Seed Shed Doings, January 2019
Rickie Rachuy provides an update on doings of the Northwest Illinois Prairie Enthusiasts. With the plight of Monarch butterflies on everyone's mind, she tells the story of one member's passion for butterflies and the rearing of caterpillars.Our most ambitious prairie restoration year is behind us—90+ acres were seeded with native forbs and grasses. Prairie Diva Barbara reported that seed picking was challenging this year due to rain, rain, and more rain. Still, she and her team managed to pick close to 200 species. Over 2,700 lbs. of seeds were collected with the help of 400 volunteer hours spread over 40 public picking sessions. We can never say it enough: “Thank you, Volunteers!”
I am proud to say that in our rare-plant gardens which were started just three years ago, 27 species produced seed that was picked for inclusion in Barb's mixes and for over-seeding in 2018. We will start 17 new species for the 2019 growing season now that all the beds have been built in the east garden.
I know that there is talent in the NIPE ranks and with the plight of Monarch butterflies on everyone's mind, I want to tell you about one such person. Becky Janopoulos, who lives near-by, emailed me after she read about my struggles with milkweed-decimating caterpillars on the rare plants in the east garden. She offered to rear any Monarch larvae I might find in our gardens, then return the hatched butterflies to our farm.
She told me that when she was a child, she began collecting Monarch, Swallowtail and Tent caterpillars from the garden and a field close to her house. She kept them in containers her mom sacrificed in the name of science. Observing that they were eating the plants she found them on she fed them and kept the containers clean until they made a chrysalis or, in the case of the tent caterpillars, a cocoon.
As an adult, having moved to the country, she realized the insect populations she had loved seeing as a child were now scarce. Although she still saw Swallowtails, Painted Ladies and Red Admirals, she saw only a few Monarch butterflies! She read about the decline of Monarch populations and started volunteering as a citizen scientist for The Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, a program started by Karen Oberhauser and other researchers at the University of Minnesota. She bought and read Karen's book, The Beautiful Monarch, which detailed all her research on this butterfly. Inspired, Becky began monitoring the eggs, larvae and butterflies she saw on milkweeds in her back field. After 2 summers of volunteering and watching larvae get eaten by wasps and assassin bugs, she wanted to do more—especially when she learned that over 95% of Monarch larvae will not survive to adulthood in the wild but over 90% will live when raised in captivity.
She went back to her roots and started raising them indoors again. Through trial and error, she figured out a good system. Eggs take about 4 days to hatch and, as each larva eats and grows, it sheds its skin 4 times before shedding its skin for the last time and becoming a chrysalis. The larval stage takes about 2 weeks and the butterfly will be in chrysalis for about 10 days. The total time from egg to butterfly takes about 28 days depending on the weather—warmer conditions speed up the process.
Becky's caterpillars go into 9-inch shallow plastic containers with no holes in the lid; they get enough oxygen when containers are opened daily for cleaning. She puts a fresh paper towel on the bottom and provides fresh common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) leaves that have been rinsed and patted dry.
When the larvae advance to the 4th or 5th instar stage (the name given to the developmental stage of an arthropod between molts) they are put into a metal mesh reptile cage that is easy to clean. Every day she provides rinsed, fresh whole milkweed stalks in containers with holes in the lid and water inside. She makes sure to check the milkweed for predators like ants or spiders or for more monarch eggs!
Monarchs that have successfully morphed are returned to the place where the larvae were found.
As the days get shorter in fall the last generation of the year will emerge from their chrysalides in diapause (which means they are in a period of suspended development and will not mate.) This is the super generation that will make the journey south. At this point, they need water, ample nectar sources, trees or other protection at night for roosting, and connected habitats.
Monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains overwinter in mountainous sites in Central Mexico, now declared monarch sanctuaries. They can fly 100 to 150 miles a day if they have favorable winds and weather. It can take 2 months to reach the overwintering grounds and they will fly over 2,000 miles to do so. There, they roost en-masse in the very same trees each year and wait out the winter until the days lengthen. Why Monarch butterflies use the same trees is still a mystery since they aren't the same butterflies that were there the previous year. Is it genetic memory or are Monarchs chemically marking certain trees for another generation to find? When conditions are right, they break their diapause and leave the sanctuaries to fly north and east up through Texas and into Oklahoma. They lay eggs on milkweed they find, and those larvae become butterflies that continue the journey north up through the Midwest and north along the east coast. It takes 3 to 4 generations to make it all the way to Canada.
Becky says that in the last year, raising monarchs indoors has become somewhat of a trend. She discovered a Facebook page named ‘The Beautiful Monarch' and watched as followers ballooned from about 10,000 to over 22,000. Some scientists have become alarmed by this, saying that raising monarchs indoors takes their natural predators out of the equation. She agrees with these scientists. After all, nature is always about survival of the fittest. Only the strongest and the very best at avoiding predators survive to pass on their superior genes. Having said that she does NOT agree that we should stop. Since humans have decimated most of their natural breeding grounds and the rest is relentlessly sprayed with herbicide, some help is needed.
Becky noted that households that have had flea and tick treatments or flea collars for their pets can kill monarch larvae that are kept in the same house. Don't forget that all butterflies need nectaring plants to nourish themselves as well as requiring the milkweeds for their larvae to feed on. Late season nectar-producing plants should receive more attention in our prairie restorations!