Haven't they already become butterflies and left? We have had 3 nights of light frost already, but we did see 1 butterfly on our walk.