One of my dearest friends in the world is a Master Naturalist and has been encouraging me to plant native for quite some time now. Three years ago, I finally started and planted a few milkweed plants among other natives. Milkweed is the one and only plant monarch caterpillars will feed on. I didn’t expect the butterflies to ever find mine, but they finally did after two or three years of growth. In late July 2020, I found five fat, 2-inch-long monarch caterpillars. I was beside myself with excitement. The next morning, they were all gone, eaten by something, or better yet, maybe someone took them home to raise. Even though they were just caterpillars, I was devastated and was confounded as I thought they were toxic and had no predators. Not knowing anything about these critters, I thought I was done with them for the year. Then things seriously improved. I checked back in mid-August and found 17 fairly large caterpillars and collected them all. I kept them on plant cuttings in Tupperware with holes in the lids for the plants and ordered small cages from Amazon to house them. I was hooked.
After the discovery that caterpillars eat a ridiculous amount of leaves each day and night, I learned that larger cages, 24-inches tall, worked best as you can put up to three whole milkweed plants in them; thus, disturbing the creatures less frequently and decreasing the work for me. This technique would work well for folks living in apartments and condos.
So, yes, it became a severe obsession, but with COVID-19, what else was there to do? It was also for a good cause and fun. Each day, I checked on them first thing in the morning, brought in cuttings, and washed off the gunk and bugs. I loved watching them eat. All seventeen of my first batch thrived and I released each butterfly one by one. These were truly magical moments and the experience was in its entirety a most beautiful process!
I had enough milkweed for these guys, but then on August 23, 2020, I found 28 new monarch eggs and was not sure I would have enough milkweed for the caterpillars. So, I passed out gifts of eggs and caterpillars aplenty, and most folks found it to be a worthy cause and absolutely fascinating. Some became as obsessed as I did and were lifted emotionally a bit with the distraction from being so isolated. I had so many new caterpillars that I moved all the first batch chrysalises into one cage so none of the new caterpillars would inadvertently eat them, which happened to one.
On September 14, I found even more eggs, 60! I wondered if I should even try to raise them as it was so late in the season. I did and spent a fair amount of time hunting for pesticide-free milkweed at nurseries and through caterpillar Facebook groups. My friends and I all ran out of milkweed and we learned that when the caterpillars are in their last week or so, just before they make their chrysalises, they sometimes would eat butternut squash or cucumbers.
I’m now looking forward to raising more monarchs for 2021. In a future blog, I will be describing the step-by-step process for raising Monarchs at your home, including my recommended equipment, tips and tricks. In the meantime, plant milkweed and start your own Pollinator’s Place!