Friday, September 27, 2019

The Monarch: Long-Distance Pupation

The migration of the monarch butterfly is a well-known natural annual occurrence in North America. In the fall, hundreds of thousands of monarchs wing their way from Canada to Mexico to escape the cold winters of the north.

But they often make a relatively long journey even before they embark on their winged flights.

The monarch life cycle is this: an egg is laid, then 3-5 days later, a tiny caterpillar eats its way out of the egg. For the next two weeks, it eats copious amounts of milkweed, sheds it skin five times as it grows, until it eventually pupates, taking on the familiar green chrysalis form, dotted with golden jewel-like spots. After spending roughly two weeks in chrysalis, it emerges as an adult butterfly.

When it's time to become that chrysalis, the fat caterpillar most often wanders from the milkweed it's been eating, to find a safe place to hang out for a couple of weeks. If you've read my book - THE MONARCH: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly - or others, you've read that they can crawl up to 30 feet or more away from their food source to make their chrysalis.

Several years ago in late winter, I was cleaning out the bluebird box on our shagbark hickory tree, when I noticed an empty chrysalis case hanging from the bottom of the box. It looked like the eclosure was successful from what I could tell and it made me smile. And then I realized just how far it was from the closest milkweed.

I stepped it off and it was 70 feet from the nearest milkweed. Such a long walk for a caterpillar!

Last weekend, daughter Kara and I were at Point Pelee, Ontario, Canada, hoping to see hoards of monarchs at the tip (we did not). We made the trip mostly to hear a presentation by Dr. Anurag Agrawal, Professor of Environmental Studies at Cornell University, and author of Monarchs and Milkweed.

While we were there, I got a text from my husband, with a photo attached. It was a picture of an empty monarch chrysalis, attached to a headstone down at the cemetery near our house.

It's not the easiest thing in the world to find a chrysalis in the wild, occupied or not, because they're usually well-hidden, especially when they're in the garden. It was a great find.

When I got home, I wanted to see it for myself, so we walked to the cemetery and he showed me. There it was, attached to one arm of a stone cross carved into the headstone. He had been looking at something else on the stone and then noticed the chrysalis.

It was likely a recent eclosure, because the area below the chrysalis was still stained by the reddish-brown meconium that the butterfly expresses shortly after it ecloses. It was a unique location, to be sure, but it was not in the part of the cemetery where I'd assumed it would be.

There is some milkweed on the south border of the cemetery, where the land falls away into a field. It would be more expected to find a chrysalis there. But this one was far from that, out in the open. Where was the milkweed?

We looked around and Romie spotted it growing between two tall shrubs, but those shrubs were not close. I stepped it off and it was 85 feet from the headstone. There were other headstones that were closer that had equally appropriate niches for chrysalis-hanging.

Oh, what I would give to be inside the head of that caterpillar as it inched its way to its place of pupation. 1,020 inches, give or take, through the grass and 22 more up the stone. Eighty-five feet for a caterpillar is the rough equivalent of 1.2 miles for a human.

85 FEET!!

*** When I asked for mathematical help in computing the human equivalent of this, Rob Wood provided this answer:

"Depends on the length of the 5th instar, but just in terms of plain arithmetic, one way to calculate it for a 2" long caterpillar would be in terms of stride. A 6' tall human covers roughly 3 feet, or half of its length, in one normal stride. 86 feet (bumping it by a foot just for ease of calculation) = 43 strides, or 43 times the "length" of a 6' tall human. If we define the "stride" of a 2" long caterpillar in the same way, i.e., 1/2 of its length, then a 2" caterpillar covers one foot in 24 strides. 86 feet would require 86 feet x 24 = 2,064 strides. In human terms, a 6' tall person would cover 6,192 feet in 2,064 strides, or 1.17 miles.
Thanks, Rob!  

Friday, August 2, 2019

Green Envy™ - An Exceptional Echinacea for Your Epidermis

For years, I've grown coneflowers (Echinacea sp.) in my garden, including one called Green Envy™. I love how its pink petals are tinged with green, as if designer Lilly Pulitzer had a hand in its creation. It gives coneflowers a special look, but it's also unique in its botanical qualities.

Echinacea has been used for centuries as a homeopathic way of boosting the immune system against colds. It can be found on many an ingredient list and many people swear by it when it comes to warding off disease.

Green Envy™ is notable because this particular cultivar, discovered by New York gardener Mark Veeder, contains considerably more of the phytochemical cichoric acid. An antioxidant, cichoric acid improves the condition of skin by inhibiting the enzymes that break down collagen. All echinaceas have it, but Green Envy™ has a higher concentration of it.

Farmacy, a skin care company in New York, bases its products on Green Envy™ and its pharmaceutical properties as related to the skin. They are partnered with Willow Wisp Organic Farm in Pennsylvania and Patent Wall Organic Farm in the Catskills, who grow the plants used in their products.

I've been using their Sleep Tight ointment for a couple of years now and have to say its my favorite skin treatment of the many I've used. It's not the sole product I currently use, but it's the one I reach for most often.

At first glance, it looks like petroleum jelly, but it's not as thick. You don't need to use a large amount at a time, and the skin absorbs it much like a serum.

Honey Potion comes with a metal
spatula, which stores on top of the lid
because the lid is magnetic!
I also use their Honey Potion on occasion and love how soft it makes my skin feel. This is a mask, though I've left it on longer than the typical mask time, even as long as overnight. When I do that, I use a smaller amount.

I'm often told I look younger than my nearly 62 years. I don't know if I do or not, and I don't know if Sleep Tight is part of the reason. But I do believe the research that has shown that the active ingredient in it is helpful for improving skin quality. I also like using a product that includes beneficial plant elements.


Farmacy Beauty products are paraben and pthalate free, mineral oil free, formaldehyde donor free, synthetic fragrance free, and cruelty free. They also offer free shipping on orders over $40 and a flat rate of $5 on those under $40. They have free returns on all orders and Rakuten currently offers a 7% rebate on Farmacy Beauty orders.

* Because I like their products so much, Sleep Tight in particular, I decided to participate in Farmacy's affiliate program. If you click on the links to products in this blog post and then make a purchase, I will receive a small amount of compensation. I was not asked nor paid to write this post and my opinion of this product is honest and genuinely my own.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

That Article About Raising Monarchs

Here we go again. Another sensationalist headline of sorts has the monarch world in an uproar.  There's a study - a very limited study - that says that raising monarchs in captivity is detrimental to their navigational abilities. Because of this news release, I've been bombarded with questions as to what I think about it.

First of all, let me state my personal disclaimer. Though I try to keep up on the latest research and am constantly learning, I am not a biologist, entomologist, etc. I have a Science degree, but it's in Dental Hygiene. Do I use some of what I learned in my microbiology, anatomy, chemistry, and other related classes when it comes to my experience with monarchs? Certainly. Do I use principles from studies I was a part of when I worked for a dental research company? Of course. But I come at this issue from a limited perspective with respect to my focused formal secondary education.

Now, to the issue. Here is one version of the article that's causing so much buzz:

Here's a link to the study:

And here are some of my thoughts on the information in the articles being circulated in mainstream media:

A spined soldier bug takes a monarch
caterpillar as its lunch in my garden.

We know that in the wild, less than 5% of monarchs will survive from egg to adult. (This is fairly typical in the insect world.) Logic tells me that saving just one female saves not just her, but the 400+ eggs she will lay. Play that out exponentially and it's definitely worth considering that the population will increase, given the number of people who now raise them.

I have never advocated the mass raising of monarchs, for a number of reasons, but what do botanists do when they're trying to bring back a plant that's in danger of extinction? They enlist the help of others in growing it in various hospitable locations. Case in point: Solidago shortii. I personally took part in this effort through the Cincinnati Zoo's CREW program. (

Solidago shortii
'Solar Cascade' was once endangered, but thanks to the CREW
program at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, it is now available commercially.

I'm not saying that because it worked in the plant world, it will work in the insect world, but there is food for thought there.

I have several issues with the study as well as the article itself (including the headlines that the media puts out there with it), not all of which I'm willing to state publicly. If we were having this discussion in person, I would be more inclined to say them. But one of my reservations with it is already proving to be true. People are reading the widely spread articles, coming to their own conclusions, and spreading those conclusions, even if they aren't necessarily true.  

Another thought I had - and at this point, it's just a thought - how does this study affect all the studies of monarchs being raised in captivity in universities for research? Does this mean that the results there are not entirely valid because the monarchs aren't being raised in their natural environment? (Some are, but some are not, even though they try to mimic it.)

People are reading the widely spread articles, coming to their own conclusions from them, and spreading those conclusions, even if they aren't necessarily true. 

The article has some good information and raises some questions, mostly about commercial breeding, but it's premature to be putting it out there in the media as if it were absolutely proven. The article states that the limited study isn't conclusive, but that fact will get lost in the noise and won't always be included in the message that will be the takeaway. *sigh*

I think two important points need to be made:

  • If raising monarchs is how we have to "save" them, we aren't really saving them. This model isn't sustainable. However, it may help get them over the hump until such a time that their population has increased enough that their numbers are plentiful and self-sustaining.
  • Just as their lower numbers are a result of numerous factors that have caused it, a number of things can be done to reverse it. This is a good thing, since not everyone can do everything, but everyone can do something. The results are cumulative.

Personally, I think the most important things we can do is to increase habitat and reduce the use of chemicals. And just as important is increasing awareness by speaking up about the problems that pollinators face and how we can help them. 

"Each one teach one" can be our mantra. We all have a mouth, so let's put it to good use by spreading the word about strategies we know that help and not harm. 


Later today, after I published this blog post, Angie Babbit, of Monarch Watch, so beautifully said what many of us feel in regard to rearing monarchs at home:

We need to focus on keeping people connected to the monarchs in a positive way that lends itself toward conservation. I got a letter from a woman today that said she has been rearing fewer than 100 monarchs a year for a while, and her entire neighborhood has started turning green spaces into habitat because she announces how many she's successfully released each year. Now she's read this news and wants to know if she's doing more harm than good.

Are we really going to tell her that her efforts to rally her neighborhood are misguided? Are we really going to tell people to stop bringing in caterpillars to show their grandchildren the miracle of metamorphosis? This is a sociological phenomenon that's tied to a biological phenomenon that's tied to conservation. A hands-off approach to conservation is going to kill conservation and send thousands of school kids into programs of virtual dissection kits and online atrophy-based education.

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” ― Baba Dioum


Angie Babbit
Communications Coordinator
Monarch Watch
The University of Kansas


In reponse to an organization writing to Dr. Karen Oberhauser, who was quoted in the news article:

I talked to the reporter about the inside rearing a fair amount, but he didn’t include that information in the article. It is important to note that the inside rearing in the experiment was done in incubators in which the experimenters could control temperature and light exactly. As a result, the monarchs were not exposed to any natural light or temperature fluctuations; the lights went on and off, and they were kept at a constant temperature. In your exhibit hall, there are windows and diurnal temperature fluctuations which provide exposure to more environmental cues. I’m actually not surprised that they didn’t migrate after being in an incubator. There are plenty of examples of monarchs collected at different stages of development, being reared inside, and successfully migrating.

While I think that the study was really interesting, I’m sorry that this feature of the rearing conditions was not included in the paper itself or in the media reviews.

In my opinion, what you are doing is great. We’re doing the same thing at the UW-Madison Arboretum.

All my best,


From Dr. Orley "Chip" Taylor of Monarch Watch:

A response to the PNAS paper regarding captive-reared monarchs, by Dr. Chip Taylor
Yes, induction of a non-reproductive condition and migration is fragile. That is known. No one to my knowledge has been able to completely replicate the conditions that result in reproductive diapause and migration in the laboratory.

The system is resilient, complicated and still full of unexplained attributes – as well as unexplainable outcomes – e.g. indoor raised monarchs in FL that were tagged and released in San Antonio with 9 (not 5 as stated in the paper) recovered at the overwintering sites in Mexico. Those rearing conditions (12h day/night, 80F constant temps, with dim light through a small window in the door of the rearing room) fit none of the parameters suggested by experimentation or observation that are thought to lead to either diapause induction or migration.

One might get the impression from the paper that few reared, tagged and released monarchs reach the overwintering sites in Mexico. That is not the case, 33.5% of the recoveries in Mexico from 2004-2015 were of reared, tagged and released monarchs. Wild caught and tagged monarchs have a higher recovery rate 0.9% - vs – 0.5%. There are probably many reasons for this difference.

1. Reared butterflies tend to average smaller – putting them at a glide ratio disadvantage, etc.

2. Taggers tend to tag all monarchs they rear including some that obviously have a low probability of reaching Mexico due to size or condition.

3. The reared monarchs experience a wide range of conditions prior to maturity that may determine whether they are able to become non-reproductive or migrate.

4. Reared monarchs are often released late in the season which reduces the chance of reaching MX [Mexico] and many are reared in the east at latitudes and longitudes with low recovery rates by virtue of distance alone.

5. On the other hand wild caught individuals are in effect a pre-selected group having been on the wing for days or weeks before they were caught and tagged.

The bottom line here is that wild caught and reared monarchs are populations with different morphological and physiological characteristics and therefore different outcomes.

Some who rear/tag and release have figured this out and have increased their recovery rates by rearing monarchs outdoors on living plants with the intention of tagging only the largest and earliest of the monarchs to emerge in late August and early September.

The article gives the impression that many of those who rear, tag and release get their stock from breeders. That’s not the case.

A lot of the rearing appears to be inspired by what could be called “monarch rescue”. It is known and widely reported that 98-99% of all monarch eggs and larvae fail to become adults due to predation, parasitism and other causes. This observation has led many to “save” monarchs by collecting eggs and larvae and rearing them indoors, etc. Aside from enjoying the experience of rearing these interesting butterflies, many justify the practice with the supposition that their efforts are contributing to the population. While there is evidence that some of their efforts result in monarchs reaching MX, the idea that rearing, tagging and releasing monarch will lead to a significant increase in monarch numbers is misguided.

This paper will likely be used to denigrate commercial breeders, However, only one breeder is represented in this study – one who evidently maintains a continuous stock that is quite unique due to origins or inbreeding. There are only a few breeders who maintain monarchs throughout the year. Most start new stocks as early as possible each spring.

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