Tag Archives: instar

Tongan Monarchs

The Kingdom of Tonga is known for its monarchs, including King Tupou VI, the current sovereign and sixth reigning royal since the constitutional monarchy was founded in 1875.

Tonga's King Tupou IV on his coronation day.

Tonga’s King Tupou VI on his coronation day in 2015.

Queen Sālote Mafile‘o Pilolevu Tupou III is perhaps the most famous Tongan monarch of all. She was the first queen regnant and third monarch of the Kingdom of Tonga, an island nation in the South Pacific Ocean. Queen Sālote ruled nearly 48 years, from 1918 until her death in 1965, longer than any other Tongan monarch.

Queen Sālote brought Tonga to international attention when, during her only visit to Europe, she attended the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London.

Queen_Salote_in_London

Queen Sālote Tupou III of Tonga in Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation parade in London.

During the coronation procession, it began to rain and hoods were placed on the carriages of dignitaries in the procession. Since Tongan custom dictates that one should not imitate the actions of the person being honored, she refused a hood and rode through the pouring rain in an open carriage, endearing herself to spectators along the parade route as she smiled and waved.

But long before modern Tongan kings and queens, there was another monarch that came to Tonga: the Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterfly.

Map of Oceania

Where in the world is Tonga? The Tongan islands lie east of Australia and northeast of New Zealand in the South Pacific Ocean.

Monarch butterflies were first recorded in Tonga in 1863. It’s believed these butterflies flew or were blown thousands of miles to Hawai‘i from North America (or maybe they were serendipitously transported on ships, which seems more likely) and adapted to eat Crown Flower (Calotropis gigantea) leaves instead of leaves of Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.). They spread south through the islands of Polynesia to Tonga.

I started raising Monarch butterflies in Tonga in mid-June of this year when female Monarchs deposited eggs on Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) that I’d planted in pots. After two weeks, I had so many caterpillars I knew that I would soon run out of Milkweed for them to eat.

Monarch_laying_eggs

Female Monarch butterfly laying an egg on Tropical Milkweed in my garden in Tonga.

crown_flower

Crown Flower plant has thick stems and leaves. These latter provide excellent forage for hungry Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Their colorful blossoms emit a jasmine-like scent, heady stuff in a tropical paradise. Shrubs can grow up to 15 feet (4.6 m) high.

While driving down a street near my home, and to my utter delight, I discovered the largest Crown Flower tree that I’ve ever seen. This beautiful plant is called Crown Flower because the purple flowers were favored by Hawai‘i’s last monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani, who considered them a symbol of royalty and wore them strung into delicate leis.

Crown-Flower Leis

Garlands of Crown Flower fashioned into leis.

Realizing that I’d found the mother lode of food for my caterpillars, I parked the car and walked to the gate where I called out “Mālō e lelei!” (“Hello!” in Tongan) to see if anyone was home. A five-year-old boy came to the fence. To my dismay, he didn’t speak any English. I pulled out a couple of Tongan pa‘anga (worth about 45 U.S. cents each) and pointed to the tree. He let me inside the yard and I walked over to the tree, cut some branches off and gave the boy the money. He smiled, then grinned, and exclaimed, “Mālō!” (“Thank you!”).

Monarch Caterpillars

Monarch caterpillars munching on Crown Flower leaves in a pop-up cage.

A few days later I retuned, called out again, and the little boy came running to open the gate and let me inside the yard. He was more than willing to take a few more pa‘anga off my hands.

Monarch Chrysalises Hanging from a Porch Railing

Monarch butterfly chrysalises, also known as pupae, hanging below a shell collection and the banister railing on my front porch.

I was able to raise about 70 Monarch butterflies in that brood. Some pupae I hung on the underside of the railing on my porch; others I gave away to teachers, children, and friends. What joy to be rearing Monarchs again!

Crown Flower Tree

The Crown Flower tree, marauded by multitudes of hungry Monarch caterpillars.

By August, I had not been back to the Giant Milkweed tree (another name for Crown Flower) since early-July. My husband and I had left Tonga for a month to visit family and friends abroad. Upon our return, the entire crop of Tropical Milkweed growing in pots on our front porch was completely gone and all of the dozens of chrysalises hanging from the railing had opened. There had been no sign of Monarch butterflies at our house since we returned.

P1020110

A female Monarch will use her feet to drum on a plant and “taste” its juices. This helps her decide if the leaf would be edible for her caterpillars and, therefore, if she has found a suitable place to lay eggs.

Yesterday, just out of curiosity, I drove by the giant Crown Flower tree and was stunned to see that many of the leaves were gone. I parked the car, walked to the gate and called out, but no one answered. The next-door neighbor informed me that no one was home. However, since the gate was left open, he thought it was okay for me to enter the yard. (He recognized me from previous trips.)

Monarch Chrysalises Hanging on Crown Flower

Beautiful jade-green Monarch chrysalises hanging from the giant Crown Flower tree.

As I approached the tree, I saw several female Monarchs laying eggs at the top where there were still some leaves. Fourth- and fifth-instar caterpillars were everywhere. I ran back to the car to get a plastic bag and began collecting as many caterpillars as I could reach.

Then I realized that there were also chrysalises all over the tree. I was truly giddy! It felt like I was a child waking up on Christmas morning to find presents under the tree. This Christmas tree was covered in beautiful gold-lined green ornaments!

As I looked closer I saw that there were also chrysalises on the ground. When the leaves dried up they would fall off of the tree, or as a caterpillar chewed the leaves, the chrysalis had nothing to support it and it would fall. I decided that I needed to rescue all the chrysalises that I could.

Monarch Chrysalises on Crown Flower leaves

Just a few of the rescued Monarch chrysalises on Crown Flower leaves.

I collected what I was able to find and reach. I also cut some branches that still had leaves on them so I would have food for the dozens of caterpillars that I had collected.

Before long, the little boy came running down the street in his school uniform. He was so happy to see me. I gave him a few pa‘anga coins in exchange for my gleanings.

As I left to take my bounty of butterflies home, we were both smiling and waving like Queen Sālote in London. More than half a century separated us in age, the boy and me. We couldn’t speak each other’s language. But we were a pair of happy Tongan monarchs: he, the king of the magic money tree; I, the queen of butterflies.

“See you again soon, Your Royal Highness!”

P1230531

A newly-emerged, male Monarch butterfly. Black spots on the lower wings are scent glands used to attract females.

Monarch Butterfly Metamorphosis Poster by Valerie Evanson. US$34.99 plus FREE shipping. Click this affiliate link to see it up close: http://amzn.to/2sUYsxP

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!

Raising Black Swallowtail Butterflies for Fun

One of my favorite butterflies to raise is the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes). It’s an easy species to attract to your garden. You just need to provide their host plants on which the females lay their eggs, including Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Rue or Golden Alexander and they will find them.

Eastern Black Swallowtail and Host Plants

The beautiful Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) butterfly and five of its host plants, including common herbs: Dill, Fennel and Parsley.

Can’t find these host-plant seeds locally? Order them here:
• Dill (Anethum graveolens)
• Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
• Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea)
• Curly Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
• Rue (Ruta graveolens)

Female Eastern Black Swallowtail ovipositing

Female Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly ovipositing an egg on Fennel. Look closely at the end of her abdomen. Can you see the cream-colored egg?

Eastern Black Swallowtail Eggs

Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly eggs on Rue and Fennel leaves. Collecting eggs and larvae from your garden or field and getting them home safely is easier with small condiment cups and lids. Click here to order a package.

Once you find the eggs or tiny caterpillars, remove the leaves or pieces of the plant they are on and place them inside a closed container. I like to use the salad containers from fast-food restaurants, but you can use any container with a lid. I use a push pin to punch air holes in the lid. Line the bottom of the container with paper towel or coffee filter. Be sure to provide plenty of the host plant leaves on which you found the eggs and/or caterpillars.

Salad Container Repurposed as a Butterfly Habitat

This easy-to-assemble habitat is nothing more than a fast-food salad container lined with a coffee filter. A few holes punched in the top with a push pin complete the project. These Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars are dining on Curly Parsley.

Caterpillar Condo

I call this my caterpillar condo.

Check on your caterpillars each day to make sure they have enough food to feast on. Once they get bigger you will need to empty the fecal droppings (known as frass) each day and add a new coffee filter or paper towel plus fresh food.

Caterpillar Frass

Caterpillars make a mess! Be sure to clean your cage every day to keep your caterpillars healthy and happy.

All Five Caterpillar Instars

Caterpillars shed their skin five times as they grow. These stages are called instars. In this photo, you can see all five instars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar represented on my finger.

When they are ready to pupate, they will crawl to the top of the lid and make their chrysalis. Many people like to put sticks inside the container for them to use, but that is not necessary. However, it can be fun to see the different colors the chrysalis becomes.

Pupating Caterpillars

The caterpillar will crawl to the top and spin a silk girdle on the container lid before it sheds its skin for the final time.

Chameleon-like Pupae

Chameleon-like, the Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar will pupate with colors that match its surroundings in order to camouflage itself.

It usually takes about two weeks for the butterfly to emerge from the chrysalis. You can then experience the joy of holding and releasing your new butterfly.

Eastern Black Swallowtail on finger

A newly-emerged Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly ready for its first flight.