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My family and I had a great experience this summer, something I would suggest for anyone with kids, or just gardening friends. I'd heard about attracting Monarch butterflies by planting milkweed (Asclepias spp.).

The idea (I was told) is if you plant milkweed, the Monarchs will land and lay their eggs on the plant (they only do this on milkweed), turn into baby caterpillars and in turn the caterpillars will grow and eat the plant and eventually turn into chrysalis and then a magnificent Monarch. 

 

I was a little skeptical that it would actually work, but I thought I'd give it a try, so last winter I started a bunch of seeds inside (A. currasvica 'Silky Gold', A. tuberosa, A. speciosa) to prepare for putting them out in spring.

The 'Silky Gold' and A. speciosa did the best and I was able to move them out into small pots in the garden. They just grew like normal seedlings and I sort of forgot about that they were supposed to attract Monarchs, they looked pretty cool so I planted a few of them out in my garden, but I had about 60 seedlings in little pots all over the place, I sort of didn't know what to do with all of the plants!

I kept looking for Monarchs, but I didn't really notice any. Until one day I was in the garden with my 6 year old, and we finally saw one, it fluttered around seemingly without any real mission and then all of the sudden - swoosh it dove straight to the milkweed! We weren't sure if it was a coincidence or the lure of milkweed. We watched for another 20 minutes and always the same, look around at the other flowers, then swoosh back to the milkweed!

We saw a few more Monarchs over the next few days, but didn't think about looking for caterpillars. Then one day my 6 year old brought me outside to take a look, and sure enough, the milkweed was filled with caterpillars!!! They were all different sizes, from almost invisible to about 1.5 - 2 inches.

It took maybe 4-5 days for the cats to get nice and fat, we noticed that as they got to a certain size they just started crawling away to hide and connect themselves to crazy stuff, but that posed a problem, we couldn't find them!

We wanted to be able to see the process, so almost in a fatherly panic I quickly built a little structure to temporarily keep track of the little guys!

 

The first few cats got away before we could get the structure built, but we found them with some hard (and not so hard) looking around. Our favorite one attached itself to one of our stack-able patio chairs. 

 

After we had the structure built, with a bunch of nectar and milkweed inside, we transfered about 13 cats from one set of milkweed into our new enclosure. I quickly realized, that once again, I didn't know what I was doing! Luckily I knew that one of our featured experts, Maureen Austin , does all sorts of great work with butterflies with her organization www.chirp.org . Chirp does a lot of butterfly releases for events and teaches about butterflies and habitat education. So I thought I'd email her, she was so helpful and so educational that I thought I'd include it in my blog (she says it much better than I can) here's our conversation through email (edited a little of course)

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Hi Maureen,

I have a butterfly question for you: I built 11ft by 3ft flower bed where I have a bunch of monarch caterpillars munching away on milkweed. I just built a large net enclosure to keep them contained so my family can see the chrysallis/transformation. We have at least 13 caterpillars of varying sizes. I have 2 large clumps of society garlic, 3 medium sized verbena bonariansis and 6 Asclepias currasavica "silky gold' (which have flowers, but are being stripped of leaves),

My question - how long is it safe to hold a butterfly in the enclosure (if we give it water), and with the flowering verbena? I don't want to hurt the little cuties!

Thanks

Mitch

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Hi Mitch,

How cool that you have made an enclosure to watch the metamorphosis! What a treat it will be--one of the most miraculous incidents in life!!! Is it a walk-in net cage or did you just net the plants or what? If it's a large area you could keep them in there to mate and go thru their cycle again. (Except that with only 6 milkweed plants you won't have enough to do it again. In fact, unless they are really big plants, I'm not sure you will have enough leaves for all 13 cats!).

To try to answer your question, the adult monarchs will live a few weeks, possibly up to four.  (The last batch of monarchs in the season live longer. Those east of the Rockies migrate to Mexico--ours go to the coast. Wait! You ARE on the coast, right?)  Anyway, you can keep them in there the whole 2-4 weeks if you wanted to, but you will probably want to set them free. Do you know the Indian Legend about making a wish on the butterfly, who then takes it to the "Great Spirit" to be granted, in exchange for giving the butterfly its freedom? You can have some fun with that with your kids--I'll send it to you if you want.

The verbena bonariansis. will provide nectar for sure, but a really good thing to feed them is watermelon. Of course it needs to be a fresh slice each day, (very thin is ok) but they will get everything they need from that. Yet another lesson, too, as you can watch their proboscis uncurl as they eat. It's best to put a plate on a stake (I glue plastic pot saucers onto wooden dowels) to serve the watermelon. Put vaseline on the stick to keep the ants off if they show up.

Back to the cats--a word of caution: Many times people underestimate how much the piggy monarch larvae eat, and come up short on food. They then go to a nursery and buy more milkweed. If you do that, be certain that it hasn't been sprayed for aphids -- or worse, for caterpillars! DUH! Many nurseries still don't get it, and of those who do, their suppliers don't. 

One of my friends who runs a local nursery told me he was raising some monarch cats and ran out of food so he got some plants from work that had just come in from the grower, not knowing they had been treated and all his caterpillars died.

Anyway, TMI...but you know how excited I get about butterflies! Good luck and let me know if you have any more questions.

Maureen

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Hi Maureen,

Another question for you - how long does BT stay on a plant - could I wash it off or keep it quarantined for awhile? I don't want to starve or kill my little house guests!

I'd also love to know the story about letting the butterflies go

Thanks!!!!!!

This is fun.

Mitch

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Hi Mitch-

I'm not sure about BT. I'm not even sure that's the chemical they always use. Might be malathion(?) or some other insect killer. But I do think you would be safe if you could get a plant from the nursery that #1--they could tell you they had not sprayed and #2--it had been there for a few weeks or longer. Then bring it home and hose it every day until you run out of all your other food and then feed it to them. You already have several that have made it, and that's a very good thing!!!

Here is the butterfly legend, with my footnote (or whatever you call it when it's at the top!)

Butterflies are like candles on a birthday cake. When you make a wish on the candles on a birthday cake, and blow out the candles, your wish is said to come true. In the same manner, when you make a wish on a butterfly, and set it free, your wish is taken to the Heavens to be granted.

There is an Indian legend about this that I would like to share with you.

As the Indian Legend Goes...
If anyone desires a wish to come true they must first whisper the wish to a butterfly.

Since a butterfly can make no sound, the butterfly cannot reveal the wish to anyone but the Great Spirit who hears and sees all.

In gratitude to us for giving the butterfly its freedom as we release it, the Great Spirit always grants the wish.

So, according to legend, by making a wish and giving the butterfly its freedom, our wish will be taken to the heavens and be granted.

Kind of like having a genie with wings, huh?
Keep on havin' fun!
mo

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Hi Maureen,

Thanks! You have been incredibly helpful - I'm at work right now and my kids just called to tell me that three more cats are climbing up the side of the netting and getting ready to attach themselves - they are so excited about this that they're checking every 20 minutes - this is a MUST DO for any gardener!!!!

Thanks
Mitch

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Hi Mitch,

Now we have a new way to keep our kids entertained! Have they actually seen the 90-second transformation from hanging "J" cat to pupa? It takes my breath away every time I happen to catch it in the act.

thx!
Maureen

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Hi Maureen,

No we haven't seen the transformation - any clues to when it happens? Any special movements or hints? It's my sons 6th bday party tomorrow and I'm sure this is going to be a big hit!

Thanks
Mitch

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Hi Mitch 

They usually hang in the "j" for a day or so, and then... it just happens! And it goes quick. The last thing that they do is squeeze off their head capsule, so you might see this little black ball that used to be their caterpillar head. Absolutely amazing. I hope you happen to see it. How many chrysalides do you have now?

Have great fun tomorrow, and I hope you get to see a chrysalis form. The other awesome event, of course, is the emergence of the butterfly. wow! You will see that, I'm sure. There are signs to tell you it's eminent.

OK, back to work for me.

maureen

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Hi Maureen,

We got to see a transformation last night! We were supposed to be meeting people at a restaurant and I went outside to turn off a sprinkler and I noticed the "J" was sort of straight, so I figured something was up and It was like christmas eve, we all pulled up chairs and watched the whole thing! Needless to say we were 20 minutes late - but we didn't care. My 12yr old said "that was cool, no, actually that could have been the coolest thing I've ever seen!" Needless to say this whole project was well worth it!

Thanks

Mitch

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Hi Maureen,

Just thought I give you an update - eight 6 yrs olds, 4 grandparents, 6 mothers and my family all got to see one transform - just amazing! Imagine 20 minutes into the party, with 6 year olds running wild, screaming, climbing, sword fighting...and dad says "hey everyone the caterpillar is going to change" everyone looked at me like, what the heck are you talking about - but my 6yr old knew - and he came running - then it was like a stampede! Then as if on cue, the "j" transformed - amazing! I couldn't planned it better myself!


   

Anyway, thanks for your help! I'm running out of milkweed fast - I may have to cut a door open and take some of the cats off and put them on some plants outside, then transfer them as they get bigger.

   

I think it's a good problem to have.

        

Thanks
Mitch

 

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After we let the first batch go, I accidentally left a little corner of the screen open, and sure enough about two weeks later we had a whole other batch or cats, and about 10 more Monarchs! We have great plans for next summer, including some bigger milkweed, but I'm just not sure of where to put the big structure this winter?

Needless to say, this was a great success. Something I completely recommend if you or someone is handy with building things. We're going to build one for our elementary school, I'll keep you informed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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