Good news from Turkey Hill Brook Farm! The monarch butterfly chrysalis shed its skin and finally metamorphosed into its adult butterfly form about a week after Herbert the caterpillar turned himself into a cocoon on August 8th:
I missed a few days of checking his progress on the milkweed plant, but on August 14th, you could clearly see the orange and black markings forming on the butterfly’s wings inside the chrysalis:
I never saw the adult butterfly emerge, but on the evening of the 16th, I checked the leaf and Herbert was gone, and all I could see of this amazing metamorphosis was his tattered skin, showing that he had emerged and flown away!
I’ve seen some fresh-looking monarch butterflies flying around our butterfly gardens this week, so I’m hoping that Herbert is one of them and hasn’t already been eaten by a hungry bird or other predator. As for whether he is male or female, I’ll never know, but a recent garden visitor pointed out a tiny monarch butterfly caterpillar about 1/2″ long and perhaps 3mm wide dining on a leaf of the same milkweed plant where Herbert did his changeover. Could Herbert have used the same plant to lay her eggs? If so, she might need a name change…maybe Hebe?
Since then, I haven’t seen the second caterpillar again, so it could have been parasitized by a tiny predatorial wasp that uses the bodies of caterpillars as a host to lay their eggs, which then hatch and begin feeding on the caterpillar from the inside out. Kind of gruesome, I know, but nature isn’t always pretty, and the predator/prey relationship is what keeps nature in balance. Without parasitic wasps to keep monarch caterpillar populations in check, the cats would probably eat their own milkweed food plant right out of existence. And no milkweeds? No monarchs!
My hubby tells me that there are thousands of readers waiting on the edge of their seats for the next update of Herbert the Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar …is he being sarcastic, I wonder? Anyway, the good news is that Herbert is alive and well and living in chrysalis form near our wildlife pond. I moved him out of the container onto a milkweed plant outdoors because we were going away for a few days and I didn’t think Herbert would travel well. Here are a couple of pics of his transformation.
Here he has fixed himself with a tiny silken thread to the bottom of a leaf and formed the shape of a “J“, beginning the process of shedding his caterpillar (larval) skin and turning into a chrysalis (this is called pupating):
Two days later, he had morphed into a chrysalis, which is a cocoon from which the adult monarch butterfly will eventually emerge after about 10-14 days (if all goes well).
Hard to believe that this strange alien-looking life form with glowing yellow and black dots will turn into a gorgeous butterfly!
Stay tuned for Herbert updates! In the meantime, I am seeing more fresh-looking (ie newly hatched) adult monarch butterflies flying around our butterfly gardens, so things may be looking up for this year’s southward migration from New England to Mexico!
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:
Usually 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…