We are having a good season with the monarch butterflies this year. The first monarchs usually start showing up here in the middle of August, and we begin finding eggs on our small stand of milkweed soon after. We do have a lot of nectar favorites in our yard such as butterfly bush and butterfly weed, zinnias and coneflowers, but it still always amazes me that they can find the little milkweed patch.
I search the milkweed daily and bring in all the eggs I can find to rear them indoors. Monarchs are in such a decline that they need all the help they can get; raising them indoors protects them from the parasitic wasps and various diseases that kill the caterpillars. The pearly oval eggs turn dark inside as they mature, and soon the tiniest little black headed caterpillar hatches out. The efficient wee creature then consumes what remains of the egg and begins its busy life of eating and growing.
They remain very efficient, consuming their own skins after each time they molt. They devour milkweed day and night; when they are still you know they are either preparing to molt or have just done so. When they get big you can actually hear their constant munching.
They get very restless and start wandering as far as they can go when they are getting ready to form their chrysalids. When they finally select an acceptable spot they secrete a web-like silken substance to attach themselves to the top of their cage, methodically weaving their heads back and forth. They they turn around and hang upside down from their back end like a J. They are very still while they hang in J form; you can tell when they are getting ready to shed by the way their tentacles get all thin and droopy looking. Their final molting reveals a pale green pupa, which then wriggles and scrunches up until it forms the familiar shape of a lovely gold speckled chrysalis. They also do a little hoola hoop dance as they writhe around until the molted skin is freed and falls off. Very strange and cool to watch.
Then they just hang there and look pretty while the magic takes place hidden away inside. We've released twenty nine monarchs so far this season and still have another dozen or so chrysalids to go, and half a dozen small caterpillars to feed.
It's important to have escape-proof cages, particularly when they are getting ready to molt. Clearly I failed in that department this year, as one of my screen cages had gotten a little bent and we had a little Hoodini who made it all the way from the kitchen to the office before we found it. Makes me think fondly of dear Oliver Melendy, but still.
Sam and Frodo, as we called them, had crawled all the way across the sun room and were under a table together! It was rather cute how they apparently stayed together on their epic jaunt. We shored up the cages after that to be sure.
I've found the best cages to be the homemade ones consisting of a screen tube fitted to a cookie tin. (Directions are here. Be sure you fold the screen 'hems' to the outside of the cage so that wandering cats can't get stuck in them.) They are easy and inexpensive to make, and you can make as many as you need. Store them in a safe place from year to year so the screen doesn't get bent and allow for escapees! I ended up using some paper toweling to fill the gaps on top.
The boughten cage on the left is good for smaller caterpillars, but not as practical for when they pupate. This cage opens by lifting half of the top up, and it can be problematic if you need to open the cage as it might disturb the chrysalids hanging from the top.
As you can see I needed to use all manner of containers that I could find to house all of the critters, including a few black swallowtails in the plastic jars. Swallowtails pupate on sticks, not from the tops of the cage, so the jars are adequate for them.
It's a good idea to keep the caterpillars separated by approximate sizes, so you don't have to disturb the pupating ones in order to keep feeding smaller ones. I also count them several times a day to make sure there are no escapees or caterpillars lost in the cage somewhere.
We do this every year and it just never gets old. We bid farewell to the monarchs as we release them and they head off on their incredible journey to Mexico. Mexico! Amazing.
You can read more about the life cycle of monarchs and how you can help them at the Monarch Watch site. More information on raising them is here. Lots of closeup pictures of monarchs emerging are in this old post here.
Oh, and the monarchs are just loving these free flowering masses of Late-Flowering Thoroughwort or Boneset this year. These huge plants just showed up in my wildflower bed and they are such a favorite with all sorts of pollinators. There are often four or six monarchs on a clump of it, along with so many bees that I can't even count how many species there are. The flowers are always teeming with busy insects, and they smell good too.