Monarchs Arrive on the Knobs April 27, 2012

May 6, 2012

12 years ago, I concocted a plan to single-handedly provide enough eggs for all of the teachers in the greater Pittsburgh Area to use in their classrooms.   At the time I was operating under a theory that in order to really understand monarchs, a child should only raise monarchs that hatched from locally laid eggs.  My ideas about that have evolved a bit over the years. I now believe that both teachers and students would learn more about monarchs if they went out into the milkweed patches  growing in their community and found monarch eggs themselves.  It immerses them in the ecosystem of the milkweed patch and gives them a context from which to understand the monarchs. But that year I was intent on finding local, wild-laid eggs in August in huge quantities.  Luckily the word hadn’t gotten out that I would be providing so many eggs, but I did have a few teachers waiting.  I spent a great deal of time combing through several milkweed patches nearby.  One day after checking all of the logical places for a monarch butterfly to lay her eggs, I wandered deep into a thick stand of A. syriaca ramets and found that some monarch was laying eggs way down on the bottom leaves in the center of the patch.  There is no way that she could be flying down there.  The leaves were broad and overlapping. The eggs were all on the bottom sides.  She had to be landing and crawling down into the milkweed thicket to lay her eggs. There continued to be eggs in that part of the milkweed patch for about 3 weeks. I never actually saw the monarch who was laying them, but it was the seed of a hunch:  individual monarchs tend to lay eggs over and over again in similar places.  In the following years I had tents full of breeding monarchs with little sharpie dots and dashes on their hind wings that identified them and I noticed a  pattern.  Many butterflies stuck to the traditional bottom-side-of-the-top-leaves egg laying strategy, but I observed butterflies who consistently preferred to lay their eggs on pods, or stems, or the top of leaves, or on buds.

This spring, egg laying in my Waystation (#4970 Union, WV 37.56 , -80.51)  began on April 27. It is continuing daily. Many more milkweed shoots are up and many respectable, robust plants (8+ fully extended leaves) are present. This is the earliest in the 6 years that I have been in this area that I have seen this much continuous egg laying this early. Though I am sure egg laying was occurring in May, it seems that in the past it was more sporadic and I didn’t encounter it with such frequency.

Eggs from May 7, 2012The butterflies are not being any more cooperative than ever about showing up so I have a chance to watch them, so I am guessing about who is laying eggs by how the eggs are laid.   I thought that the eggs I had seen up until today had all been laid in the usual manner—on the under side of leaves near the top of the plant.  Since that is the most common way for eggs to be laid, they could easily have been laid by  different females or by just one. While checking milkweed in my garden this afternoon, I found 6 eggs laid on the top of leaves on six different plants. Going back through my photos I was surprised to see that one of the eggs I found earlier was also laid on the top of the leaf. I wonder, do I have a single monarch with variable egg laying preferences who is still here after 9 days? Are there two or more different monarchs laying eggs in my area? Is there something about the milkweed this early that inspires more monarchs to lay eggs on the top of the leaves?  I’ll keep watching and see if I can find a pattern.

It will be interesting to see how distribution of monarchs works this season with so many monarchs so far north so early.  Since the migration seems to be cued by sun angle and seems to continue until the end of June, will that mean that the breeding area goes further north? Will the more southerly breeding areas continue to be active? Will it matter what the summer temperatures are?  We’ll all just have to monitor our areas and see what happens.

Ba Rea, On the Knobs over Union, WV

Posted in Migration north, Milkweed, Monarch butterfly, Monarch eggs, Monarch migration, Monarchs on the Knobs, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Raising Monarchs at Home

Here are some basics. I’ll add photos and more information soon.  There almost as many good ways of raising monarchs at home as there are people doing it!  So improvise.

The basics are:

  • The container needs to be tall enough that a butterfly can emerge from its chrysalis and hang with its wings fully extended to dry and harden.
  • You must always provide fresh milkweed for caterpillars.
  • You have to control moisture.
    Early instar caterpillars can drown in a drop of water and too much moisture can support both fungus and  bacterial growth that can be bad for the caterpillars.  If it is too dry the milkweed dries out quickly and the caterpillars don’t get enough water in their diet.
  • You have to keep the enclosure clean.
    Frass must be cleaned out regularly.  It also is a source for mold and bacterial growth. As the caterpillars get bigger there will be more and more frass.
  • Your container must keep out predators and parasites.
    Fine mesh is necessary to keep out  the tiny wasps (At first glance they look like fruit flies or gnats) that can parasitize caterpillars as they transform into chrysalides. Tachinid flies that look just like houseflies lay eggs on caterpillars.  When the maggots hatch they burrow into the caterpillar and eat it from the inside out.

This is what I do:

Lots of different containers work.  For eggs I like small plastic storage containers, because it is easier to see what’s going on and control humidity, which is a lot of what you have to accomplish. I raise a lot of caterpillars most summers and am partial to plastic shoe boxes for the older guys.  If you want to display your caterpillars, aquariums, jars, bug/hamster boxes, and all sorts of other things work.

I collect eggs because it is easy to protect the caterpillars from parasites if you have control of them from the time they hatch.  Parasites emerging from older caterpillars can infect the rest of the stock with which they share a container.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the dominant milkweed on the east coast into the Midwest.  Those leaves are usually large enough that you can just pluck the leaf that the egg is on.  I put them in a closed container with bounty paper towel on the bottom and check them regularly.

The egg will hatch within 4 days of when it was laid in weather averaging 75°, faster if it is warmer.  If the leaf dries out before the egg hatches, snip the part with the egg off of the old leaf with a pair of scissors and place it on a new fresh leaf. (1/4″ square is big enough and won’t tend to dry out and wrap around the egg.  Sometimes newly hatched guys get confused and sit in an old dried up leaf when there is good milkweed all around them.)

Make sure you regularly give your little caterpillar fresh leaves.

Once caterpillars make it to 3rd instar (and that is somewhat arbitrary, based on what I can spot and take care of easily) I move them to a larger container.

It is easier to keep leaves fresh in a larger container. Cut stems of milkweed about 4 -6 leaves long (or whatever fits your container) and wrap the bottom in a paper towel. Dip the paper towel and stem in water and collect as much as it will hold then stick it in a baggie, wrap the excess baggie tightly around the stem and secure it with a rubber band–I like the folded sandwich baggies they are easy to work with. I’ve also used twist ties, but rubberbands hold on better. I’ve also used florist tubes for water but they tend to go dry too fast for my liking. The paper towel and baggie method was what I started with and after a couple of years of using the supposedly “new and improved” florist tube method I went back.

From that point on I just keep replacing the milkweed and cleaning out the frass once or twice a day.  It is best if the top of the container is a good place for the caterpillar to go into j and make its chrysalis because most of them will go to the top for that.

The Moisture Problem. 
If you use a container cover that air flows through (I really like to use cut up stockings for lids–the top part of panty hose with the legs knotted and cut off for bigger containers) and you have air conditioning the leaves could dry out.  In that case I keep the paper towel on the bottom of the container slightly damp. If you have a solid lid container that no air goes through moisture could collect…in that case I use a dry bounty [a[er towel on the bottom and keep an eye on the container and wipe it dry, when necessary— at least once a day.

My favorite covering for plastic containers is panty hose…seems to keep the moisture level perfect.  I use the legs, cut in sections and knotted for small containers and for bigger containers I use the seat with both legs cut off and knotted.  The elastic in the hose holds the material in place and if you use sheer it’s easy to check out if anyone is in “j” on the inside before you remove the lid.  It just isn’t quite as “pretty” for show…but it is the rule of the day at my house.

If you don’t use pantyhose and are just buying them for lids, the cheapest brands are the best.  When I am doing classes and have a lot of pint size containers  for different instar caterpillars, I buy a box of cheap knee highs. I like the black ones best.  They are easier to see through for some reason.

For a show  use an aquarium or bug box.  You can also use a plastic container, cut out an area on the plastic lid and hot glue screening material over the hole.

If you are having trouble with disease or you want to be particularly careful, putting just one caterpillar in a container creates a firewall and protects the caterpillars from infecting each other.

If the caterpillars all seem pretty healthy, I will put 4 in a medium sized container (like a bug box) and up to ten in a larger container.  It is important that all of the caterpillars in the container are about the same instar (size) and make sure there is always plenty of food…so they don’t munch on each other.  You have to keep it clean which becomes more of an issue as they get bigger.  They eat more and the frass gets bigger too!

You need to be able to sterilize your containers. Clean with a mild bleach solution and rinse well.

Don’t allow butterflies to eclose in the same container with younger caterpillars. A major monarch parasite is a protozoan parasite which can only live in the caterpillar stage of the monarch. When the caterpillars become chrysalides the protozoan become spores which migrate to the areas that will become scales on the butterflies.  A newly emerged butterfly that was infected by the Oe protozoan can drop spores onto the milkweed that caterpillars are eating.  If the caterpillars ingest the spores they will be infected.  If they ingest a lot of spores the infestation can kill them.

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Chasing Monarch Eggs

From the Knobs

Looking into the valley from the Knobs

This year the monarchs came early to the Knobs of West Virginia.  Usually I see a few eggs in May.  The butterflies are likely the offspring of the Mexican migrants hatched from eggs laid in the southern tier of states. The migration north is still a strong pull for the monarchs at that point and I almost never see the butterfly that leaves the eggs. She and all the other monarchs are just passing through as they head north in a drive that repopulates the summer breeding grounds each year all the way up into Canada by around the end of June. But the inflow of monarchs usually continues and by mid-June eggs start showing up in my usual tromping grounds with more regularity.  By the last week of June, I am chasing eggs in earnest in order to be ready for my summer classes and programs. (Well that’s what I tell folks. Truth is I’m addicted–let’s call it devoted.  I’d be out there hunting for them if I were the only person around and nobody else cared!)

1stinstar

1st instar caterpillar

4th instar caterpillar

4th instar monarch caterpillar.

This year on April 30th I spotted a faded, tattered female monarch laying eggs on the tiny starts of milkweed poking through the ground at the switchback on Raines Road. Her fluttering stop and move, stop and move behavior was obvious egg-laying behavior and when I checked the plants I discovered that she had laid 30 or more eggs on a small cluster of 4 inch high milkweed ramets.  I collected those eggs and others that I found over the next week or so until I had around 75. I told myself several years ago that I wouldn’t start this egg collecting until the end of June, but this was an emergency.  So many eggs loaded on the tiny starts of milkweed ramets would produce more caterpillars than those plants could feed.  I was rescuing monarchs.

Monarchs arrived early a lot of places this year.  It was hotter and drier than usual in the south this year and strong winds and storms helped to carry the migrants out of Mexico much farther north than normal.  Scientists are concerned that these conditions will produce a poor or at best average summer populations.  I was concerned that the early push north might reduce the numbers of monarchs filtering into my area in June when the population that provides the caterpillars and butterflies for my summer programs is usually building.

mating monarchs

Monarchs mating in my tent

I raised over fifty monarchs (and gave away around 25)—offspring of those first eggs—that eclosed between June 9th and 12th,  just in time to help me celebrate my 60th birthday.  That week it was hot in West Virginia, getting into the 90s nearly everyday.  I kept them in a screen tent long enough to become sexually mature and start laying eggs, then released them to join the rest of the clan in the continuing northerly migration.  I wanted them to leave a few eggs on the Knobs on their way out.  They left around 100 eggs in my tent and at this point I have about 75 caterpillars.

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Monarch egg

Monarch egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf

I’ve been checking the milkweed daily for eggs, and except for a few eggs a couple of weeks ago, probably left by the monarchs I raised, I hadn’t found anything until today.  Today I found 3 eggs about 3 miles apart.  So hopefully we’re on for the season.  A little later than usual, but it’s an unusual year, and I have those 75 caterpillars and the screen tent to boost numbers for my monarch programs.  The milkweed is blooming and lush. We’re ready.

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Milkweed

Common milkweed ready for egg laying monarchs!

I haven’t spotted the monarchs leaving the eggs since the one I saw in April. I always wonder what her trajectory is.  This area is wooded with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) growing in the sunny edges of roads and large agricultural or overgrown fields. My search sticks to roads and paths but the monarchs have no such restrictions.  They can fly up out of the valley and come down in open areas bouncing from field to field or follow the open areas along the roads.

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tussock moth eggs

Tussock moth egg cluster

I also noticed tussock moth caterpillar eggs for the first time today.  Monarchs normally lay solitary eggs, but the tussock moth caterpillar lays a large cluster of eggs covered with fuzz.

tussock moth egg cluster opened

Tussock moth egg cluster opened

These voracious, competing consumers (a species that eats milkweed like the monarchs) stick together as young caterpillars and can completely strip a milkweed plant.

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predator in the milkweed

This predator is eating a milkweed leaf beetle larva

There are lots of predators out there in the milkweed as well.  It will be an interesting season.

spider in the milkweed

A spider setting up shop in the milkweed.

Posted in Migration north, Monarch butterfly life cycle, Monarch eggs, Monarch migration, Monarchs on the Knobs, Raising monarchs | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Back in the Milkweed Patch.

Monarchs arrived early this year on the Knobs, in southeastern West Virginia. I spotted a tattered, faded monarch—likely a Mexican migrant— on April 30.  Between those she left and those I found checking out milkweed on other spots on the Knobs, I found over 75 eggs.  The weather shifted between unusually hot days, 90° or more to cold wet days.

Monarchs Mating in My Screen Tent

Monarchs Mating in My Screen Tent

The caterpillars grew a little slower than summer

monarchs generally do.  Most of the chrysalides eclosed June 9th, 10th and 11th, giving me a wonderful gift for my 60th birthday.  I kept them in a screen tent in the yard for a few days so that they would mate and be ready to lay eggs as they continued their northward migration.  I wanted a few eggs to be left on the Knobs.

Once most of the butterflies had mated, I released them to continue their migration north.  They left me around 100 eggs in the tent which I am currently raising.

Screen tent

The screen tent was opened to release the monarchs on June 15th

Posted in Migration north, Monarch butterfly life cycle, Monarch migration, Monarchs on the Knobs, Raising monarchs | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ba talks a lot! (about monarchs)

It’s winter in the milkweed patch in my backyard on the Knobs of West Virginia.

Winter Milkweed photo by Ba Rea

Winter Milkweed photo by Ba Rea

Just had the pleasure of doing a radio talk show, Birds and Nature, with Scott Shalaway about monarchs, monarch books, monarch programs, this trip and more.  I had a good time… hope I got everyone credited appropriately …talking live and then hearing back what you say is a daunting experience.  Saying things well and accurately extemporaneously is a skill I’ll have to work on!  (I’m definitely steering clear of politics)  I can’t figure out how to put the connection into the blog but if you go to this site:

http://www.talkshoe.com/talkshoe/web/talkCast.jsp?masterId=1028&cmd=tc

it is:   Episode 110 Birds and Nature 11/23/2008 12:02 PM EST  (2:05:28)

I talked with him in the second hour.  Amongst many other things, Scott asked me about how I got started as a “monarch obsessed adult”  and it brought back great memories from the early 70s.  I took a picture of this jacket I embroidered for myself in 1973.  I wore it all the time back then with no clue that anyone else was watching monarchs or how deep the impression was they had made on my life’s path.  I’ve been following monarchs all of my adult life:

 

My Jacket

My Jacket

 

 

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North Central Mexico

I am reviewing notes and memories from our trip to Mexico. I’ve been talking with Carol Cullar one of my traveling partners and the director of the Rio Bravo Nature Center. She sent this lovely description of the ecosystem and geograpy of north central Mexico

Report from Carol Cullar:

Limestone upthrusts

Limestone upthrusts photo Carol Cullar

North Central Mexico is characterized by upthrust limestone mountains. On the east, runs the Sierra Madre Oriental (Eastern Mother Range) and on the west the Sierra Madre Occidental (Western Mother Range.) Between those two ranges is a high desert plain called the Altiplano (High/Flat).This rain shadow region is shared by two deserts, the Chihuahua (does the dog come from here?) to the east and the Sonora (Big Noisy) to the far west.

Rain Shadow photo by Carol Cullar

Rain Shadow photo by Carol Cullar

A desert is defined as a region receiving less than 11″ of rainfall a year. Little rainfall and poor soil are two of the factors controlling what plants are able to thrive and grow in this region. There are more species and varieties of cactus growing in the Chihuahua Desert than anywhere else on earth. They have adapted to its harsh conditions by developing small leaves, deep roots, and stems that store water for the dry times. Plant-eating predators are kept away by fierce thorns, but still, some insects have found a way to get past this barrier.

Prickly Pear photo by Carol Cullar

Prickly Pear photo by Carol Cullar

This prickly pear leaf is occupied by the cocchineal insect.

Despite its rain shadow, moderately high elevation, desert status, and low humidity, many nights in the desert are quite cool. Plants retain some warmth from the sun, causing dew to form each morning. This scant moisture is sufficient for the many species of lizards, desert rats, and other animals to find water for life.

Century Plant Dew photo by Carol Cullar

Century Plant Dew photo by Carol Cullar

Chihuahua Desert Vegetation photo by Carol Cullar

Chihuahua Desert Vegetation photo by Carol Cullar

Plants like the Joshua tree, cholla cactus, and allthorn grow slowly; and some, like the cresote, can live for thousands of years.
migrating-through-moist-valleysMonarchs migrate through moist valleys. photo by Carol Cullar
Monarchs migrate through the Altiplano, but recent investigations have found that they prefer to make their way down through the Sierra Madre canyons and valleys where rich vegetation and a summer rainy season produces vast numbers of flowering plants.
Posted in About the trip, For Friends and Family and interested others. | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The End of the Road

I am home again in Union, West Virginia.  Our trip to Mexico with the monarchs was a wonderful experience. My apologies that the photos and text got thin near the end.  The nice tech at Apple told me very gently that there is little that can be done for my fried hard drive, but since I had an Applecare contract that it will be replaced.  For $500 to $2700 I could attempt to retrieve a few photos…no guarantees.  I don’t think that makes sense.  I have our notes and photos from the last few days. Carol and I will work together to get some  updates posted on what we found. I am putting together a map and we will post as soon as we have it filled out.

Posted in About the trip, For Friends and Family and interested others. | Leave a comment