The Monarchy Rallies On (Raising Monarchs, Part III)

When I sat down to write this post it was headed in an entirely different direction. I planned to talk about the monarchs migrating north and my little hatchery switching gears, but as I jotted down what I thought would be a couple final musings on the subject and tried to select a couple favorite photos I realized I had a lot more to say on the topic. So here it is, newly revised, an update on my monarch babies.

meandmonarch

So far I’ve hatched nearly thirty healthy monarchs and I’m hoping they are on their way north to overwinter before visiting us again next spring. I did unfortunately learn from experience that monarch caterpillars have many threats. I knew about their normal threats – predators such as wasps and birds, lack of food, loss of habitat – but who knew the evil tachinid fly would lay their parasitic eggs on my gorgeous stripey babies? And what the hell is oe??

Having fun growing milkweed in a box that says Monsanto. Just my way of saying "Suck it, Monsanto."
Having fun growing milkweed in a box that says Monsanto. Just my way of saying “Suck it, Monsanto.”

Turns out oe is a parasitic protozoan which is abundant and easily spread. Although monarchs appear to be developing a resistance to oe, it spreads quickly and easily via spores on the wings and body. Many infected monarchs hatch with deformities or even without the strength to eclose from their chrysalis. I have actually offered to participate in a study where people across the country help track oe by sticking a piece of tape on a monarch’s abdomen and sending it to a lab where they will look for spores. (I’m not very science-y so I’m a little weirded out by the idea. We’ll see what happens.)

Having witnessed all of these threats in action I can honestly say I am not a fan. I even brought all my potted milkweed indoors, cleaned it and hid it away in hopes of reducing the spread of oe and tachinid parasites in my garden.

At this point I’ve got just four SIX monarch caterpillars and four THREE chrysalises remaining (Had to update since I wrote that last night as this morning I found two extra caterpillars in my indoor hatchery, which is confusing, and hatched one gorgeous monarch). It’s possible the monarchs fluttering around the yard are still laying eggs on the tiny bit of milkweed in the ground, but the fervor of summer is definitely dying down here in San Diego.

Male monarch recently eclosed

Each one that hatches is still a wonder to me. I’m amazed at how sweet and trusting they are. Granted, when they first eclose from the chrysalis they can’t really move. Their wings need to stretch and dry for several hours while they pulse fluid through their body from where it is stored in their abdomen. Once that’s done, they need to learn to fly. I suppose you could say they’re a pretty captive audience but it’s still sweet.  Since our deck where I raise them is surrounded by glass I often assist them down to the garden once they start flapping their wings rather than watch them repeatedly, in slow motion, fly into the windows.

The handsome boy above hung out with me for a while before testing his wings for the first time. (In case you’re wondering how I know it’s a boy, do you see those two subtle black spots on it’s lower wings very near the abdomen? Those are scent pouches designed to attract girls.)

monarchonhead
This one’s first flight surprised us both! It’s a very special moment, though, when a newly hatched monarch grabs ahold of your finger (or hair, shirt, hat, etc.) and doesn’t want to let go.

I never got tired of watching the cute stripey cats wander around the deck choosing the perfect spot to pupate. They hung from our solar lights, metal sculptures, deck siding, tree branches, under chairs – you name it, they found it.

Recently eclosed Monarch on succulent
Monarchs pupate in the funniest places! This beauty just eclosed from its chrysalis which was hanging from a succulent

This one apparently thought there was a family reunion going on:

Monarch chrysalis hiding with serrano peppers
Heyyyy, wait a minute… that’s not a serrano!

These monarchs became so ingrained in our daily life I ended up creating a whole new system of communication to keep Jon in the loop. When a caterpillar headed away from the milkweed to find a place to pupate I’d call it “going on walkabout” and I’d track him as best I could, sometimes for hours. If a cat was in potential danger as he wandered across the deck and furniture I’d yell “biggie on the move!” so Jon would know to be careful. Caterpillars that vanished from my site were considered “rogues” and demanded an immediate search and rescue mission. (The guy camouflaged in the serranos, for example. Sneaky little monkey.)

“J on the _____” indicated that a caterpillar was hanging in its pre-pupal J somewhere and would soon transform into a chrysalis. And of course “this one’s ready to pop” meant a wee baby monarch was due any moment.

Benwithcaterpillar

Sometimes I’d call in the big guns for help relocating a wandering cat who I felt was making a poor location choice (like the one on the kitchen screen door). Our pal Ben was having a great time helping… til the cat pooped on his hand. He was very brave and took it in stride, but he did hand the cat off to me pretty much immediately.

monarch_blackbackground

Needless to say, raising monarchs has been an eye-opening, gut-wrenching, heart-melting experience. Despite my fair share of trauma, I am already looking forward to next year and figuring out what I can do better. I have a crazy idea that I can cover our gazebo with mosquito netting and create a little caterpillar haven where they can munch milkweed and go on walkabout without the hazards they face in the wild. As long as they don’t go rogue and blend too much into the seat cushions I can see it working out beautifully!

In the meantime, and back to where this post was supposed to go, the swallowtails have landed! I have so much to tell you about swallowtails, but they’ll have to wait til next time. Here’s a baby pic to hold you over. Aren’t they adorable?!?

Giant Swallowtail eggs on mandarin tree, San Diego
Giant Swallowtail eggs on mandarin tree, San Diego

~~~~~~~~~~  END POST  ~~~~~~~~~

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20 Comments Add yours

  1. keeleycook says:

    This was a GREAT read I am now thinking of creating an organic butterfly garden next year! Not just for monarchs but for many butterflys!

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    1. Sheri Fox says:

      That’s so cool! I hope you do. There’s tons of great info online for attracting bf’s and which plants they lay eggs on. It’s incredibly addictive! Keep me posted 🙂 Sheri

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      1. keeleycook says:

        I dont know if my last comment posted but. I will keep you updated!

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        1. Sheri Fox says:

          I just got your first comment and this one. Did I miss anything? My comments are always screwy – I keep trying to fix my settings but they are smarter than I am haha ~

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          1. keeleycook says:

            Haha I jusr was talking abiut havung 2 sets of milkweed so when one gets exhausted pull out another from under a mosquito net

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            1. Sheri Fox says:

              Yeah that’s what I had to do! Seriously, it’s shocking how much they eat and how fast. I should’ve posted a pic of my indoor milkweed collection. At one point it was all sticks and I just prayed for no new cats lol.

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              1. keeleycook says:

                Yes! You almost have to raise them inside or in little cups and feed them leaf by leaf (starting from the base) so the groth tip survives

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                1. Sheri Fox says:

                  Yeah, live and learn! 🙂

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  2. Pat Sherwood says:

    Loved sharing your Monarch raising adventure. I recently watch something on TV about a local man raising them as well. He had a small greenhouse where he had the milkweed and Monarchs. It was such a treat to see that too and thought of you while watching it.

    Pat Sherwood

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    1. Sheri Fox says:

      That’s a great idea! If I can’t make the gazebo work a greenhouse would be awesome. Thx for the idea Pat!

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  3. Kathy Sturr says:

    What an amazing, creative thing to do in life! I have tons of – ok maybe not actual tons – but a lot of Milkweed plants! I haven’t spotted one caterpillar or Monarch in my garden this year. Of course, I need to take a closer look. I have lots of birds – maybe I need to create a Monarch haven like yours. I am dismayed to hear about oe! Like they haven’t enough problems? Thanks for a great start to the day!

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    1. Sheri Fox says:

      Hi Kathy! So glad you enjoyed my post. Raising butterflies is so rewarding. I never imagined I’d do anything like this, but once I started gardening I realized how connected everything is. Where are you? I’m only just hearing reports of sightings in the northeast. Take a close peek at your milkweed and maybe there’s a surprise hidden under a leaf! Btw I visited your blog and your paintings are wonderful. I want whatever those cherry tomatoes are on your About page 😉 sheri

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  4. Hilda says:

    We have lots of butterflies around, but alas still no monarchs. I would be quite happy to help them along if they ever find me here. Loved this post – very informative and amusing.

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    1. Sheri Fox says:

      Thanks Hilda! I heard from one person who saw a monarch in Ontario. Unfortunately it was, uh, not well when she found it, but it did make it all the way north! Glad you enjoyed my monarchs vicariously at least 🙂 sheri

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  5. Robbie says:

    OH SO AMAZING!!!! You are a hero in my eyes! I planted more milkweed and butterfly friendly plants in my yard this year, but nothing as “cool” as what you are doing! You are the ” monarch whisperer”:-tee hee…oh I admire you so much for doing this. and you are a hero in my eyes for caring so much:-)
    I have noticed more butterflies this year on our city lot. I have been focusing on planting more host friendy + pollinator friendly plants.+ I am seeing more butterflies! I will plant more next year! Great post..love all the pictures-you look like you are having fun!

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    1. Sheri Fox says:

      haha, I don’t know about the monarch whisperer… but I do like to nuzzle their tiny little ears 😉

      I need to do more flowery planting. I think most come from feasting at my neighbor’s house to lay their eggs at mine, but I want to plant more nectar here in my yard. I tend to focus on veggies but next year I’m simplifying my veg so I can do more of everything else. Glad you enjoyed the post Robbie! I AM having fun with my little friends ~

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      1. Robbie says:

        I can relate to” nuzzling their ears”:-)I find the bumble bees sleeping in the flowers at night + I pet the little fuzzy guys-lol..they are so darn cute!

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        1. Sheri Fox says:

          OMG Robbie, you are too funny! 🙂

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  6. Robbie says:

    p.s. I got the seeds! thank you so much:-) I can hardly wait to grow them:-) This year I had a lot of tasteless tomatoes + that is a post in the making…but I did have a few that were tasty, but some of the ones I tried were awful!

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    1. Sheri Fox says:

      I sure hope these do well for you. Mine had wonderful flavor, but tomatoes are so finicky!

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