Tag Archives: wings

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!

“I have been transformed.”

El Salvador is still recuperating from a devastating civil war that wracked the country from 1980 to 1992, leaving at least 75,000 people dead and tens of thousands more displaced. My site, Segundo Montes, is a community made up of five towns in the eastern department of Morazán, formed in 1990 by repatriated refugees who fled the country’s civil war.

Teaching about Host Plants

Suzanne Tilton demonstrates the importance of butterfly host plants in the Mariposario Turístico Almirante de Morazán, a large butterfly enclosure in El Salvador.

After nearly a decade in refugee camps in Honduras, residents returned en masse 25 years ago to reclaim their livelihoods and dignity. I wanted to help this once-war-torn community’s iconography transform itself from memories of combat fatigues to fluttery symbols of peace and hope.

When I arrived at the Mariposario Turístico Almirante de Morazán, I was thrilled to see the abundance and variety of butterflies – from Blue Morphos (Morpho peleides) to Zebra Longwings (Heliconius charithonia) and everything in between – flying in the gardens outside. It was a delightful sight and I knew immediately that I had arrived where I belonged.

The butterfly exhibit was built in 2008 as an agricultural project to raise butterflies but, within two years, it was abandoned due to lack of knowledge and support on how to raise and manage the rearing of butterflies. My job as an Educational Butterfly Farm Management Specialist was to train butterfly wranglers how to cultivate butterflies and maintain a healthy habitat for them inside the exhibit.

Dressing up as a butterfly

A delightful child visiting the butterfly zoo has dressed up as a butterfly.

I also visited several primary and secondary schools to teach the life cycle of butterflies and why they’re important for the mountainous environment. Children had the chance to hold and observe up close live specimens in the forms of eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and adult butterflies. I used props to dress up the children as caterpillars, butterflies and moths. They cheered in delight when we released butterflies at the end of the presentation and watched them fly freely into the sky.

I knew I was having an impact when parents would stop me in the community and share that they had learned all about butterfly metamorphosis from their children.

One of the highlights of my experience in El Salvador was a weekend visit by 50 students from the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, who came across the border to learn butterfly biology and butterfly zoo management with an emphasis on environmentally friendly sustainability.

There is a concerted effort to develop tourism along the Ruta de Paz (Peace Highway) from Morazán’s capital of San Francisco Gotera to El Salvador’s border with Honduras, along Highway 7. The butterfly zoo is strategically located along this route and is well positioned to attract the attention of vacationers headed to the cool air and brilliant sunshine of Perquín, eight miles farther north.

Teaching about butterflies

Teaching a class on butterfly biology in El Salvador.

At 4,000 feet in elevation, Perquín is a popular destination of Salvadorans fleeing the heat and humidity of the coast and tropical lowlands. As time goes by, it is hoped that the Mariposario Turístico Almirante de Morazán will play its part in entertaining and educating tourists on the beauty of butterflies while it continues to contribute to the economic well-being of the community.

Heliconius hecale

A visitor to the butterfly zoo experiences the joy of holding a Tiger Longwing (Heliconius hecale).

In conjunction with the nascent tourism industry, I was privileged to make presentations and conduct field trips for university students studying tourism and hospitality at the nearby Technical Institute of Father Segundo Montes.

I experienced such a feeling of joy and satisfaction as I watched mesmerized visitors hold a butterfly for the first time.

Just as a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, I have been transformed into a different person by serving as a Peace Corps Response volunteer.

Learning about the different parts of a butterfly.

Learning about the different parts of a butterfly; including compound eyes, hearing sensors, proboscis and wings.

Suzanne Tilton retired from teaching, mostly primary grades, after 28 years of service in 2010. She has raised butterflies for over 20 years and has shared the wonder of butterfly biology with thousands of children and adults. Suzanne and her recently retired husband, David, were so impressed with Peace Corps in El Salvador that they have applied for and been invited to teach English in the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga for 27 months starting in August 2015.

Editor’s Note: This post was written and originally published in Peace Corps Passport, the U.S. Peace Corps’ official blog, on 22 April 2015 to commemorate Earth Day. Suzanne and her husband, David, eventually chose not to serve in Peace Corps, but did move to Tonga in October 2015, from where they continue to research, publish and teach worldwide about the wonder and joy of butterflies.