Guest View: How I Spent My Summer Vacation Being Monarch Momma
(Alice McKeage, Aug. 8, 2015)
Actually just kidding…I am retired, so every day is vacation!
I became interested in the plight of the monarchs a number of years ago. My first move was to make sure my lawn feeding each year did not include pesticides.
In 2008, I found out a friend was trying to kill milkweed in her yard. I dug 2 plants out and planted them in my yard. Since my city listed milkweed as an invasive plant and encouraged residents to get rid of it, I planted it along my fence in the back where I thought it would be less noticeable.
Three years ago, my milkweed patch got big enough and I started staging the milkweed. I mowed until it started to come up, then I quit mowing 1 mower width along the fence. I continued to mow the rest, which sometimes meant mowing over new plants. Two weeks later, I quit mowing another mower width along the fence. That way I have milkweed in various stages of growth most of the summer. Last year, I cut off the seed pods and threw them out because I was getting volunteer milkweed in parts of my yard where I really didn’t want it! Also did not want my neighbors complaining when the seed blew everywhere!
Now in 2015 I have a patch of milkweed that measures 29’ X 7’, plus many other “volunteers” around my yard. (I am lucky to have a big yard!) I also have lots of other flowers in my yard, so I was attracting lots of butterflies, but never saw a caterpillar.
Suddenly this year on July 6, I accidentally spotted 2 caterpillars on volunteer milkweed near my back gate! They were already mostly grown by the time I found them and it was so exciting to watch them eat and crawl all over the milkweed!
This of course made me curious, so I spent some time on the web learning about the life cycle of the monarch, the generations, and trying to figure out what to expect. I took pictures and shared those and what I learned with friends.
After just 4 days, those caterpillars started to hang in “J” position, which I had learned was the prelude to forming a chrysalis. The next morning, one caterpillar had already transformed into a chrysalis, but I had the awesome experience of watching the second one shed its skin and transform, and was able to document it with photos. Then there was nothing to do but wait another 10-14 days for the metamorphous into the monarch butterfly.
I checked on them every day and one day several days later, I realized that as I was peering at the chrysalis, there was another caterpillar behind it! I was delirious with excitement! A friend stopped by to see the chrysalis and I was ecstatic to tell her about the caterpillar! While we were looking at it, I realized there was another caterpillar in my line of vision! While I was jumping up and down with excitement, my friend found a 3rd caterpillar on another group of milkweed nearby! How spectacular! These 3 caterpillars were smaller than the original 2, so I got to watch them for about 10 days. I named one “little Michelle” in honor of my friend who found her.
The first 2 monarchs emerged from their chrysalis while I was out of town, so I didn’t get to see them. But I knew I had 3 more chances!
Little Michelle was quite an explorer and moved around all the time. Sometimes I couldn’t find her and fretted that something dire had happened, but after much seeking I would eventually find all 3. One day I couldn’t find little Michelle. After much searching, I noticed little Michelle had hiked over to the cluster of milkweed occupied by the other 2. The next day they all disappeared. I finally found them in the milkweed cluster of little Michelle. It was almost like she went and got her friends to come to her house! When I found them they were all hanging close to each other in “J” position, and the next morning, all had shed their skin and transformed into a chrysalis.
I marked my calendar for 9 days to know when to start watching intently. On the seventh day, while trying to take a picture of a swallowtail who flew over my gate, I went out of my gate and there on two more volunteer milkweed were 2 more caterpillars…the tiniest ones I had ever seen! I took a picture of them next to a dime and they were smaller than the diameter of the dime! Sadly over the next 2 days, these caterpillars disappeared.
Generally the day before the butterfly emerges, the chrysalis turns from green to transparent and you can begin to see the outline of the butterfly. I did not think the chrysalis were quite transparent enough, so I did not get up early the 10th morning, July 31. When I did go out at 8:30am, I had 2 monarchs hanging from their chrysalis! While laying on the ground with my camera waiting for the 3rd monarch to emerge, I spotted 2 more caterpillars!
After watching for 90 minutes, I went in the house for a few minutes and came out to discover the 3rd butterfly had just emerged from its chrysalis! I managed to get some great pictures as it expanded and dried its wings! Went to breakfast with friends and when I came back 1 butterfly was gone and a second just making its maiden voyage. Missed 2 great shots because I could not focus fast enough. Got a shot of the 3rd one just seconds before she took off on her maiden voyage, then I lost her.
Then another caterpillar disappeared and I began to realize the caterpillars must have predators. Got a picture of the last caterpillar right after it had shed its skin. I checked on it a lot, but sadly it too disappeared. I did some research and think that the last 4 caterpillars were killed by wasps. I guess I got lucky with the first 5 that they survived to become butterflies with little assistance from me. I am now researching ways to create a safe environment for the caterpillars next year.
This summer was an unexpected, profound and fascinating experience, and awakened in me a new level of passion for the environment and all the creatures who inhabit it! I loved every minute of my experience: watching, and learning and photographing and sharing it with others! The fun part was that it all happened in my own backyard, caused by things I did to make my yard hospitable for butterflies! I feel like I made a contribution to the world by creating an environment where “my” 5 caterpillars could thrive and make their metamorphosis to monarch butterflies. I learned so much about the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. I just wish I had learned more about its predators sooner so all the caterpillars I found could have become monarch butterflies!
Also, with advice from a friend, I cleared out a garden and created an oasis for butterflies and hummingbirds by planting some of their favorite flowers: butterfly bush, Joe Pye weed, butterfly weed, purple penstemon, and gay feathers. I plan to continue my education about the care and feeding of monarch caterpillars. Hopefully next year I will draw even more butterflies to my yard and when they lay their eggs, I will have a safe space for them to flourish!
To learn more about Ferndale Monarch Project go to https://oaklandcounty115.com/2015/04/12/plant-milkweed-for-monarchs-says-new-ferndale-group/.
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Guest View: How I Spent My Summer Vacation Being Monarch Momma