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A Love Affair with Monarchs and Milkweed

Oh, how I love to raise Monarchs! Those striped larvae that transform themselves into lovely butterflies fascinate me. Watching them munch away on Milkweed generates great joy and anticipation.

I’ve observed Monarch (Danaus plexippus) caterpillars morph into chrysalises countless times and am always mesmerized. It brings such pleasure to release butterflies that I’ve raised into my garden, especially when they linger.

Monarch Life Cycle

Stages of Monarch butterflies from caterpillar to adult. Top Row (left to right): Fifth-instar caterpillar traveling on a wire to find a good place to pupate. Caterpillar in the “J” position. Newly-formed chrysalis, still showing wrinkles. Middle Row (l-r): Completed chrysalis, also called a pupa. Chrysalis with nearly transparent cuticle signaling the eminent eclosure (emergence) of the adult butterfly. Freshly-eclosed Monarch hanging on to the remnant of its chrysalis. Bottom Row (l-r): Monarch filling its wings with abdominal fluid before they harden. Fully-fledged adult Monarch nectaring on a yellow variety of Tropical Milkweed.

If you want to raise healthy Monarchs, you have to have Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) and lots of it! Anyone who has ever raised Monarch butterflies has probably, at one point or another, run out of Milkweed. I’ve driven 30 miles to the nearest reliable supplier to replenish Milkweed for hungry caterpillars. It’s astonishing how much these caterpillars devour during their last two instars.

Consumed Milkweed

Monarch caterpillars that have eaten their Milkweed cuttings down to the bare stems.

The best way to get Milkweed is to grow it yourself. You have more control over the quantity and quality of your plants. That said, some species of Milkweed can be a chore to grow.

Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), on the other hand, is easy to grow from seed or propagate from cuttings. (Tropical Milkweed is also known as Scarlet Milkweed, Mexican Butterfly Weed, Bloodflower, Redhead, Cotton Bush and Wild Ipecacuanha.) To obtain seeds for Tropical Milkweed, Click Here for a selection of varieties and prices.

While Tropical Milkweed readily grows from seeds, if you already have stock in your garden, growing it from cuttings is the easiest and fastest way to expand the number of milkweed plants needed to feed your hungry caterpillars.

Tropical Milkweed Propagation

Tropical Milkweed propagation (left to right): Stem cuttings placed in potting soil. Plants after four weeks. Full-size, blooming plants after just eight weeks.

Once the Monarch caterpillars have stripped the Milkweed plant of all its leaves, cut the stems by pruning the plant and leaving about 5-6 inches (12-15 cm) of stems on the plant. It is painful, I know. But, this is actually a very good way to stimulate more growth and fullness of the plant.

Many Monarch experts also believe that by cutting back Milkweed, of any variety, it can reduce OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) infections in Monarch butterfly populations.  OE is a naturally-occurring protozoan parasite that can infect Monarch and Queen (Danaus gilippus) butterflies to the point of harming its hosts.

Even if you do not want to propagate new plants from stem cuttings, Tropical Milkweed should be pruned back on occasion, as it gets too “leggy” and ineffective at producing leaves and flowers. Also, I find that pruning Milkweed helps control and even eliminate Aphids (Aphididae spp.).

prunned

These four Tropical Milkweed plants have just been trimmed. Pruning will stimulate growth, help eliminate OE spores and create bushier branches with more flowers. The two small Tropical Milkweed plants at the top of the photo were grown from seed.

Tropical Milkweed Cuttings in 4-inch Pots

If you have potting soil and containers available, simply place the stems directly into the potting soil. Keep the soil moist until you start to see leaves sprouting from the nodes (the bumps on the stems where leaves used to be). At the same time, roots will be growing from the nodes underground. These are 4-inch (10 cm) nursery pots. Click Here to find similar pots.

You can also place the stem cuttings in water and soak them until they grow roots. The cuttings will grow leaves within a few days and roots in a week or two. However, you can transfer them directly to potting soil anytime. Just remember to keep the soil moist where you have planted the new stem cuttings. You can also speed up the growth by adding Miracle-Gro®, mixed half-strength each time you water. Click Here for Miracle-Gro®. Either dry or liquid works well.

Budding Milkweed Cuttings

Budding stems of Tropical Milkweed cuttings sitting in water and placed in a window for light. Don’t let the cuttings dry out.

I grow most of my Tropical Milkweed in pots. After two years, I retire them to a garden bed, removing them from their pots and trimming their roots lightly, because they can become root bound. One season, I grew 200 plants from cuttings. It was a lot of work but I was able to feed hundreds of Monarch caterpillars!

Milkweed Growing in a Tent

These Tropical Milkweed plants are growing in a screened-in canopy tent to prevent Monarchs and Queens from laying eggs. In the tent, I can also regulate how much water they get and can better control pests such as OE and Aphids. If these tents aren’t available locally, you can Order Here.

If you have a love affair with Monarchs and Milkweed like I do. There’s no cure. Accept it. Embrace it. Feed the passion and reap the joy!

“Blue Moon, You Saw Me Standing Alone”

“Blue moon,
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own.”
–Frank Sinatra, First Verse

Graceful Blue Moon (Hypolimnas bolina) butterflies dance in our garden with elegant dress here in Tonga in the South Pacific. Males all appear the same. However, the females are not only dimorphic (featuring different colors and patterns from the opposite sex), but also rarely look the same as other females, demonstrated by this photo essay.

Male Blue Moon Butterfly - Ventral View

With wings folded, this photo shows the male Blue Moon’s ventral view, the underside of its wings. As with most butterflies, its wings at rest are not nearly as showy as the dorsal or topside wings shown in the next photo, Blue Moon males are extremely territorially and will chase away other butterflies, even those larger than themselves.

Male Blue Moon Butterfly

Behold this gorgeous, velvety male Blue Moon butterfly, also known as Great Eggfly. I reared this one and dozens of others like him from caterpillars discovered growing on roadside weeds here in Tonga. The upper side of the wings of the male Blue Moons is jet black, offset with three pairs of white spots: two on the forewing and one on the hindwing. These spots are surrounded by purple iridescence that only appears when the light source is at the correct angle.

Female Blue Moon

The female Blue Moon butterfly has several different colorations. I’ve raised at least 20 females and each one has had different markings. The wings remind me of the colors and patterns of tapa cloth found in Tonga and in other parts of Polynesia. In fact, we’ve started referring to the female Blue Moon butterfly as the Tapa Cloth butterfly. I suppose that’s how butterflies get their common names.

Tapa Cloth

This is a typical piece of finished tapa cloth or ngatu (pronounced NAH-too) in Tongan. Tapa cloth is made from the inner bark of the Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) tree that is pounded thin and glued together with vegetable starch, usually from kumala (sweet potato) or manioke (cassava), then painted with traditional designs. Just as each work of tapa cloth is different and reflects talents of the artist, female Blue Moon butterflies seem to flaunt their own unique styles. • Photo courtesy of the Virtual Collection of Asian Masterpieces

Female Blue Moon

Another beautiful female Blue Moon butterfly with its own distinct pattern. For many months after moving to Tonga, we thought that we were seeing a multitude of different butterfly species nectaring on the flowers in our yard until I reared these and saw for myself that they are all female morphs of the same species.

Female Blue Moon Butterfly

Here’s yet another gorgeous female Blue Moon butterfly ready to be released into the wild. Her colors resemble the tapa cloth on the left in the next photo.

Long Tapa Cloth

Two long tapa cloths of approximately 60 linear feet (18.28 meters), each with its own patterns and earth-tone colors, just like the different female Blue Moon butterflies. I took this photo this year near Vaini on the main Tongan island of Tongatapu. The owner had placed them in the sun for the day to air them out. He was rightfully proud of his ngatu collection. Tapa cloths hold great value in Tonga, both monetary and sentimental, and are used ceremonially on special occasions. They are also given at graduations, weddings and funerals; and passed down as family heirlooms from generation-to-generation. Read more about tapa cloth in Wikipedia.

Tapa Cloth Butterfly - Female Blue Moon

This is one of my husband’s favorite female Blue Moon patterns. You can really start to imagine nature painting her wings the way Tongan women paint tapa cloth.

The female Blue Moon butterfly hovers over a plant to check for ants which might eat her eggs. After selecting a plant which has no ants on it, she lays at least one but often two to five eggs on the undersides of the leaves.

For months, we could not figure out which of the many host plants, that Blue Moon butterflies are known to use, might be available in Tonga. Then one day, to my complete surprise, a female Blue Moon “saw me standing alone” and landed right at my feet. She deposited eggs on a nearby plant, which we later discovered was Nodeweed. Mystery solved!

Nodeweed

Nodeweed (Synedrella nodiflora) is one of several host plants for the Blue Moon butterfly’s caterpillars. It grows wild in Tonga and can easily be found along unmowed roadsides and vacant lots.

Blue Moon Eggs

Two well-camouflaged green Blue Moon butterfly eggs hidden on the leaf’s underside.

Blue Moon Caterpillar

Blue Moon caterpillars are black and covered with prickly orange spines that deter predators (and handling by humans).

Blue Moon Pupa

Blue Moon chrysalises are brown with spines and well camouflaged. Adult Blue Moon butterflies eclose (emerge) about ten days after pupating.

Blue Moon butterflies are found from Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa, through South and Southeast Asia, to South Pacific islands (including French Polynesia, Tonga, Tuvalu, Samoa, and Vanuatu), and in parts of Australia, Japan, and New Zealand.

If you live in or happen to visit their range, keep an eye out for the snazzily-dressed males in their velvety black tuxedos with iridescent purple cummerbunds and the females styling their myriad elegant tapa-cloth formals. Two ladies never want to wear the same dress to the ball.

“Blue moon,
Now I’m no longer alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own.”
–Frank Sinatra, Chorus

Time-Lapse Video: Painted Lady Caterpillar Making a Pupa

This time-lapse photography shows a Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) butterfly caterpillar shedding its skin for the last time to pupate into a chrysalis. This is part of the metamorphosis that butterflies undergo during their development. In another 10 days or so, it will eclose (emerge) as a beautiful adult butterfly.

Video Copyright © 2016 by Wendy Kindred Holt. Used with permission. Thanks, Wendy!

Click Here to order Painted Lady Butterfly Caterpillar Rearing Kits. You can experience this same educational fun at your home or school.