You know that saying “You’re never too old to learn something new!” Well this week here on the farm has been very eventful in learning new things. I started pulling weeds in our flower bed and came across some yellow, white and black caterpillars, so I looked them up to see exactly what they were before destroying them. I am so grateful I did! They were monarch caterpillars- of ALL things. I was so amazed that something this cool could happen just outside my back door.
That night I went to bed so excited, just thinking of the beauties that I found. I couldn’t sleep. I did a lot of research and watched a few videos to educate myself. Knowing that their population is dwindling due to several man-made and natural phenomena such as weather extremes, agricultural practices and deforestation, I had to make sure that they all had a fighting chance to survive.
During my research I learned that a monarch caterpillar will only feed on milkweed and nothing else. There are over 100 species of milkweed in the United States alone. Who knew?
Female monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on milkweed to ensure a healthy start for their young. After the caterpillar hatches it will begin to munch on the plant. The vine (the weed I was pulling up) they were feeding on is called honeyvine milkweed or the scientific name Ampelamus albidus. This vine is very invasive and it spreads by seed as well as roots. There is no getting rid of it once you have it, unless you till your yard up. Who wants to do that? If it will bring the monarch butterflies to my flower garden each year, I will gladly leave it.
Watching an egg hatch, the larva molt and turn into a chrysalis has been one of the most amazing things I have ever seen, (watching my twins develop and being born is the first). The most incredible and unexplainable was watching it turn into a chrysalis. It’s as if the caterpillar is turning inside out, there are no words other than watching it for yourself.
I also reached out to the Monarch Watch Program at the University of Kansas. This program was created for “citizen scientist” to help the average person participate in the scientific collection of data. Once I receive the tagging kit and my caterpillars turn into butterflies, I will record data such as the code on the tag, tag date, gender of the butterfly and geographic location. After my documentation is returned, the program will be able to use it to further their research.
The Monarch life cycle has four distinct stages and each one is absolutely fascinating.
1. Egg: Female monarch butterfly will lay a single egg on one milkweed leaf. It is unknown how many eggs a female will lay during her life span. Scientist believe she will lay an average of 100 to 300 eggs. It takes between three to four days for the eggs to hatch after they have been laid.
2. Larva (caterpillar): During this stage the monarch goes through “five instars” or stages. When the caterpillar becomes too large for its skin it will go a short distance from its food and molt. Once it molts the old skin the new skin is very soft and has little to no protection. The caterpillar will normally eat the shed skin. This stage takes ten to fourteen days to complete. You know this stage is coming to an end once the caterpillar hangs upside down in a “J” shape.
3. Pupa (chrysalis): Within 10 – 14 hours the larva transforms into a beautiful emerald color chrysalis. This stage can last between 10 – 14 days. It forms the chrysalis in just 3-4 minutes.
4. Adult butterfly: I haven’t personally seen this stage….