the monarch report

It’s been a few days since the last Monarch project report, so today seems like a good time to do some catching up as there have been quite a few recent developments.

The above photo was taken on the weekend while we were hiking at the G. Howard Ferguson Forestry Centre which is located not far from our farm. Year round, we often work in a hiking trip when we go for groceries in the town located just a mile or so away from the forest. The centre contains a wonderful mix of habitats and some of the most interesting trees in the region. In winter, we often go walking or snowshoeing through the forests, and in summer, it’s a great place to wander around with my camera. How lucky we are to have it almost on our doorstep.

On the weekend, we found many Monarchs flying over the patches of Milkweed that grow in the meadows that lie between the tree nursery fields and the surrounding woodlands and plantation forests. Most of the butterflies that we saw were quite fresh looking, leading me to think that they must be recently emerged. Around the farm, I’ve been seeing mainly faded, tattered butterflies. I’m still seeing females laying eggs on Milkweed plants in the garden, but I have no idea whether those have much chance of hatching and the larvae developing, pupating and eclosing before the weather turns too cold. With the cool nights over the past week, I’m really beginning to wonder if it’s possible. Definitely something to watch for as I go about doing my insect walks during the next month.

But back to the Monarch project and activity here at the farm. The 50 or so monarchs in the house continue to do well. So far, I’ve only had to remove one dead caterpillar. It was one that I brought in one evening and it didn’t look very good. By the next morning, it was dead and covered with furry mold. The lesson learned from that was to not bring in any caterpillars that don’t look quite healthy. I was concerned that whatever ailed that caterpillar might spread to the others, but that’s been well over a week now and and no fatalities, so I think everything is okay.

At the moment, there are 7 chrysalises waiting to eclose. As well, there are 3 more caterpillars that are very close to pupating, so there should be 10 chrysalises by midweek. I think that 3 of them should eclose this week. I’m hoping to try some time-lapse photography, so if I can get that working, perhaps I’ll have some interesting stuff to share by next weekend. The Monarch tags haven’t yet arrived, but I’m hoping they will in the next couple of days before the butterflies emerge. I’m quite anxious to tag and release some of these fellows to make room for the many caterpillars that will be ready to begin pupating before long!

For the most part, the caterpillar rearing has been successful. However, there have been a couple of what look to be failures at the chrysalis-making stage. One caterpillar made its chrysalis without bothering to hang itself up from the screens that I’ve been providing over the jar tops. I found the larva wiggling around on its side trying to hook the cremaster into something, so I got a piece of soft facial tissue and twisted it into a strip and held that near to the cremaster. The larva managed to hook onto it and I lifted it up and pinned the tissue to a piece of styrofoam and left it to harden. Unfortunately, the chrysalis looks misshapen — sort of elongated. I should probably have photographed it to show you. I’ll try to do that today and post some photos. In any case, I wonder if it will successfully develop into a butterfly? The other failure was a larva that fell down during the chrysalis-making stage. When the larva is going through its transformation, the outer skin of the caterpillar splits open, revealing a lime green, somewhat shapeless blob with faint “wing” and abdominal ring shapes. It wiggles around to get rid of the skin and to fasten the cremaster to the silk pad which the caterpillar spun on the screen before beginning to transform. After the shed skin falls away, the larvae seems to exude some kind of thin green fluid which then begins to harden into a chrysalis covering — or, at least, that’s my interpretation of what I am seeing. I’ll try to shoot a few photos of this in the coming days. Anyhow, this caterpillar fell down and seemed to lose the fluid that should have made a coating over the outside, so the pupa dried out and looks dead. I guess these things happen and are just one more stage at which the Monarch population gets weeded out to the few that actually survive.

Well, that’s about it for the “report”. The caterpillars in the photo below were seen at a park not far from here. I was quite happy to see some nice big caterpillars that seem to have survived through to such a good size. I don’t collect caterpillars anywhere else than in my own garden, so I just shot a few photos and wished these guys luck. I thought it was such a peaceful scene — two big caterpillars and a Swamp Milkweed Beetle sharing the same plant. I hope they will make it to adulthood and successfully begin their migration in the next 2 or 3 weeks.

Note: For those who have just wandered in, I’ve got approximately 50 Monarch caterpillars in my house. Most were raised either from eggs or small larvae found on the Milkweed plants in my garden. Occasionally, I do bring a larger caterpillar indoors, but most of the large ones I find are (rather unfortunately) dead following encounters with predatory insects such as Assassin Bugs and certain species of Stink Bugs. If you want to read more about the Monarch project, just click on the “Caterpillars” category in the right sidebar of this page. There are quite a few recent entries describing this ongoing project.

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9 Responses to “the monarch report”

  1. Laura Says:

    I wonder if their large size will protect these cats?

    Are you only finding cats on common milkweed at your place? I have a nice patch of swamp milkweed, but haven’t found any, not any eggs either. Mayvbe I’m not looking hard enough.

    Thanks for the update!

  2. Ontario Wanderer Says:

    There are still lots of Monarchs flitting about our property and I saw lots of Monarch caterpillars earlier this summer but only one since you started your project. I collected it, it died or at least disappeared.

    Is there a best time of day to look for caterpillars? What are you using to contain your large numbers of caterpillars?

  3. burning silo Says:

    Laura – Unfortunately, it seems that size doesn’t really protect the caterpillars. I frequently see the remains of large caterpillars when I’m out on my insect walks. Most of the insects that prey upon them do so by stabbing and injecting saliva that paralyzes them and destroys their body tissues, so all sizes of caterpillars are vulnerable.
    As far as the plants go, so far, I have only found caterpillars on Common Milkweed. However, I haven’t really spent much time looking on Swamp Milkweed, so I can’t rule it out as a possibility. One thing I have noticed is that we have a milkweed that grows here at the farm that has purplish stalks and pods and a more leathery leaf — not sure what it is — but I have yet to find a larva on that kind. All of the larvae have been found the the more typical milkweed with green stalks and softer leaves. I don’t think the caterpillars are easy to find unless you get used to finding them, and then you find them all over. I have to say that, until recently, I never noticed tiny one — and they *are* very tiny at first… just a little greenish worm about 2 mm long. At first, they don’t usually chew a hole through the leaf they are on — chewing out more like a tiny pit or trench. A couple of days later, they seem to be able to make a tiny hole through a leaf, and at that point, they are a little easier to find.

    OW – We continue to see many Monarch around our place, but I’m finding less larvae these last few days since the nights turned a lot colder. However, I did find 4 yesterday in about 20 minutes of looking, so they’re still around. I have a feeling that the big problem this late in the summer is that the predator insects are so abundant that the larvae may not last long. If I go to a plant and find a predatory stinkbug on one of its leaves, I’ve found that it’s almost pointless to look for larvae on that plant or any nearby. Assassin and Stink bugs spend hours roaming the leaves looking for larvae, so I think the odds of the caterpillars surviving for even a couple of days are very poor. One thing I have noticed is that isolated milkweed plants along forest edges or even in meadows or brush, are often a good place to find a caterpillar that has actually survived and is maturing. I think that’s because the Monarch butterflies notice even an isolated plant and lay eggs on it — I’ve actually watched them find and approach these isolated plants — but that other insects such as StinkBugs must pretty much stick to the main stands to do their egg laying as their offspring require a steady supply of prey and an isolated stand would be too chancy.
    Regarding time of day to go looking — I don’t know if there’s a best time, but I do most of my looking around in the morning — just because that’s when I usually find the time. as for containers, I just use clear plastic food containers with about 6 inch sides and no lid on the top. The trays are about 8 inches wide and 12 inches long. I keep the leaves well supplied and clean the trays out just about every morning and replace all of the leaves. That seems to help keep the caterpillars busy so that they don’t leave the container and roam around. I have all the trays on a glass-topped table, so if someone escapes, I can find them quite quickly. Most of the time they stay put until close to pupating. Then, they get incredibly restless and will take off looking for a good spot to pupate. One did escape one day and I found it across the room sitting on Don’s hat on top of the bench in our front hallway — which just goes to show how mobile these guys are. For this reason, when the caterpillars get fairly large and I think they’re getting close to pupating, I move them to an individual jar — wide-mouthed clear plastic containers — mostly stuff I’ve kept from foods that came packaged in such things (I’m quite a packrat for such things) — and put them inside with a good handful of leaves and a screen over top held tight with an elastic. I keep that clean and well stocked with leaves until the caterpillar pupates. A couple of days later, when the chrysalis is hardened, I remove the screen and keep it with all the other chrysalises, then clean out the jar and move the next tenant in to begin its final couple of days as a caterpillar. Hope some of that helps!

  4. Mark Paris Says:

    The top picture is very nice. The shallow depth of focus really makes the butterfly pop out. I found it to be an arresting image.

  5. robin andrea Says:

    Great update, Bev. It seems at every stage for these monarchs there is some danger of not making it. I was surprised to read that one of the caterpillars died, and was covered with a furry mold. I wonder what kind of diseases caterpillars are vulnerable to, how they acquire it, etc.

    Time-lapse photography! Yay!

  6. burning silo Says:

    Mark – Thanks! I liked that particular shot too. It was actually one of those “lucky shots” as I had to stand with the camera held out in front of me “one-handed” and turned so that I could just see what I was shooting at through the flipped open LCD screen. When I shoot that way, I sometimes can’t hold as still as usual, so I was a little surprised that the photo turned out as well as it did! (-:

  7. burning silo Says:

    Robin – Yes.. maybe some time-lapse photography if I can get my act together this week. In fact, I might do some experimenting today. I haven’t done a lot of reading into caterpillar diseases, but I did find a forum on the MonarchWatch.org website where people can discuss caterpillar rearing techniques and problems encountered such as predators, parasites and disease. With all of the time that I spend on insect photography, I have to say that fungi that attack insects are actually quite frequently seen. I’ve seen some pretty disgusting looking things over the past couple of years — insects that have been infected with fungi that just sort of take over their bodies. And you’re quite right – there is danger for caterpillars at ever turn. I don’t think very many survive to the butterfly stage, and then the butterflies have their own perils (vehicle impacts, more predatory insects, being blown down into water, etc..). Kind of amazing that any survive to reproduce, isn’t it?!

  8. Ruth Says:

    I have enjoyed exploring your site today. Another excellent entry and set of photos, as well as good information.

  9. burning silo Says:

    Ruth – Welcome to my site. Glad you’re finding the information on Monarchs of interest. I read your comment to another of my posts – and yes, Monarchs are quite plentiful up in this area of eastern Ontario this summer. It’s probably the best summer I’ve ever seen.