Raising Herbert

Meet Herbert, a Monarch butterfly caterpillar that I noticed last night in a bucket of garden trimmings headed to the compost pile. He looked feeble from being separated from his milkweed foliage, which is the only thing he can eat. I’m pretty sure he was a victim of over-zealous weeding on the outskirts of our veggie gardens, where milkweed pops up here and there, so I decided to try to save him by putting him in a “bug viewer” with some fresh milkweed leaves as a food source. This morning, he’d revived, and was actively feeding on the foliage:

IMG_5797Usually I wouldn’t go to this much trouble to save a single caterpillar, but the Monarch butterfly species is under great threat. Devastating mudslides in the monarch’s Mexican winter habitat this past year wiped out large numbers of migrants, and it remains to be seen whether their populations can rebound from these losses. In my central Massachusetts garden, which is certified as a Monarch Waystation, I have only seen 2 adult monarch butterflies all summer, and just the one caterpillar (Herbert!) so far. Usually we see them flying here by the dozen. I am anxiously watching this year’s statistics from citizen scientists on how populations have fared this summer. Hopefully enough gardeners will have planted milkweed along their migration routes, because clearly these guys need all the help they can get if they have any hope of avoiding extinction.

I often hear from people who raised monarch butterfly caterpillars as children as part of their school curriculum, but this is my first attempt to hand-rear a monarch. What I do know, from observations in my own garden (where we grow 4 types of milkweed ), is that monarch caterpillars are usually found on fresh, new milkweed foliage, so I’ll be picking fresh leaves every day or two to ensure that Herbert has what he needs to morph into his next phase of life, the chrysalis from which a butterfly will hopefully emerge…

Since he is over an inch long already, and monarch caterpillars usually start to shed their skin and pupate at about 2″ in length,  I’ll try to update my blog as Herbert’s transformation into a butterfly continues…

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