Thursday, June 30, 2011

Life With Monarchs

This morning I missed watching one of my monarchs transform into its chrysalis.  When I shuffled into the kitchen this morning, he was the same as I left him last night: hanging upside down from a twig.  The one difference was that his little mouth parts were moving as if munching on an imaginary leaf.  Do caterpillars dream?

An hour letter I checked on him once more before walking out the door and to my amazement he was now a little jade capsule with gold trim.  I had totally missed the change.  I had absolutely no idea they could change that quickly.

I also learned that they can move quickly.  Returning home from work, I counted only three caterpillars on the milkweed plants I had potted indoors.  I was missing one.  I looked around at my feet, afraid that he had fallen and I had stepped on him.  Or maybe the dog had eaten him.  Thankfully, I found him on the underside of the kitchen table.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

First Tiger Lily

First lily of the season
Found this big guy this morning.  Don't know how I missed him.
This morning my bed of tiger lilies were all buds waiting to burst. This evening one of them had opened.  I always love the first blooms.

Meanwhile, I have counted four milkweed plants with caterpillar activity.  And as many times as I check on them, I was surprised to find a really big guy on one of the leaves.

There are also the disappointments. Seeing signs of caterpillar presence and then not finding anything.  Ants like to eat eggs and larvae and will take it back to their own nests to feed their colony. Spiders and Asian lady beetle larvae and adults also take their toll.

Yep, that's caterpillar poop!
How do I know there were monarch caterpillar's present?  The state of the milkweed is a sure sign.  If there are holes in the leaves, a caterpillar has been munching. And the bigger the holes, the larger the caterpillar.  Caterpillar droppings are also quite evident the larger they get.

With all this concentrating on the caterpillar, I need to start thinking of planting some more nectar plants for the adult butterflies to feed on.  If it ever stops raining long enough to plant something!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


This morning I had a caterpillar in a jar.

When I got home from work, I had this:

If you look closely at the first photo you can see the tiny silk threads that will become his silk pad, where he will attach himself as he moves into the pupa stage. The beautiful green chrysalis with the ring of gold dots will protect the forming butterfly.  If everything goes as planned, in 10-14 days he (or she -- and yes, I can tell them apart), will emerge as a full grown monarch butterfly, ready to fly off, mate and, if it's a female, lay eggs of her own.

Watching this process, it's easy to understand why the butterfly is a symbol of transformation.  Beautiful from the start, the caterpillar is able to transcend its form to become something breathtaking.   

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Monarchs in the Garden

Monarchs in the garden
An authors’ most frequently asked questions is where do you get your ideas? It’s simple. The same place everyone else does. My recent inspiration came from my granddaughter when she brought home a monarch caterpillar from the State Fair. It was getting ready to spin its chrysalis. It was a fascinating process to watch. When we finally released the butterfly, I had tears in my eyes, like sending my child off to her first day of kindergarten. I was hooked.

So very tiny
I had already planted several varieties of milkweed in my garden to attract the butterflies -- that I already knew from my own childhood fascination with them.  Monarchs eat milkweed.  The first summer I planted the milkweed I counted over a dozen monarch caterpillars munching on my milkweed. They were big and easy to spot. Then they disappeared. I assumed they had found a branch somewhere to turn into a chrysalis and begin their transformation, but I could never find the little green pod they were supposed to turn into. I also found little monarch carcasses lying on milkweed leaves. The mortality rate seemed to be high.

4 days later
So I researched. I was amazed. Monarchs only lay their eggs on milkweed plants. The mortality rate is high. As much as I have always believed in letting nature take its course, it seems a monarch caterpillar has a much better chance of survival in a jar in my kitchen than it does in the wild.  So, I was prepared last spring to take some of the caterpillars in and watch them grow.

But there were no caterpillars.  Nada.  None.  It was
very disappointing as overall monarch populations are down.  Thankfully, this year I found at least a dozen little caterpillar eggs on my milkweed plants (yeah, I have become so obsessed, I can recognize butterfly eggs!) A few days later they hatched.  I was excited, but couldn't take any of them into the house as I was leaving on vacation.  They need a constant supply of fresh milkweed, so I had to leave them to nature.  When I got back, I could only find three, but oh my, how they've grown.

12 days later and still growing!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


There’s a housing crisis in my neighborhood – more specifically in my backyard. It all began when I bought a homemade, solidly built birdhouse at Karl Oskar Days in Lindstrom, MN. Besides the sturdy wood construction, what attracted me was that the birdhouse was mounted on a pitchfork, making it super easy to set up.  Cleaning it was also a cinch, just pull the nail out from the front of the house and the bottom swings down for easy cleaning. A very clever idea.

I haven’t had much luck with birdhouses in the past. I have nine in the backyard. Only one of them has ever been occupied - if you don't count the wasps that moved into the birdhouse that looks like a castle. It took a pair of wrens two years to discover the pale yellow birdhouse hidden in a brush of jack pye weeds, and they hired a downy woodpecker to elongate the small entryway before they moved in. So, my hopes were not high that the new home would be lived in anytime soon.

Being the attentive landlord I am, I noticed a twig sticking out of the birdhouse’s opening while I was rushing out to my car one morning. I made a note to investigate and promptly forgot. When I finally remembered, there was no longer any sign of occupancy. I peeked in the hole, but it only opened up to a small dark cavern. I could see nothing. So, I decided to see how easily the little trap door on the bottom worked. It did, and nothing fell out. Not satisfied, I stuck my finger up into the house and sunk it into a mass of gathered grass and sticks. At, which point, a little head popped out of the bird’s door, blinked at me, squawked and pulled back in. It happened so fast, I had no time to determine what species of bird had taken offense at my sticking my fingers into its home. It turned out to be a black-capped chickadee.

I was afraid my faux paux would drive the little birds away, but I spent the weekend watching them flitter among the branches of an overhanging tree and darting into their new home when they thought I wasn’t looking. For a bird that can be tamed to eat out of a person’s hand, they are very skittish.