Hello Monarch Friends,
With days on end of rain, I have wondered how butterflies fare in adverse weather conditions. I do notice that my flowers are swarming with butterflies and other pollen-loving insects whenever the sun shines, but those moments have been rare.
Below is a link to a brief article from Scientific American about this very issue. Butterflies in the Rain
Tomorrow is our first scheduled Monarch workshop at my house. Our first attempt was cancelled due to rain. Here’s hoping for a break in the weather tomorrow afternoon!
Dear Monarch friends,
Now that the Monarch(s) officially arrived in my garden, I would like to invite you to participate in informal monitoring with me. I will offer one workshop/week and, so that we can gather together comfortably outside, I will limit participation to 8 people at each workshop. I will have magnifying glasses for you to use while you’re here, but please bring your own writing and recording materials.
If you are interested, please reply to me with the date you prefer. I will close registration when I reach 8 people per date, and will follow up with confirmation and directions. I recommend carpooling if someone close by will be attending. If it’s torrentially raining, I will offer a make-up date.
If you are closed out of the first round, please don’t despair. I hope to continue throughout the breeding/egg laying/caterpillar season – as long as the Monarch oblige.
- Tuesday, July 13 9:00-10:00 AM
- Monday, July 19 3:00-4:00 PM
Dear Monarch Friends,
Just after I sent you this afternoon’s message, I went outside and noticed little dots on the flower buds of one of the swamp milkweed plants. That lone female Monarch got right to work. They are Monarch eggs! Notice the shape.
I also attached a photo differentiating males from females for your reference.
Hello Monarch Friends!
Here it is, July 7, and just as I was ready to give up hope, a beautiful female Monarch showed up, sampling nectar from a variety of flowers, perhaps checking out the egg laying potential. I checked my postings to you from 2020, and I saw the first Monarch in my garden on July 7. Amazing!
I have heard from several of you that you have seen a Monarch or two. I think we’re on our way. See if you can identify the females (they don’t have the distinctive two black spots on their wings) and then start looking for eggs on the undersides of milkweed leaves and sometimes on flowers. You can see what an egg looks like in the attached photo. They’re tiny, cone-like and yellowish white – not the white dots which are extrusion from the milkweed plant. You might even get to see the female actually lay her eggs.
Let us know what’s happening in your gardens!
Some trials and tribulations
by John Anderson – A Letter from Grandpa Nature
Monarch butterflies are distasteful to birds. They contain alkaloids called cardiac glycosides which make any bird consuming one retch, vomit, drool copiously and, in general, act very, very sick. The butterfly gets its chemical defenses while in the larval stage. As a caterpillar it eats milkweeds containing alkaloids and accumulates them in its body. When metamorphosis occurs the distasteful alkaloids end up in the butterfly. Therefore both monarch caterpillars and monarch butterflies are distasteful to birds. Any bird that eats one will get so sick that it will very likely never eat another.
Since we know about the monarch’s toxic defense it’s easy to imagine that they live rather carefree lives unbothered by predators. But that isn’t so. The alkaloids that make them distasteful to birds provide little or no protection against insect and arachnid predators and there are a surprising number of both. Mostly they target smaller, early instar monarch caterpillars.
I have seen pictures of both Crab Spiders and Jumping Spiders eating monarch caterpillars. Crab spiders are ambush hunters that wait for prey to blunder into their grasp. Jumping spiders are active hunters, leaping on prey from a distance. Like all spiders these species liquefy and ‘drink’ the internal parts of their victims.
There are also several of the true bugs that will feed on monarch caterpillars including Spined Soldier Bugs, Wheel Bugs, Ambush Bugs and Assassin Bugs. All are voracious predators that stab prey with their piercing mouthparts and drink their liquefied innards. I have seen spined soldier bugs feasting on caterpillars but all of these bugs are generalists. They will eat any caterpillar, not just those of the monarch.
Some wasp species are detrimental to monarch caterpillars. Paper wasps are hunters that kill and chew up Paper Wasp insects including monarch caterpillars to feed to their own wasp larvae. Ichneumon wasps are internal parasites. The female wasp injects her eggs into the Ichneumon wasp living caterpillar. The wasp grubs that hatch from those eggs eat their host from the inside, not killing it until they are finally old enough to pupate.
In the southern states that the monarchs have to colonize annually as populations move north, Fire Ants are a scourge, eating any and all insect life. Areas that have fire ants have almost no insects including monarchs.
Other monarch predators that were once native to Europe were intentionally introduced on this continent as biological controls for various destructive insect species. A beetle known as the Forest Caterpillar Hunter was released to control Gypsy Moth and Browntail Moth caterpillars. It is established in New England, south to Virginia and west to Pennsylvania. Another called the Golden Worm and Slug Hunter was also introduced to control gypsy moth caterpillars. It proved to be a generalist willing to feed on any caterpillar as well as on earthworms. It is mostly found in New England. Both have negatively impacted monarch populations.
Worse than either beetle is a fly which was also introduced to control gypsy moth caterpillars. This fly is known only by its scientific name, Compsilura concinnata. It is a most unremarkable creature, slightly smaller than a house fly and is an internal parasitoid on caterpillars. Unfortunately this fly produces four broods a year only one of which is synchronous with the emergence of gypsy moth caterpillars. The remaining three broods have to find other caterpillar hosts to feed on including monarchs.
All of these introductions occurred many years ago when the potential unintended impacts on other species including monarchs were not as well understood. But now the beetles and the fly are here to stay. Whatever impacts they may have are now integral parts of the world that we and the monarch caterpillars inhabit.
Monarch caterpillars are also susceptible to fungal attack, hosts to internal parasites and to non-lethal protozoan spores that may ultimately decrease their survival rates. But, the most lethal predator of monarch caterpillars is, oddly enough, milkweed. Milkweeds do not want herbivores such as monarch caterpillars eating their leaves. As a deterrent they produce the very alkaloids that make monarchs distasteful to birds and they produce extremely sticky latex sap. Monarch caterpillars have evolved to tolerate and even utilize the alkaloids but newly hatched monarch caterpillars are often engulfed by the sticky latex sap that gushes from a leaf when the tiny caterpillar starts to feed. One researcher estimated that 60% of newly hatched caterpillars were victims of milkweed sap during their very first attempt at feeding. They were killed by the milkweed’s defenses. And, they only eat milkweed. They have no choice but to eat it.
Even after all of the dangers that a monarch caterpillar must face it has been estimated that 10% will grow to full size, pupate and become butterflies.
Under normal circumstances, insects can stand heavy predation because they reproduce explosively. A female monarch may lay as many as 400 eggs. If 200 of those eggs produce females and each of them lays 400 eggs … well, you get the picture. Insects reproduce in great numbers and are eaten in great numbers. And, generally, enough survive to carry on the species.
However, researchers who estimate populations of overwintering monarchs in Mexico by counting the number of hectares of oyamel trees heavily covered with dormant butterflies believe that populations have been in decline for decades. There have been numerous theories put forth to explain their decline but no smoking gun has emerged. No single cause.
The monarch, Danaus plexippus, is probably one of the most studied species in the world. We know many ‘facts’ about it but we’re not even close to understanding its multigenerational continent spanning realities, and we may never be. And we’re not even close to understanding our impacts on the species. But the more I read the more I respect the monarch, Danaus plexippus, AKA The Wanderer. It’s a survivor. At least so far.
Dear new and returning Dummerston Monarch Welcoming Committee,
Saturday, June 19th was the official start of our 2021 project. I spent three hours at the beautiful Bunker Farm distributing swamp milkweed plants (free, thanks to an AVCC grant), saying hello to those of you returning for the second year of the project, and welcoming 7 new participants/families. I gave away all but a few plants. If you want more, hurry over to Bunker Farm in the next day or two.
Over the course of the season, you will receive emails from me about a variety of topics related to Monarchs. If you would like to share information, photos, videos, articles, etc., please respond to all. However, if you have a specific question for me, please do not copy all. I want to save you from getting too many unnecessary messages.
Since this is the first message for the 2021 project, I want to make sure I cover lots of ground, and I apologize in advance if this is repetitive for some of you. The information I share will also be posted on the Dummerston Conservation Commission website, along with information I provided to participants in 2020. We have our own blog!
For those of you planting swamp milkweed for the first time, I recommend you plant it among flowering annuals and perennials that attract pollinators. If you want to easily see Monarchs in action at all stages of their life cycle, plant the swamp milkweed not too far from your house. Full or part sun is fine. It is happy in any kind of soil, but will need room to get big over the next few years.
Two weeks ago, I participated in a Zoom training to collect data for the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP), which is a national program sponsored by Monarch Joint Venture. After the training, I spoke with outreach coordinator Julia Whidden and described to her our community project. Since MLMP uses data collected from citizen scientists all over the country to understand Monarch population health and trends, she is encouraging anyone interested to get trained and begin collecting data. The expectation is that you will monitor once a week throughout the season. Information about online training which you can do at your leisure is on this Google drive link. MLMP and Monarch Joint Venture are terrific resources!
Regardless of whether or not you decide to officially monitor Monarch larvae in your garden, make sure you have a magnifying glass and a notebook or sketchbook handy so you can keep your own records. It’s fun to look back week to week and year to year. Also, take lots of pictures!
If the Monarchs do indeed show up, I will invite small groups of you to my garden so we can have an opportunity to practice larva data observation and collection. I will have magnifying glasses and some cool materials for you to use while you’re here. Workshop dates and times TBD.
Last of all, but first in significance, a big thank you to Helen O’Donnell for growing such sturdy and beautiful plants for our project!
The DCC was awarded a highly competitive 2021 Tiny Grant of $500 from the Association of Vermont Conservation Commissions (AVCC). As one of seven recipients in the state, the DCC will expand the second year of its project – Inviting Monarch Butterflies to Dummerston – by adding a new cohort of interested Dummerston residents, along with returning participants from the first year. Funds from the grant will help pay for swamp milkweed for participants to plant in their pollinator gardens, attracting monarchs and other valuable pollinating insects. Project members will receive continuous education, mentoring, and participatory experiences focused on pollinator planting and gardening, monarch life cycle identification and data collection, and access to recommended organizations and websites monitoring monarch populations and habitat restoration. Many thanks to AVCC for its support for our project to provide our community an opportunity to participate in the broader movement of climate change mitigation and ecosystem health.
In June 2020, the Dummerston Conservation Commission rolled out its summer project, “Inviting Monarch Butterflies to Dummerston”. The focus of this project was to educate and engage residents in the crucial work of increasing the diversity of habitat to attract a wide variety of pollinators, who are essential to the health of our worldwide ecosystem and to our food supply. Judy Fink, DCC Commissioner and retired educator, had conducted her own informal two year investigation on Monarchs in her garden using Swamp Milkweed, a native cultivar, as a food source for larvae. Based on two successful summers, Judy launched a town project. A local farmer, Helen O’Donnell (Bunker Farm), propagated Swamp Milkweed, and thanks to a donor was able to provide free plants for 20 residents eager to participate in the project. COVID-19 safety issues required that all instruction and interaction was held remotely through email exchanges, photographs and facilitator-created videos.
Unfortunately, the local and national Monarch population declined significantly in 2020. Despite few Monarch sightings in Dummerston, project participants were enthusiastic about continuing the project for a second year and expressed a reinvigorated commitment to Monarch survival and habitat restoration, which is vitally important in years of population decline.
The Dummerston Conservation Commission is expanding this project into its second year, inviting returning participants to participate, and is welcoming new residents to join the fun and excitement. Participants will have an opportunity to buy Swamp Milkweed plants at Bunker Farm, and we will band together to observe and monitor Monarch adult, caterpillar and chrysalis activity this summer.
Here’s how it works:
- On Saturday, June 19 from 11:00 AM-2:00 PM, meet Judy at Bunker Farm to purchase individual or 6 packs of Swamp Milkweed plants lovingly grown by Helen O’Donnell. (Prices TBD, but no more than $4/plant or $6/6-pack). Helen has grown a limited number of plants for this project, and they will be available to buy until the supply runs out.
- Get to work. Research where to plant your Swamp Milkweed, and make sure it will be in a location where you can monitor Monarch activity readily. Observe your plant(s) regularly and document once Monarch butterflies return in early summer. Keep a careful count of eggs, caterpillar stages, chrysalis, and adults. Monarch Joint Ventures and Xerces are two of the many valuable research organizations that will help you get started and continue learning.
- Throughout the summer, Judy will regularly post short videos and Monarch musings on the DCC website and Facebook page, demonstrating how she monitors Monarch activity in her garden.
- Let’s exchange information! We will have an opportunity to talk to each other by email and share stories, photos and videos. We’re hoping to have a field trip or two to Judy’s house on the hill to see what’s going on with Monarchs there. Stay tuned for announcements regarding field trip dates and times.
- Optional participation in Summer BioBlitz (a national Monarch count) and Fall 2021 community presentation (details to follow).
- Keep your Dummerston neighbors informed about what you’re observing! Contact us at the Dummerston Conservation website and Facebook page.
Happy May Flowers, Monarch friends!
I am busily planning our upcoming season of Monarch adventures, and am keeping my fingers crossed for a healthy population of returning butterflies. Helen O’Donnell, our brilliant Bunker Farm grower, and I are looking at a mid-June date for Swamp Milkweed plant pick-up (announcement to come).
Helen wants to make sure she is growing enough plants to sell for this project. Based on your response to my plant question in February, I approximated how many plants we would need to meet your needs plus plants for new participants, and then asked Helen to grow and reserve a quantity for our project. Several folks have already requested plants from Helen, and we are thrilled that the interest in increasing the Monarch population continues to grow. For those of you who responded to my earlier request regarding approximate numbers of plants you would like to order, please let me know if you are planning to buy plants from Helen directly instead of through the project, so we can readjust the numbers of plants Helen is reserving. Helen is happy to sell plants to everyone who wants them, but we also want to make sure we don’t end up with a surplus of plants (or too few) at our kick-off plant event.
Thanks so much. I will be in touch!
Dear Monarch colleagues,
My friend sent me an article about monarch migration in this month’s Smithsonian Magazine. You might want to take a look.