Sunday, September 21, 2014

Growing up Growing Monarchs - a family guide

There have been fewer things so magical in my recent life as a mom than having raised monarch caterpillars with my two girls. Over the last three summers we have released at least fifty and every time one emerges from its chrysalis it's just as exciting as the very first time.

We've even been known to eat breakfast with a critter cage full of chrysalises as a centerpiece knowing one could come out at any time.

It's easy to raise monarchs with your family, put this step-by-step tutorial in your back pocket for next summer since all the monarchs now are speeding their way to Mexico to spend the winter:

1) Find an egg or caterpillar. Easiest way to do this is find a patch of milkweed, or even better, create a monarch way station in your yard and hopefully the monarch females will come to you!
Checking milkweed for eggs at Sally Pond in Ipswich, MA

2) Look on the underside of the milkweed leaves for the tiny creamy white/yellowish eggs, monarch mommas usually choose the newest leaves at the top. The eggs are about twice the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

3) Clip the top part of the plant containing the egg, or caterpillar, bring it home and stick it in a cup of water. I find a hummus container or take-out soup container works well. I cut a small hole in the container lid so the plant stands up and the caterpillar can't fall in the water. Then place the whole cup and plant in a large jar, small aquarium or plastic bin with a top so the caterpillars don't wander all over your house when they're looking for a spot to make their chrysalis.

4) The egg will hatch in 3-4 days and then you have a beautiful caterpillar that will grow at an incredible rate. If human newborns grew as fast, and big, as monarch caterpillars they would be the size of a school bus in 14 days! Your kids will marvel over the amount of caterpillar poo (called frass) one caterpillar can make!
A 12-day-old caterpillar

5) Keep your monarch caterpillar supplied with fresh milkweed for around 14 days and you will be rewarded with a beautiful chrysalis. The caterpillar then dissolves within its new house and reforms as a butterfly in about another 14 days.

Monarch chrysalises

6) If you're lucky you'll get to see your butterfly emerge. Let its wings dry for a few hours or even a whole day before you release it.  It won't need nectar right away. We even tag our fall emerging monarchs with a tiny sticker that contains an ID number and email address. Anyone that finds it along its migration south to Mexico can report the butterfly to the Monarch Watch tagging program. Even my 4 and 6-year-olds can put the tags on! (right)

Raising monarch butterflies is definitely something every kid should experience in their childhood. And with the population being down 90% every female adult butterfly released is another one that can lay up to 300 eggs to help bring this species back from the brink. So plant some milkweed early next spring, look for some eggs and have fun!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Fall Plantings for Pollinators

A newly tagged monarch on Mexican sunflower
Creating a beautiful and functioning pollinator garden means having blooms from the earliest bluestars in late April all the way to the last flowering sedum that survives the first frosts. Good nectar sources are especially important during September and October for the millions of fall migrating monarchs that have to travel up to 2,500 miles to their winter grounds in the mountains of central Mexico. 

Monarch nectaring on butterflyweed

This generation of monarchs won't reproduce until next spring, so they don't necessarily need milkweeds for their offspring. Although, butterflyweed (my favorite milkweed -to the right) is still blooming in my garden and feeds many pollinators from monarchs to fritillaries to honeybees. 

My monarch waysation on September 14th.

I've tagged and let go more than a dozen monarchs amongst my flowers in the last few weeks. The tag numbers can be reported to Monarch Watch if they're recovered anywhere along the butterfly's migration. 

The newly released monarchs still have more than a dozen kinds of flowers to nectar on from the perennial black eyed susans, joe pye weed, sedum, garden phlox, ox-eye sunflowers and echinacea to the stunning annual mexican sunflower and red lantanas.  The best part about all these plants is once they're established they're drought tolerant. I haven't watered my monarch waystation all summer!

White chocolate snakeroot about to flower in mid-September
While some of my perennials are starting to fade, the white chocolate snakeroot is about to explode in a riot of delicate white flowers. Until that moment, this beautiful plant adds a stunning dark green and purple foliage to the garden. And then its tiny white flowers last until November, past when most other plants have gone to seed and the goldfinches descend for the feast. 

Garden phlox
Even if you just add a $1.98 pot of mums to a window box that little nectar source will go a long way to a bee, butterfly or hummingbird that wakes up on a 40 degree morning. A walk through any nursery will show you what's still blooming and many of those nurseries also have great end-of-year sales. I picked up this garden phlox (left) last year half off and it's going strong right now! So add some blooms to your fall garden. Your neighborhood pollinators will thank you. 

Black eyed susans amongst white snakeroot starting to flower

Tagged monarchs on black eyed susans

Eastern tiger swallowtail on joe pye weed