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THE MONARCH PROJECT
by Donna Franciamone
(June 29th, 2020)













 


My monarch project began when I was a little girl growing up in central Florida with a patient dad who had an extraordinarily green thumb.  Every year, he and I maintained a wildflower patch -- not for our consumption, but for whatever butterflies, bees and other pollinators that needed its nutrition.
When I moved back to Florida six years ago with my husband, I planted a wildflower patch with zinnias and four-o-clocks -- whatever would easily grow from seed, go to seed, and then in that ripe stage nourish pollinators.

We noticed right away that we had volunteer milkweed plants: the only food source for the caterpillars of monarch butterflies. We let these critical plants be, and hoped for future monarch caterpillars. We watched for four years. There were caterpillars on our milkweed, sure enough, but we never found a chrysalis...

until last summer.... 

The monarch that emerged was damaged and died shortly after emerging.

~~









During our butterfly watch, we learned that monarch caterpillars have lots of natural predators. We have seen them eaten by paper wasps, ants, aphids, and some tiny red-and-black bugs that may or may not be Florida's predatory stink bugs in an immature stage.



Due to the Covid-19 virus outbreak, this Caterpillar Season of 2020 my husband and I decided that we were “safer at home” and have been at home since March 17th. We've had a lot of time on our hands, at home, in our backyard. We've been paying close attention to the nuances of a Florida “spring season.” 

~~~






We've spent a lot of time watching caterpillars munch milkweed. One late afternoon, we watched in horror as a paper wasp murdered and then ate a healthy fat caterpillar. We then noticed tiny red and black insects consume another carcass. We could not find any of the other caterpillars we had been feeding.

My husband immediately bought a butterfly tent online. The idea is to find a monarch egg or baby caterpillar, then place it inside the mesh tent and keep feeding it milkweed. We got the tent, set it up, lashed it to a palm tree for wind protection, and started putting milkweed seedlings in pots.


 
Butterfly tent helped a Florida couple launch the lives of 16 monarch butterflies
 

Within a few days, we found four tiny monarch caterpillars. So every day now, we replace the pots, check for predators, and let them do their caterpillar thing.

A few days ago, we were able to get a video of a monarch emerging from its chrysalis
(see below).  This was the fourth monarch we successfully sent out into the world.

 
 


Donna records as a Monarch emerges from its chrysalis.





Now...every day, we look for new wild caterpillars and eggs on all the milkweed I have growing outside the tent. We transfer the baby caterpillars inside, as necessary, and put new pots of milkweed into the tent for all to eat. 

So far, we have “released” eight monarchs: Seven females and one male. As of early June, we have seven more in chrysalis stage and expect to release seven healthy butterflies in the next few days. 

 
During this time-absorbing project, we have learned a lot about butterflies, monarchs in particular. 

Our biggest “bug” surprise? How the butterfly emerges as fat as a caterpillar, then pumps all that blood or fluid or whatever into the black veins of the wings to expand them. We also learned to identify between male and female butterflies and we've planted a huge patch of parsley to attract black swallowtail butterflies.





MONARCHS & COVID


Oddly enough, what I have learned from raising butterflies is similar to what I've learned during the COVID-19 pandemic in America:

Even something you think has no predators has predators.  Common lore has it that because monarchs eat milkweed and milkweed is noxious no predator would want to eat a monarch caterpillar.  All of us on this planet -- animal, insect and plant – are more vulnerable than we think we are to specific predators.

Tiny actions make us feel more empowered. We know our monarch butterflies don’t really matter when you consider the uncertain lives of millions of monarch butterflies worldwide. But to us, they are a really big deal. ...Just the thought of EIGHT healthy butterflies that may not have survived without our intervention: It’s kind of like picking up one piece of plastic on the beach. That tiny action won’t de-pollute the oceans, but it could prevent even one sea turtle from choking or starving to death.


Isolation can be crucial to survival. I don’t think these caterpillars would have all survived to the chrysalis stage without the isolation of the tent. Paper wasps are omnivores, and they happen to LOVE milkweed pollen and caterpillars that eat milkweed. Milkweed bugs in Florida lay eggs on milkweed, and ants farm aphids on milkweed. Since I am not going to kill or remove these potential predators and insect competition for milkweed, I needed to move the caterpillars into an environment safe from potential predators. 


























P.S. In case you are worried, rest assured, I left plenty of milkweed untouched for the ants, aphids, wasps, milkweed bugs and adult monarchs.
 
I also learned that I am extremely allergic to milkweed, but that’s a story for another day.

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What’s Happening to Milkweed?*

The hearty milkweed plant was common from Mexico to Canada and all across the U.S.

"It’s the only plant that the monarch caterpillar will eat. After hibernating in Mexico, the monarchs begin their journey north in February or March. But butterflies only live two to six weeks, when they mate, laying its eggs on a milkweed plant.

So the monarch butterflies seen by people in the northern U.S. and Canada are actually a different generation than the monarchs that left Mexico!

Monarch caterpillars need the milkweed plants to grow into monarch butterflies. No milkweed, no monarchs. It's that simple." 

*Excerpt from saveourmonarchs.org.


Urban development, pesticides, logging and ignorance is causing milkweed habitat loss.
Some estimate that the number of milkweed plants has declined by as much as 80 percent with the widespread spraying of weed killer.



STORY UPDATE
We released 17 monarchs between by April 1st and July 10th. This late in our summer, we can no longer easily control the aphids and predators, so we have removed our habitat until after Hurricane Season. We still maintain zinnia, milkweed, gardenias, and other Florida native tropicals to feed loads of butterflies (not just Monarchs), and it’s been quite a year for them.  I guess I am noticing them more because we are nearly always at home, and spending so much time enjoying our backyard.

Of the 17 monarchs released, we had nine females and eight males. I learned that our monarchs, if they migrate, are part of the generation that starts in Florida and travels up the eastern seaboard through the Carolinas, Maryland and New Jersey to reach the Vermont area.

It takes five or six generations of butterflies to get all the way to Vermont, because they only live two to three weeks, at most, and can travel only about 500 miles in a lifetime. The butterflies who do  reach northeast / eastern Canada, they then migrate...over several generations...back to South Florida and Caribbean Mexico. We will begin to see the Monarchs again in mid-February (which is our spring in Zone 9B). We'll set up the habitat then and start all over again! In the meantime, I’ve taken cuttings of Cape Jasmine and other natives to grow my butterfly garden.

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About Donna Franciamone

Donna Franciamone and her husband Dave help save Monarch Butterflies

Dave and I moved to Florida from Maryland in 2014, to enjoy milder winters, spend more time outdoors than indoors, get a little more sunshine and try the beach life. I retired then, and Dave worked in a technical sales management/R&D position until March 2018, when he retired. We love exploring the real natural Florida, cycling, gardening and spending time on and in the water. 


 

 
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