At our May garden club meeting, I came face to face with the tiny caterpillars I had signed up to adopt. I’ve adopted lots of caterpillars in my gardens but never had the responsibility of raising one indoors. I was a bit apprehensive…
Home with me they went. I read the directions at least once a day to make sure I was a responsible mama to these Painted Lady caterpillars (Vanessa cardui). I watched them eat, grow, and move around the tiny container. I wondered how they could breathe in their tightly sealed tomb-like capsule. I wondered exactly what that was they were eating. And why were they eating the paper at the top of the container?
Whenever they crawled on the lid, I thought, “This is it. This is it.” but no. It took a long time before they decided to begin their life cycle and attach to the lid. They simply ate and grew….
Then finally metamorphosis began… but alas, the timing was tricky. It was the same time as a granddaughter’s graduation from Bennington College in VT, and at the same time two young granddaughters arrived from Ohio for a visit. Then within days, we were all packed and heading to Maine to vacation with18 family members.
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There was nothing else we could do but pack up our chrysalis and take them with us, risking disturbing and botching the whole transformation.While on vacation they remained immobile sitting high on a mantle out of reach of youngsters. Days went on as we swam, hiked, sat by the fire pit, played tennis, shopped, dined, etc. Each day I checked the cocoons… and nothing. I truly thought the little guys must be dead.
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But NOT… one granddaughter said quietly on the day before our departure that we had butterflies! The end of the journey and our lovely Painted Ladies seemed pleased when we released them into a lush Maine garden nearby our vacation home. I read that Painted Lady butterflies prefer to feed on purple flowers and this garden had plenty.
Of all places in the garden to attach a chrysalis, one of our black swallowtail caterpillars (Papilio polyxenes asterius) chose the smooth metal drainpipe along the side of the house. How the caterpillar bridged the collar with an opening to an underground drain, I can’t guess. But here is where I found the emerging butterfly struggling to gain a foothold on the smooth surface… and failing. It was in big trouble and I could tell it had been here too long with wings partly out and beginning to plump.
I felt a little like a butterfly midwife as I assisted in the birth by offering a twig. It was readily accepted and it climbed aboard. I gently urged the butterfly onto a viburnum shrub and watched as she began to unfurl and pump up those gorgeous wings… that I believe identified her as female.
It was exciting to be so close and be able to study the beautiful wings, her huge eyes, and watch her coil and uncoil her proboscis. Click for closeup.
I left her on a trunk of the viburnum where she continued to dry and pump her wings. An hour later I checked and she had flown…. I hope straight to the summersweet for a nice first meal as a butterfly.
It made me smile to think she got her start in the parsley beds 5 feet away that I planted just for her and her siblings.
I have always planted an abundance of parsley and dill in the spring… one clump for us and 3 or 4 for the butterflies. Not many butterflies have been fluttering through this neighborhood so I was overjoyed three weeks ago when I saw some frass or caterpillar poo beneath a big pot of parsley, the parsley we used for the kitchen! Immediately, I took the pot off the deck and placed it in a secure place in the garden.
I knew exactly what caterpillar made this frass… the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) that uses plants in the carrot family as hosts. I spotted several tiny caterpillars on the parsley and watched them develop through several instars for about two weeks.
Dainty but constant eaters, they almost cleaned out the potted flat parsley and moved on to curly parsley and dill in the garden.
They were plump and beautiful and ready to pupate when we left for a week’s vacation.
We returned home yesterday and I checked the parsley. All the caterpillars were gone, hopefully tucked securely in their chrysalis quite a distance from the host plant. How exciting to play a part in raising these beautiful butterflies!
I keep checking for an egg, but unfortunately no monarch butterfly has visited their host plant in our garden, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). At Rolling Green Nursery where I work, I have seen a few monarchs feeding on butterfly weed we have for sale. Let’s hope the female below left an egg on the plant. Just seeing the insect is encouraging for our diminishing population of monarchs.
The summer of 2013 was a very bad year for the monarch butterfly. All summer long, I thought it was odd that I never saw a monarch. Reasons are not 100% clear but impacts include weather factors, loss of habitat in the US and Mexico, increased traffic on roads, and the extensive use of Roundup on genetically engineered crops. Farmers spray Roundup on these crops, killing all the weeds but not the crop. The herbicide destroys milkweed upon which the monarch depends as a host plant.
This summer I am doing my part to go a little more native. In addition to nectar flowers, I’ve planted native milkweed. If the monarch finds my plants, I should have a monarch butterfly nursery. The plants will provide sustenance for the larvae.The blooms will provide nectar along with other nectar plants in the garden.
There are different varieties of milkweed but I planted butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) with its bright orange bloom. It should do well in hot, dry, sunny spot in the border. The hint of first blooms are appearing and I am checking my plants daily for signs of eggs.
What can we all do to help? While we hope for more favorable weather conditions, we can all plant several milkweed plants in our yards along with the nectar plants to sustain both the larvae and the adult monarch.
One of the most widespread and abundant butterflies in North America is the pretty little sulphur, We are all familiar with these yellow butterflies of the Pieridae family fluttering low over fields and open areas.The name ‘butterfly‘ is thought to have originated from a member of this family.
They are fast moving insects and I find them frustrating to photograph. The one I finally caught with my camera after many blurry attempts may be the Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice) or it could be the Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme). They can be very tricky to tell apart… especially because hybrids between the two can occur. They perch with wings closed so it is difficult to photograph the upper side, which should have an orange flush if it is an Orange Sulphur. Sometimes black edging can be seen through the upheld wings and can help identify whether male or female.
They seem to be everywhere at this time of year and are one of the last butterflies flying in late autumn. They breed from spring through the fall. On average, they live for less than a week, however as the cold season approaches, the caterpillars overwinter in either the third or fourth stage or as a chrysalis. We will look forward to seeing them again in the spring as small pats of butter dancing over fields.
On our morning walks, I love seeing rich pink flowers of ‘Queen of the Meadow,’ Spotted Joe-Pye Weed (E. maculatum). It is just coming into bloom along the paths we regularly take each morning. In the midst of Queen Anne’s Lace and Grass-leaved Goldenrod, the rich pink of the blooms and the deep purple of the stem clearly mark the native Joe-Pye as royalty. Among its subjects who present themselves to polish off some royal nectar are butterflies, including the swallowtail butterflies, Monarch butterflies, the skippers, plus all sort of bees, wasps and perhaps a hummingbird or two.
Spotted Joe-Pye-weed, a member of the aster family, has ‘the widest geographical distribution and greatest morphological variability’ of all Joe-Pye weeds, according to the New England Wild Flower Society. A different variety grew with abandon in my mother’s Virginia garden but none of Joe-Pye grows in mine as it has a tendency to invade. I prefer to pay homage in meadows along my walk.
The ‘Queen of the Meadow’ will continue to delight into fall. The leaves will fade from green to a nice lemony yellow and the stems remain a spotted purple shade. The blooms will fade to a fluffy brown seed head attracting goldfinches and other birds to dine.
Actually, no one really knows for absolute certainty how the plant was named Joe-Pye but if you’re curious, clickhere to read one of the most interesting studies of who Joe Pye might be.
Male Monarch resting. Originally I thought this was a female but was corrected by Linda of socialbtrflies.com. The black dots on the hind wings are ‘scent pouches,’ identifying him as a male.
Migration is underway. We’re beginning to see more of the monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) magically drifting southward on their August journey to Mexico. One of the few insects able to make the trans-Atlantic crossing, the East Coast monarchs winter in Mexico, then make the amazing return journey back each spring.
Interestingly, monarchs only live a few short weeks and those born earlier in the summer do not make the southern journey. Those born at this time of the year, usually the 3rd or 4th generation of monarchs, are the ones to make that southern migration and survive the winter. It is amazing how instinct kicks in as a different butterfly makes the arduous journey each year, traveling up to 30 miles a day.
Illegal logging in Mexico has reduced the winter habitat for the insect however the Mexican government has begun to crack down on this problem. What can you do to help the monarch butterfly?Plant milkweed, folks. It’s the only plant the caterpillar can eat. Due to toxins absorbed from the milkweed plant as a caterpillar, the monarch does not have many predators. The bright colors the butterfly wears is an advertisement that says, “I’m poison.” The viceroy butterfly has evolved to mimic the color and pattern of the monarch as a defense although it is non-toxic.
If you spot a monarch butterfly fluttering by, there are websites that would like to keep track of your sightings. I report my sightings to Monarch Butterfly Journey North, a great website that provides migration updates with maps and provides excellent information on the life of this special insect.
If you are a good host and your invited dinner guest is the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly, there is a set menu you should provide. Your guests, male and female, will arrive dressed in sleek formal black with tails. Adorning the outfit of the female are bright yellow markings and a row of iridescent blue spots between rows of yellow spots at the base. The male will have a yellow band near the edge of the wings. Completing the look is a dashing red spot on each wing that forms a dot when the wings touch.
We have all have seen the fetching Eastern Black Swallowtail merrily dancing in our gardens amongst the nectar plants like phlox, thistle, butterfly bush and purple verbena but to encourage these lovelies, your party should include host plants as well.
Host plants in the carrot family include parsley and dill, fennel, rue, carrots and Queen Anne’s Lace. My butterfly rule of thumb is one plant for me and two for my guests. Dill and parsley grow in sunny beds around my day lilies, my roses and peonies, forming a green and airy foundation for any plant. Butterfly eggs are laid and eggs hatch. In no time you will see the young caterpillars in vibrant stripes of black, chartreuse, cream and yellow. Up one stem of parsley and down another they go. Eat is the name of the game and molt is what they do to fatten up. Parsley disappears and dill disappears but, not to worry, the damage is fully cosmetic. The plants recover. Soon the plump youngsters are ready to pupate, form a chrysalis, and within 1-2 weeks, an adult emerges fully dressed for the next party.
Providing a habitat for the Black Swallowtail is fun, easy, educational and good for the garden. It’s time to stop squishing those parsley caterpillars and share the abundance of nature. Be a good host to the Black Swallowtail butterfly.