Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Monarch Buffet Is Now Serving

It's Monarch caterpillar time at Our Little Acre. We grow four different Asclepias (Asclepias tuberosa, Asclepias tuberosa 'Hello Yellow', Asclepias curassavica, and Asclepias incarnata), and every single one has one or more Monarch caterpillars munching happily away.

This is the first year that we've grown Asclepias curassavica and I have to say it's my favorite of them all, because of the color combination of reddish-orange and golden yellow. It's the only annual of the bunch, and I'm happy to see that it's forming seed pods so I'll be able to collect seed and grow it next year as well.

Yesterday morning I took a head count of Monarch cats and there are 11 that I could see. Some were big and fat and no doubt will soon become chrysalides. Others are so tiny that you'd miss them in a blink. On Sunday, I was showing Kara how beautiful the blooms on the Asclepias curassavica were and by some miracle, I noticed two caterpillars in their second instar (out of five) nestled down in a cluster of blooms:

With a macro photo like that, it's hard to tell how big or little those caterpillars really are, so I'll tell you. One-quarter of an inch long and no bigger around than pencil lead. Their antennae aren't even fully formed yet! Now you see why it can be easy to miss them. And if that isn't amazing enough, these came from eggs that are no larger than this: ·

This year it seems that they prefer the Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) plant that we relocated from the creek bank last summer. I counted six on that one plant. I'd like to go dig a couple more of those, both for the Monarchs and for me, as I think their blooms are really pretty and remind me of beaded jewelry. There's a white-blooming one called 'Ice Ballet' that I'd like to grow, too.

No doubt the butterflies that these caterpillars will eventually become will be the ones that make the trip to Mexico. Peak migration in our area occurs during the third week in September. There will be other Monarchs that will be emerging right up until that point and for a short time after, but it's unlikely that many will stay here and produce another generation before the time to leave arrives.

And that's one of the most fascinating miracles of miracles that are the Monarchs. Of the several generations that are born during their summers spent north, how does this last generation know that they are the ones that will carry on the species through the winter by making the long trip to Mexico? What is it genetically that allows them to live longer (8 or 9 months) than their spring and summer ancestors, who live just two to five weeks?

Earlier, we saw big fat cats on the Asclepias and then they disappeared. They've transformed into chrysalides, but we've never been able to find any. It's not uncommon for them to crawl to a location thirty feet away from where they spent their days munching on the milkweeds, wherever they feel is a protected location.

Last evening, I found a smallish one crawling around on a daylily which was nowhere near any of the Asclepias plants. At first I thought it must be a Swallowtail cat, but it was definitely a Monarch. It appeared to be chewing on the edge of the leaf, which goes against what I've always been told - that Monarch caterpillars only feed on Asclepias. I carefully moved him to the Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa). This morning, he was eating the nearby Rue!

There's always one in the bunch, isn't there?


Benjamin Vogt said...

I've some cats munching on blue flag iris--it's quite strange. I'm growing that 'Ice Ballet' cultivar, but it hasn't bloomed yet--this surprises me, because the other incarnata, red, and it were the same young plugs this spring, and the red is four times as big and did bloom some, but not a lot. Maybe more blooms next year? Any I'm so upset I've only found one chrysalis out of potentially dozens--I even look 30 feet away for hours. I do have one on a morning glory leaf about to pop. These guys are just so cool! You've got some stellar pics here.

kd said...

Those are lovely photos -- it's great seeing caterpillars closeups, particularly since I haven't seen any caterpillars in my yard for years (since it got shady).


IBOY said...

Very cool... number one on my list of things I want to do someday (and probably never will) is grow all different kinds of milkweeds.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

You have quite the collection of Monarchs Kylee. They are lucky to have found your garden.

Victoria Williams said...

Fantastic pictures!

Katie said...

Great pictures Kylee!

I can't wait to grow butterfly weed next year.

Rose said...

So interesting, Kylee! Great photos, but I really enjoyed all the information. As much as I like butterflies, I know so little about them. Now I know to look for much smaller caterpillars than what I thought they were.
We haven't seen many monarchs this year; glad to know they haven't packed their bags for Mexico yet!

Nancy J. Bond said...

Fabulous photos, Kylee!

Bethany said...

Oh my gosh, how wild and cool looking they are. I've never seen one in real life. Great photos. I love that you are letting them eat all your plants!

Anonymous said...

I love monarchs. They tend to hang out year round here in s. Florida. I let the milkweed grow where it pleases, knowing the monarchs will be chomping it up!

Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

I had no idea the caterpillars were so small! Maybe I've had them & just didn't see them. The Asclepiases are such beautiful plants, even without their butterfly adornments.

Cindy Garber Iverson said...

I LOVE your monarch posts, Kylee! That is some macro lens you've got. Wow! Capturing something that small in such great detail.

I planted butterfly flowers too but they are still really tiny and no blooms. Oh well. Around here it won't surprise me to see them bloom in October.


Diana said...

Kylee - wow. Those photos are just amazing. And the caterpillars are pretty awesome-looking, too!

ladybug said...

Can you tell me where I can buy the 4 types of milkweed? I can't find them in my local greenhouses.

Kylee Baumle said...

ladybug ~ You'll likely have to find them online. Just do a Google search for each kind and include the word "buy" or "purchase" in your search. You may have to buy the seed and plant that. If so, most perennial milkweed seeds are best planted in the fall since they need cold/moist stratification to germinate. Good luck! :-)

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