Monday, August 24, 2015

Of Starfish and Monarchs

One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked, he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.
Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, "I'm saving these starfish, sir".
The old man chuckled aloud, "Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?"
The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, "I made a difference to that one."
- inspired by Loren Eiseley

One of my readers said that my monarch raising reminded her of this parable. It does describe my thought process about what I'm doing and why I do it. And while it did start out years ago as a way to satisfy my curiosity about the miracle of metamorphosis, once I knew about the monarch's plight, it gave new meaning to the activity for me.

Monarch on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) blooms

The monarch butterfly is currently being considered for the Threatened Species List under the Endangered Species Act and for several years now, the growing of milkweed has been encouraged and promoted as a way to help this iconic summer beauty.

With the advent of Roundup®-ready crops in the mid-'90s, the monarch's habitat took a sharp nosedive. Because milkweed is the only plant that provides food for their caterpillars, the monarch has become collateral damage. No milkweed, no monarchs.
Monarch on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

I grow plenty of milkweed in my garden: common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), all of which are perennial and native here in Ohio.

Fifth instar monarch caterpillar on whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)

I also plant seeds for tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), which is an annual here and not native.

Second instar monarch caterpillars on tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica)

I've found monarch caterpillars on all five types, with the preferred being (in order of what they like best) swamp milkweed, whorled milkweed, and tropical milkweed. I have found the least number of them on the common milkweed.

Currently, there are 20 chrysalides awaiting eclosure, five caterpillars hanging in the "J" position that will be chrysalides by tomorrow, and 31 other caterpillars of various sizes munching away on the fresh milkweed that I provide for them each day in the four enclosures I'm maintaining.

This year I've brought them inside in the egg stage too, knowing that even at this stage, I'm increasing their chances of survival. Mostly due to predators, the mortality rate of the monarchs from egg to butterfly is 90-95%, meaning out of the 100 eggs that an adult female will lay, only 5-10 of them will survive to become adult butterflies.

A monarch egg is about the size of a pinhead and takes a concentrated effort
to spot them, usually on the underneath side of young milkweed leaves.

If you've never grown milkweed, I urge you to do so. It doesn't have to be the common milkweed  that many are familiar with and turn their nose up at. Butterfly weed is a beautiful orange-flowered plant with smaller, narrower leaves. There's a yellow variety of it called 'Hello Yellow' if you aren't a fan of orange.

Swamp milkweed does very well in the Great Lakes region and the monarchs have shown a preference for it in many gardeners' gardens. The blooms are a deep rose color, but there is also a white-flowering one called 'Ice Ballet'.

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) has the telltale
blooms typical of most milkweed varieties, in white and
are smaller in size.
For the last couple of years, I've grown whorled milkweed and when visitors to the garden see it, their first reaction is, "That's a milkweed?" Its extremely narrow leaves on 18-24-inch stems gives it a look similar to Arkansas Blue Star (Amsonia hubrichtii), but with the typical milkweed flowers in white.

The annual (Zones 9-11) tropical milkweed has gorgeous bi-colored red and yellow flowers and is easily grown from seed.

This one has created some controversy among the monarch enthusiasts, with some indication that it may not be in the best interest of the monarchs to grow it in the far southern states, where it is perennial. (You can read more about this here.) This is pretty much a non-issue for those of us in the north, where tropical milkweed dies at first frost.

Growing more milkweed is one way that you can help the monarchs and yet another is by bringing in eggs and/or caterpillars you find, to raise to adulthood in your home. Raise a few or raise many, you will be greatly increasing their chances of survival by doing it.

Raising monarchs inside isn't difficult, but it does take some dedication to their well-being by making sure they have a clean environment and plenty of fresh milkweed to eat. That means you'll have to clean up caterpillar poop, but don't worry, it doesn't smell like most poop. It has a mild, green, woodsy odor to it because a monarch caterpillar's diet is simply leaves.

As I said, from egg to adult, the monarch has only about a 5-10% chance of survival to adulthood, due to predators and other dangers, when left in the wild. Bringing them inside increases their chances, with rates often as high as 90%.

Watching the process from egg to adult is fascinating, at the very least, and even our almost-three-year-old granddaughter, Hannah, loves checking on the "catta-piwerz." If asked what those caterpillars turn into, she'll tell you, "Butterfwies!"

Don't think you can't possibly make a difference because you're just one person. Don't think you can't make a difference because you can't do as much as someone else. Don't think you can't make a difference, because you can. It's not that hard, it doesn't take that long, and imagine how good you'll feel knowing that you helped save the monarchs.

Every monarch counts.


For more information on raising monarch caterpillars in your house, visit Monarch Watch. There you will find oodles of information on monarchs. Another wonderful site for tracking the migration of monarchs and other wildlife in both spring and fall is Journey North.

There are several Facebook groups devoted to monarchs, where fellow monarch enthusiasts share their experiences. It's another great way to learn more and get advice.

The Beautiful Monarch
Monarchs and Milkweed
Monarch Maniacs of Ohio


Karin / Southern Meadows said...

I have enjoyed watching all your caterpillars form chrysalis and then emerge. It never gets old, does it! Butterfly weed grows very well for me but I've struggled with swamp milkweed although I keep trying. It grows but never seems to bloom. I don't grow tropical milkweed but it sure is beautiful. I hope some of your monarchs will find there way down to my garden soon.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

I think it is a great thing you and others are helping the Monarchs. They need all the help they can get. Carry on...

the blonde gardener said...

Great reminder! I have grown and raised monarchs for years and have even gotten into the tagging process (which my granddaughter has helped with)I hope your reminder spurs people to plant more milkweed. We need those pollinators!

Dee Nash said...

Great post. Shared. ~~Dee

Layanee DeMerchant said...

Nicely done, Kylee. I haven't seen any monarchs here yet. I do have wild milkweed, Asclepius syriaca, growing in the field. I keep checking. Nothing but then I have not seen them on that plant here in the past. I do have lots of other butterfles this year though. Such fun to have a granddaughter to share with!

Jenny said...

I grew my first swamp milkweed this year & it has done so well. We have a huge patch of it at a local lake that the community is trying to save. If I understand correctly, swamp milkweed is one step above the endangered plant list. A friend gave me my start & I already have monarch caterpillars in the first year!

Unknown said...

You KNOW how much I love what you're doing for the monarchs, Kylee! Some day, we will make our trip to Mexico! I can't wait to get my babies today! You'll keep your phone handy in case I need emergency advice, right?!

Claire said...

I loved this post Kylee. I didn't realize that you raised Monarchs inside. I also did a recent post on growing milkweed and have a big patch syriaca in my yard and I run outside every morning to see what is going on with it! When the first caterpillars arrived, I was so happy. I am always amazed at
the numbers of different insects that visit.

Kylee Baumle said...

Karin ~ No, it doesn't get old! I hope my babies make it safely your way!

Lisa ~ They DO need our help and I enjoy being a part of trying to make a difference.

Brenda ~ I'll be tagging this year too. Thanks for all you do to help the monarchs!

Dee ~ Thanks, Dee!

Layanee ~ I was amazed at how interested Hannah was in the caterpillars! It's so fun to teach her about things like this. I hope you get some monarchs soon!

Jenny ~ I'm not sure where you live, but swamp milkweed isn't listed anywhere even as "Special Concern" on the USDA list here. Swamp milkweed does really well here too. I'm glad you got cats right away! :-)

Julie ~ I'm so excited for you getting your babies! My phone is right by me so call if you need to! :-) And yes, that trip to Mexico - Jan '17!! Save your pennies! It will be EPIC.

Beth @ PlantPostings said...

This is a wonderful post, Kylee, and touches on all the important points. I love the comparison to the starfish story! I grow A. tuberosa, A. verticillata, and A. incarnata here, and hands down, the one that attracts the most butterflies (and eggs!) is A. incarnata. It's a pollinator magnet! It's wild to see the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds swarm around it when it's in bloom. Plus, it's beautiful and the blooms smell like vanilla. The other Milkweeds are wonderful, too, in addition to all of them being host plants for the Monarchs. I keep finding new places to plant them. Great post! I'd have commented earlier, but I was cleaning out my Monarch aquarium. ;-)

RobinL said...

Wonderful post about a cause that's important to me. I planted several more varieties of milkweed this year, but obviously I need more, and more, and more. I finally spotted my first monarch this past week, and hope for many more.

Donna@Gardens Eye View said...

Even though I grow milkweed the monarch do not stay here to lay eggs. It is rare because there is little milkweed except for my patch and lots of lawn and chemicals. The milkweed is spreading along the roadsides more and more so there is hope. I hope my little patch will help even one monarch...I love the parable and all your monarchs Kylee.

blogger templates | Make Money Online