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The summer of Monarch abundance

It was 8 degrees outside yesterday morning, windy and raining. I decided to cocoon. The day before, it was 10 Celsius, sunny and calm. It felt lovely to be outside. The change had come Thursday afternoon. The date was interesting, because September 28 is when our first frost can be expected. Not this year – but still, it went down to 4 last night and it's chilly today - even if it’s due to rise to 25 C by Tuesday.

So, it’s fall. But I’m not over summer, which this year was enhanced by an encouraging abundance of Monarch butterflies. During the warm weather earlier this week, observers along the Lake Ontario shoreline were amazed by the spectacular parade.

Some of us raised Monarch caterpillars this year and became transfixed by the unfolding spectacle of the species' metamorphosis. When last I blogged, I had seven chrysalides, with one final caterpillar hanging in a ‘J’ from the top of its cage. It pupated a few days later.

That was September 4; and the wait began. I checked on the eight jewel-like chrysalides every day. No change. I began to worry. It wasn’t until the morning of September 19 that I saw darkening in one chrysalis and I could discern the actual pattern of the wing. It was raining, so I brought the cage indoors, leaving two cages outside to the vagaries of the weather. Later that morning the first butterfly eclosed (that, I discover, is the correct term). I wasn’t there to catch the moment – I came by and there she was, brilliant and magnificent, hanging from her empty and translucent chrysalis (you can tell female monarchs from males, the males have a dark dot on their hind wing).

The advice from Monarch Watch and other websites is to allow about two hours for the wings to dry out and harden before releasing the butterfly. But not if it’s raining or a storm is predicted, which was the case. A Monarch doesn’t feed for the first 24 hours, so an overnight stay would not hurt. This one spent the day opening and closing her wings and athletically stepping around, but by 5:30 was hanging quietly. I moved the cage out the next morning. The storm had passed. She remained still until the sun moved round and its rays hit her cage. Then she began to flutter. I was able to ease her onto my finger and take her over to a Black Cohosh bloom. Within minutes, she flew onto it, and then off, to a Grey-headed Coneflower, and then up and away and I lost sight of her.

Over the next four days, another five butterflies eclosed. In each case, I missed the moment, until the last one – when I determinedly sat and waited. After an hour or so, a lengthwise crack revealed the orange and black colours within. It opened a little more and a leg emerged, then another, then the two antennae popped out from the bottom and slowly the butterfly unfolded and hung, upside down. A curious thing: she seemed to be cleaning her face with two furry 'hands.' It turns out those are vestigial legs - Monarchs and some other butterfly species only use four of their six legs for standing on. The reason is not clear. After the wings dried, when it was time for that first flight – it seemed like a concentration of energy into the small body before the leap into the sky.

For a few days I come across my Monarchs, or others, here and there in the garden – large, beautiful, awe-inspiring. I had a misconception about the Monarch migration: I thought that, just as it can take three generations for them to make their way from Mexico north, the same happens on the way south. But these fall Monarchs do not reproduce – until next year. Their job is to make it to their wintering grounds in one go, all the way to Mexico. So while the Monarchs of the summer generations live two to five weeks, those of the southward migrating generation live up to nine months. That’s why it’s so important for us to have plants in bloom at this time of year, so they can feed up for the long journey ahead. Milkweed is no longer in bloom – what they need are nectar plants like Asters, Goldenrod, Sunflowers, Coneflowers, Phloxes, Coreopsis, Joe Pye Weed, Obedient Plant and Beebalms, to name but a few.

There are issues in raising Monarchs. In the wild, the caterpillars have a mortality rate of 95 per cent or more. They are not only prey or potential larval hosts for a number of insects (wasps, spiders, ants etc.), they are also prone to several diseases that can be exacerbated if the caterpillars are raised in overcrowded or unsanitary conditions. I had three cages to limit spread if any of the caterpillars were diseased, and I was rigorous in daily cleaning, and changing the milkweed they were feeding on. The most common disease is Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (known as OE). It is believed to have co-evolved with Monarch butterflies and affects their populations worldwide. OE must live within a host caterpillar to grow and multiply. Between infections, OE survives in the environment as spores that are resistant to extreme conditions.

Of my eight chrysalides, one did not eclose. The colour did not look right, but I waited a few days after the others hatched. Then I put it in the freezer in a paper envelope to be sure it was dead. And another butterfly that eclosed (one of two males) had a slightly crumpled wing. It was smaller than the others, and its wings remained damp and failed to harden for several hours, even though it did flap and move around. But each time I tried to launch it, it just floated to the ground, and I'd pick it up and put it back to hang. The advice is that it’s kindest to euthanize a butterfly that is sick. I took it out of the cage at the end of the day and held it up to the warm sun, thinking to give it some last moments of the delight of being a butterfly, and to my astonishment, it took off. I saw it a few times over the next couple of days (being small, it was identifiable) but on the third morning, I found a dead Monarch by the pond. I recognized the fold of its wing. It too went into an envelope. I have to dispose of it and the unsuccessful chrysalis carefully to be sure not to spread any spores they may be carrying. Those survive winter and could infect future caterpillars.

I talked to Brent Shirley, a management biologist at the Barrie office of the Ministry of Natural Resources of Forestry. He’s of the view that high mortality is part of the Monarch’s natural lifecycle, as it is for many species, and people can do more harm than good by intervening. Some people feel that they need to be involved with everything, he said, explaining that the ministry would prefer us to leave the Monarchs to do their thing. The best way of helping Monarchs is to create and preserve habitat.

The thought of what has happened to habitat in the last century is sobering. Older readers will remember when fields were colourful with wildflowers (to the farmer’s despair), when hedgerows were an intricate lattice overlaid on human undertakings, providing food and corridors of safe passage. But it’s the change we can’t see that’s the worst. In an email to a group of Tiny Marsh regulars, naturalist and environmental consultant Bob Bowles notes that it’s not the lack of milkweed that is doing the Monarchs in, it’s the pesticides on the crops, especially neonicotinoids on corn in the Ohio corn belt. Then of course there are storms. And logging in Mexico.

I raised six butterflies. In the grand scheme of things – a billion Monarchs wintering in Mexico 20 years ago, down to 109 million last year – it’s nothing. For me, it deepened a relationship. But I prefer to be hands off. Let the wild be wild. So I will reflect on whether I will do it again. But I do know I will continue to be part of the campaign to save the Monarch – and that involves creating habitat on my own property, encouraging others to do so, and advocating for Monarchs in the community and at the political level.

Bring Back the Monarchs

Only non-gardeners bag their leaves

So says gardening blogger Doug Green. "When I see those bags at the end of driveways, I know real gardeners don’t live there," he writes. "I know they’ll be spending money next year to feed their garden instead of letting the trees do it for them." Last spring, I linked to similar sentiments by another expert, Robert Pavlis. "Hopefully your garden beds are covered with leaves which you left there in fall," he wrote. Here's what I wrote last fall. Trees need their leaf litter - and they're not the only ones. It's not just about the need to keep leaves on your property for habitat and nutrients - but also about leaving perennial stems, which are home to nesting native bees. I learned something from bee expert Susan Chan, who recently spoke to the Midland Penetanguishene Field Naturalists Club: if you choose an alternative bee-saving strategy, namely to cut the stems or canes and bundle them somewhere on your property, outside but off the ground and under some shelter - cut them at least 8 inches long. Otherwise there's not enough length to get the requisite balance of male and female larvae. By the way, Chan recommends against the commercially available bee houses because they need cleaning or they will harbour pests. Go the biodegradable, natural route.

October hours

Today is my last Saturday opening of the year. But I am around most of the time, Saturdays and other days. So if you need to check out my native plant nursery, just call 705-322-2545 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and we can arrrange a convenient time.

Diane
- 30 September 2017 at 07:31pm

Lovely and eloquent as always Kate. Thanks for these... the writing and the message.
cheers, Diane.
Brian Morris
- 30 September 2017 at 07:40pm

Hi Kate: Always enjoy reading your blogs. After reading the most recent one on Monarchs I googled Susan Chan (mentioned in your blog), and a lot of material came up. From there I eventually found my way to http://farmsatwork.ca/pollinators/resources and a cornucopia of information came up. From various references listed there there I selected http://farmsatwork.ca/pollinators/pollinator-habitat-on-farms where they list various farms throughout Ontario and show the plans of the actual pollinator habitat these farms have established on their properties. Very interesting, useful, informative information fro anyone with a property .
Phyllis Tremblay
- 1 October 2017 at 09:16pm

Love your blogs. Thank you.
Kate
- 2 October 2017 at 01:51pm

Thanks everyone, comments much appreciated!
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