You really don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand the seriousness of the population decline that the monarch butterfly is experiencing. Wanna know why they are dying off? It's because of us. Yup, it's me and you who are killing off these amazingly complex insects. Lawn chemicals, wetland habitat loss, deforestation, road kills, air, water and soil pollutants, climate change storms of insane severity, and possibly most of all- is the deforestation in the Mexican forests by cartels planting avocado trees for health conscious Americans that is murdering the monarch butterfly species one year at a time. The Trump administration had a chance to add the monarch butterfly to the list of endangered species in 2020 but refused to do so because of all the land that would be protected by that act for habitat preservation.
I'm here today to tell people what they can do in their own yards to do something for this amazing insect so maybe monarchs have a chance to survive and not follow the passenger pigeon into oblivion.
Asclepias. Milkweed. Life for the monarchs.
I tell people that monarch butterflies fly along in total darkness seeing only blackness until they stumble upon any plant in the milkweed family, and when they do, it's like a flashing neon "VACANCY" sign in front of a cheap motel in the middle of the desert. The monarch hits the brakes and swoops down to investigate. If the milkweed is flowering, the butterfly goes to the flower immediately to fill up the empty tank, pollinating the milkweed in the process.
If she is a fertilized female, she will fly around randomly for a few minutes (who knows why) and all of the sudden will land on a leaf and lay an egg under a leaf and fly away quickly. The whole process takes no more than two seconds.
The little egg will stick to the leaf and hatch into a zebra-striped caterpillar and start feeding immediately, growing and growing and growing, molting four times until its big enough to pupate.
The caterpillar above is feeding on asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed), a plant that grows about 3' X 3' in full sun to part sun in good soil- possibly wet soil. The monarch eats milkweeds to consume "glycoside," a toxin that keeps birds from eating them. Without milkweed plants, there would be no monarch butterflies, so it is logical to conclude that the more milkweed plants that exist in our ecosystem, the more monarch butterflies we can get into the environment as a buffer against extinction.
This is the best picture I have ever taken of a monarch butterfly caterpillar. This milkweed plant is called asclepias tuberosa, or "butterfly weed." It's got an orange flower and thick leathery leaves less liked by the monarch than asclepias incarnata, but the beauty of this insect-plant symbiosis is that the milkweed has offered to the butterfly plants that live in dry soil all the way into swampy soil. This diverse range of ecosystems is crucial so there is food available to the monarchs pretty much everywhere. The sun is the key to milkweed. It takes the sun's energy to create the chemical glycoside that milkweeds produce for the monarchs, so you will never really see monarch butterflies thriving in shady areas.
When fat enough after it's fourth molt, the metamorphosis begins, with the caterpillar crawling away from the milkweed- sometimes close by, and sometimes as far away as thirty feet. Shoulders turn a light green, and it's behavior is strange. Eating stops, and caterpillars wander around seemingly without purpose. If you were ever lucky enough to watch the pupation occur, you would be amazed. The caterpillar hangs upside down attached by a steel-strong silk rope that is impossible to rip or pull apart, and what was the caterpillar slowly transforms into the greenish capsule you see below- wriggling and swinging from the dangle rope the entire time until the capsule (chrysalis) hardens it's shell. What we knew as a caterpillar has essentially dissolved all of its tissue on the inside and begun rearranging all that muck into what will be a butterfly in 7-10 days. What used to be the head of the caterpillar is a mummified black crumb on the ground under where the chrysalis hangs.
Gold and black dots line the ridge near the top of the chrysalis, function unknown.
The day of the great hatching, the shell miracuously becomes clear, indicating to all present what is inside.
This is an unfinished blog post, to be completed soon.
We embroidered these hats to sell at the nursery- $30 each.