Monday, September 13, 2010

Growing Monarchs

How does a kid end up with a beautiful monarch butterfly on her finger?

It helps to have a wildflower garden in the backyard, or to have scoped out a patch of milkweed elsewhere in town. This backyard garden is planted with pickerelweed, Joe-Pye-Weed, boneset, and many other native wildflowers.

Most importantly for the monarchs, it has lots of swamp milkweed. Monarchs will only lay their eggs on milkweed plants. In Princeton, there are several kinds of native milkweed. Swamp milkweed grows in low, wet places. Butterflyweed, which has beautful orange flowers, grows in sunny meadows. Common milkweed is, not surprisingly, the most common. It's also the biggest, growing to five feet high or more, in fields and floodplains.
A glass fishbowl works well for housing monarch caterpillars. For documentary purposes, a camera, journal, and a cup of coffee for the grownup are handy. The bowl stayed on our kitchen window sill most of the time.

Monarch butterflies visit our garden every year, but in 2007 a female monarch came and left some eggs under the leaves of a swamp milkweed plant. The picture mostly shows a bunch of yellow aphids, which are tiny insects that drink the plant's juices. But at the top of the photo, you can see a tiny monarch caterpillar that has hatched from one of the eggs the monarch left.

My daughters brought this and other little caterpillars inside, and fed them a steady supply of milkweed leaves. The bedding--folded paper towels occasionally moistened--needed to be changed every couple days because of the mess the caterpillars make with all their frass. One time, the caterpillars ran out of food, and one of them crawled down the hall into the family room. It helps to cover the top of the bowl with netting so they don't wander.

When a caterpillar has grown to full size, it will climb one of the sticks, attach itself to the bottom side, and go into a "J" position.

It becomes very still, and overnight transforms itself into a beautiful green chrysalis with gold spots (on the right in the photo). It's really important that the caterpillar find a good spot to hang from, so that when the butterfly emerges, the wings can unfold and dry without bumping into anything.

After a week or so, if you've been keeping an eye on the green chrysalis, you will see it start to change color. Before long, it becomes completely clear, revealing the butterfly that has been developing inside.

There are two monarchs in this photo. The lower one is just starting to emerge from its chrysalis.
Continuing to crawl out of its shell,
the butterfly emerges, wings ready to unfurl.

The monarch continues to cling to the remains of the chrysalis while its wings unfold and dry. This is a very delicate process, and any disturbance at this point risks deforming the wings.
When the wings have unfolded and dried completely, the butterfly is ready to crawl up and out of the bowl,

and take wing. From this backyard, the butterflies will head south to a mountain in Mexico, where they'll spend the winter clinging to trees on little more than five acres in a special forest.

This miraculous journey is threatened. Logging is reducing the size of the forest where they overwinter. And as we continue to use fossil fuels, changes in climate leave the monarchs increasingly vulnerable to freak storms and other weather extremes.

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