Thursday, September 10, 2015

Miraculous Jewels

<<<<<This is a miracle in progress.
From tiny little egg, to plant-devouring caterpillar, to this exquisite jewel of a chrysalis, this is a miracle in progress. In a week or so, the green skin will split and a regal black and orange Monarch butterfly will emerge.

But that's only part of the miracle. The Monarch adults emerging now will live much longer than the usual three to five weeks. They will take to the air for a flight covering thousands of miles, heading toward the mountains of Mexico, where they will spend the winter. In the spring, those that survived will head north, laying eggs all along the way. We might see Monarchs during the summer, as adults pass through and as their offspring metamorphose and follow their parents. Most of the original butterflies will not make it all the way to their northern origins. However, each female lays and average of 100 to 300 eggs (and up to 1,000), so plenty of young ones will follow.

For the past week or so, I've often encountered the black, white and yellow-green striped Monarch larvae heading down our sidewalk on the way to a suitable spot to pupate (create a chrysalis and make the "big change." Now, more than half a dozen of these gems adorn the siding on our front porch.
One caterpillar left on the stripped milkweed.

They've chosen that location because it is quite close to a patch of tropical milkweed that I planted in the spring. The plants are now mere skeletons, having been stripped of every leaf and flower by the voracious caterpillars.

Unlike other instances, I'm not complaining of about these garden plants being devoured by some critter. I put the milkweeds there expressly for the purpose of serving as food for Monarch larvae. They feed exclusively on milkweeds, taking on the toxic cardiac glycosides within the plant, which in turn makes them poisonous to other critters that might eat them -- at least to birds, frogs, reptiles and mammals. Other insects, viruses and bacteria are not daunted by the toxins.

Something apparently affected a few of the caterpillars that crawled up our porch wall, as they turned black and shrivelled after attaching themselves with a little patch of white silk.

Clouds of thousands of Monarch butterflies can sometimes be seen as they head south during the fall migration. But their numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years. Overuse of pesticides, possibly GMO crops, and particularly the loss of milkweed populations, as well as numerous other factors, have all contributed to their decline. During the southward migration, Monarch Watch leads tagging efforts for study of these butterflies' routes and longevity of individuals. This weekend, the local Monarch Watch waystation will host an open house with a tour of the butterfly garden, numerous activities, all kinds of weird insects on display, tagging of Monarchs in the butterfly house, and, of course, a display of the butterflies and their larvae. It's a great time for kids. Our granddaughters got a lot of joy out of being allowed to handle Monarch and other butterfly larvae during the event two years ago.

We can help bring back the Monarchs by planting milkweeds, particularly species of the genus Asclepias to give the larvae a place to dine. Many other sorts of nectar producing flowers that bloom during the migratory seasons will provide sustenance to the adults making the arduous journey.

Why is it important to save the Monarchs?

If you've ever seen thousands of them resting in a tree during migration, or simply watched one flutter by and been awed by the beauty, you would know.

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