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.
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??
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.
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.)
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.
This one apparently thought there was a family reunion going on:
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.
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.
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?!?
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