Nov 16, 2018
When we first started planting milkweed two years ago with the intention to help the Monarch endangered species, we met a man who was even more nutty about monarchs than we were! Merle has been tracking monarch activity around the Bay Area for a long time. He has been raising butterflies and keeping track of the West Coast migration for years. Normally, he had hundreds of caterpillars and chrysalides in his own backyard, but two years ago he had only 2 caterpillars. Meanwhile, at Swede's Feeds, we were getting all the action. We met Merle on his hunt for the missing butterflies. The past two years he hasn't had much luck, even though he only lives less than 10 miles away from Swede's Feeds. Now the tables have turned. The Monarchs have not been seen in Kenwood and have returned to Merle's. He has generously given us 3 armies of caterpillars this season. We could not be more grateful!
So far this year we have raised and released more than 40 Monarchs. Although we have 8 milkweed locations with 4 different species, 3 of which are native milkweeds, we found no caterpillars or even monarchs in our garden at Swede's Feeds. Why? We are uncertain but have guessed it could be just the ebb and flow of natural cycles.
Danaus Plexippus, our iconic Monarch, translates from Greek meaning "sleepy transformation". This describes the hibernation these insects endure in the colder months and then the incredible metamorphosis they make from larva to chrysalis to adult. This remarkable creature weighs less than a dime, yet when we think of amazing migrations, whales, sea turtles, seabirds, caribou and elephants come to mind. These larger animals migrate every year to sites around the world, to places they have physically been to before. They do this annually as the seasons change in search of food, breeding grounds and more tolerable weather. What is perhaps most astonishing about the Monarch is that they migrate from its northern most territory down south to its winter hibernation grounds, to which it has never been. That's right! This tiny insect, whose migration is second only to certain species of dragonflies in the insect world, will instinctively fly south to the exact same groves of trees used by its ancestors. Incredible!
Monarchs are found in the Americas, Pacific Islands, Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand. There are colonies that do not migrate because the climate is so tropical that the milkweed grows year round. These colonies exist in Florida, Caribbean, Hawaii, and parts of Central and South America.
The female Monarch lays hundreds of eggs, one by one, on one specific species of plant- Milkweed, of which there are hundreds of varieties. The egg takes four days to hatch, emerging a tiny caterpillar, which is about the size of the writing on a dime. They will gorge themselves on milkweed for about 14 days, eventually growing to 3000 times its original size. If we ate like that, we would be the size of a school bus! The caterpillar then metamorphosizes into what we know as the chrysalis. Its form is a shiny green jewel with specks of gold and will remain in this pupal state for about two weeks. When the time and temperature is right, the Monarch butterfly will emerge out of this beautiful casing. After a few hours of drying its wings, it will be ready to release to continue its migration, and to begin the cycle once again.
For the monarchs that make the migration along the West Coast out of the wintering groves in Southern California, they travel north sometimes all the way to the Canadian border. For the monarchs traveling along the East Coast and through the Midwest, their migration can be upwards of 3000 miles from groves in Mexico to the southern territories of Canada. In both cases, it takes several generations to spread to the furthest reaches of landscape from the winter grounds, with an average lifespan of 2-5 weeks as a butterfly. When monarchs are signaled by the changing of the seasons, the southward migration is endured by a single butterfly. These "super butterflies" make the entire flight back to the overwintering groves for the first time. In California, there are about 25 known winter roosting sites along the coast. These groves consist of Eucalyptus, Monterey Pines and Monterey Cypress. The Eastern migrators make the flight from as far north as Canada to the 14 known sites in the Trans Volcanic mountains of Mexico. All these over wintering grounds have proper humidity, are lacking in freezing temperatures, and the trees serve as a natural wind barrier to protect them for the months to come. This super generation has a lifespan of 6-9 months. They begin traveling south, hibernate throughout the winter and make the first trek up north in spring to mate and let the next generation continue the migration. The farthest ranging monarch recorded was 265 miles in one day!
The monarch population has declined over 90% since the 1980s. Only 1 out of 100 caterpillars will make it to adulthood. Lack of milkweed, habitat loss, pesticides, herbicides and predators are all effectively dampening this species survival. Even organically certified products can affect these creatures. For instance, BT (Bacillus Thuringiensis) which is legally used in certified organic gardening proves harmful. Predators including spiders, ants, dragonflies, yellow jackets, wasps, and tachinid flies will prey on the caterpillars, while birds, yellow jackets, wasps, and mantis will prey on the butterflies. Mice have even been known to eat the chrysalides. This is why we bring our caterpillars "indoors" to keep them safe and enhance their chances of survival.
So, what can you do to help monarchs in your yard? First, and most importantly, you will need plenty of milkweed. Milkweed needs 8 or more hours of sunlight and they need space. Some varieties get 5 feet tall! If you can't set up a vivarium or some safe space indoors for your caterpillars, another option is to leave them on the milkweed itself. Using mosquito netting and some tomato cages to cover plants can deter many pests. Do not use systemic fungicides, pesticides or herbicides in the area. Be very wary about what you spray. If you choose to bring your friends to a safe place, make sure it is well ventilated and have enough milkweed to feed the voracious armies! Don't forget to have plenty of nectar rich flowers for your butterflies or any visiting monarchs to feed on. Butterflies require sunlight and plenty of nectar to keep them going, especially if they fly up to 25 miles a day in search of food. Aster, butterfly bush, echinacea, goldenrod, hyssop, lantana, rudbeckia, sunflower, western vervain, verbena, yarrow and zinnia all are butterfly favorites.
People of every age are inspired by the Monarch. The best part about raising these critters is the reaction we get when people see this metamorphosis for the first time. Spreading knowledge is easy when people are moved by a miracle in motion. A majority of what is known about the Monarch and its magnificent migration is documented and pursued by volunteers, or "citizen scientists". It's up to people like us! Monarchwatch.org is a great resource for research and exploration. Let us know if you have any Monarch sightings or have caterpillars that need a safe space to grow.
"The butterfly counts not months but moments and has time enough." - Rabindranath Tagore
Katrina Aimo, Swede's Feeds Pet and Garden
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