Jan. 12, 2013

Bonita Springs–Farming for Monarch Butterflies

 Monarch-Butterfly-Bonita-Bay

Bonita Springs Backyard Butterfly Experiment

Let me tell you a little story about the time I went to my neighborhood’s community pool to tan my lily white, fructose rich body.  I had gotten a little pudgy and decided to bite the bullet, tan that fat and start working on getting healthy. I sucked up my pride and headed to the pool … nobody is ever there anyway so it wasn’t a big deal.  Then, about 20 minutes into sunbathing, one of my neighbors showed up with about 30 people from her church group. I nearly died of the shame and embarrassment.

With broken spirit I returned home and declared that I would never go there again unless I was already skinny and tan.  It turns out that it was a lot easier to just put in a back yard patio than it was to get in shape and lose weight.  We had stumbled across a supply of recycled brick pavers, enough to improve our little chunk of real estate by putting in a patio for private sunbathing.

The patio and surrounding flower beds probably sat over a year before I was struck with mild inspiration to put in some sort of plants.  I’m not sure if I thought of it first or thought of it after I discovered Sue Scott with The Back Ten Feet but I ended up putting in host and nectar plants to attract butterflies, which leads me to why you’re reading this post.

It’s now been a year of butterfly gardening. There have been both triumphs and tragedies in my back ten feet but in all, the process has been fun and rewarding.  I began planting flowers at the tail end of spring last year and now I’m coming up on the first year anniversary and I have a bumper crop of Monarchs and a story to tell. 

The story starts with that butterfly on the plant above and below.  That’s a Monarch butterfly, a beat up one by the look of her wings. I think it’s a her … yes, one can sex a butterfly. The plant is a scarlet milkweed or Mexican Milkweed, a reader of this blog told me so, so I bought a few of the scarlet milkweed plants. Here is what happens in my back ten feet from start to finish.

Monarch-Butterfly-Bonita-Bay

The Scarlet Milkweed is both a nectar and a host plant.  It draws in the Monarch butterfly with nectar and then the butterfly will lay eggs under the long green leaf of the plant to host the eggs which turn into caterpillar.  The eggs are a tiny off white dot about the size of a large grain of kosher salt.  After several days the eggs hatch into the tiniest of caterpillars about half the size of a grain of rice (when I am able to see them). 

Monarch Caterpillar Bonita Springs

The caterpillars begin eating the long green leaves that their eggs on to grow larger.  These caterpillars will get a little larger than they appear in this picture before they leave the host plant and look for a place to chrysalis.  This is the original article that this picture appeared in: The Butterfly Effect

Bonita Springs Flower Bed

These are the Monarch caterpillars crawling off onto a boxwood bush.  In the flower bed I have boxwood, lantana and foxtail fern, all of which the caterpillars do not eat but will build their chrysalis cocoon on.  You will notice one crawling on the branch and one hanging in the back ground.

Hanging Monarch Caterpillar

The monarch caterpillar adheres himself to the branch at one end and hangs.  We call them “hangers” when we see them.  They are in this state for several hours to a day and as fast as you turn your back for a moment they are a chrysalis.  I was checking them every 10 to 15 minutes and still missed it.  I mark where they are at in the flower bed by putting a bamboo food skewer in the the soil upright like a garden stake. They’re not too visually noticeable and help you keep an eye on “the herd”.

Chrysalis Monarch

This chrysalis was not fully complete when I caught it, but I still felt betrayed by the caterpillar for doing this behind my back. Darn it! lol They wiggle every once in a while during what’s left of the process from this point.  They hang in chrysalis for a few days.  The time they are in chrysalis varies depending upon the weather, temperature and external conditions. 

First ChrysalisOn New Year’s Day 2013 I found this Chrysalis in Bonita Springs, Florida. It’s a cell phone picture I ran through instagram.  I had just driven from Flagstaff, AZ to Bonita Springs and was a little too tired to get the big girl camera out. I snapped this picture and went to bed. Happy New Year! About 10 days later this Chrysalis turned into a butterfly. One morning I woke up and checked the herd and saw that the chrysalis had darkened remarkably and the wings of the butterfly were even visible through the paper thin wall of the cocoon.  It was super early in the morning and I took a picture so it’s not as crisp of a picture showing all of the detail thru the paper thin walls.

Monarch Chrysalis Dark

The gold dots on the outside of the chrysalis are natural, the other spots are water spots from dew. This particular day was filled with appointments so I was in and out of the house a few times. I was out for an hour and a half at one point and missed the boat. Darn it! She had come out of the chrysalis, behind my back, like butterflies and “hangers” do.  They’re sneaky and fast.

Monarch Hatched and Crysalis

Here she is, fresh as a daisy, right out of the chrysalis.  The Monarch sunned for a while to strengthen her wings for flight.  As soon as I turned my back, she flew away.

This is a great, easy project you can do if you’re a beginner gardener or looking for something to do with your children to teach them about life cycle and how important the environment is … and how duplicitous Monarch butterflies are when one’s back is turned.  Last but not least …

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This isn’t a picture of just the woods behind my house.  Look closely and see the sticks in the foreground. Those WERE the Scarlet Milkweed.  They’ve been stripped clean of every flower and leaf.  They get cut back to the ground when the caterpillars are gone and the whole process starts over again. In a few weeks they’ll be branching out and then the cycle of life starts over.  Happy planting!

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