|Monarch Butterfly enjoying Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) earlier this summer|
|Monarch caterpillars, madly munching|
This is important to me because I love Monarchs. They're really pretty, and who doesn't admire their amazing migration story? And they're in danger. Monarch populations have decreased by about 90 percent from numbers recorded over 20 years ago. The causes are many--habitat destruction, pesticides, herbicides, and loss of their food source--milkweed, to name a few. It's exciting and uplifting to participate in the Monarch life cycle. Our yard is certified as a Butterfly Habitat and is a stop on the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail. Monarchs will only lay their eggs on plants in the Milkweed family. There are many varieties specific to regions of the country. We plant native nectar and host plants for many kinds of butterflies and refrain from using herbicides or pesticides in the garden. The result is a healthy habitat for all sorts of creatures--butterflies, bees, wasps, birds, moths, spiders, etc.
|Milkweed Bugs eat Milkweed Seeds|
|Aphids infest the milkweed every year. They drink the sap. I don't mind them, but if they bother you, you can squirt them off with a hose or just brush off with a paint brush. Pesticides will harm other insects, such as butterflies.|
|Great big Green Lynx spider and lots of aphids|
|Japanese Lady Beetle (aka Ladybug) and aphids|
|Milkweed Beetle eats the leaves|
But the garden is not without its perils for the butterflies. Last night I walked past the milkweed bush again and flushed a bird that was probably hunting for caterpillars and bugs on the stems. A moment later I spotted the female Monarch that earlier I had watched lay eggs. She was caught in the jaws of an enormous Green Lynx spider perched on top of the milkweed bush. The spider had caught the butterfly and was eating it. I felt a temporary twinge of sadness for the butterfly, but then cheered for the spider who needed food for herself. Her huge abdomen was swollen, probably with eggs, and she needed nourishment, too. The butterfly had passed on her genes through her eggs, so she had fulfilled her biological destiny and was now part of the food chain. Whether those eggs will grow to adults and also pass on genes is a crap shoot. But this is why butterflies lay so many eggs, and why it is important for there to be milkweed patches all over for them to lay their eggs on. This morning I found that the spider had caught one of the caterpillars and was busily sucking it dry. Birds and wasps catch and eat them, too. Aphids are very attracted to milkweed. They are sap suckers, and sometimes they will harm or kill the plants. But the aphids attract ladybugs and their larvae that snack on aphids like popcorn. Milkweed Bugs make their home in the plants and eat the seeds, and Milkweed Beetles eat leaves. The 20 hungry Monarch caterpillars will strip the leaves off the bush within another week or so and may eat themselves out of house and home. All these beings are competing for the resources on these plants.
|Green Lynx spider with Monarch for dinner|
|Something killed this caterpillar, and now it is food for the ants. The green blobs are caterpillar poop, also called "frass"|
|Green Lynx Spider with Monarch caterpillar for breakfast|
|New Monarch egg, with shadow of a ladybug larvae on the back of the leaf|
|Big, fat Monarch caterpillars quickly defoliate a milkweed plant|
Some people who grow butterfly gardens will collect the eggs and grow the caterpillars to adults inside protective enclosures to keep them safe. I totally understand their care and concern, but as I told someone yesterday, I am more of a "free range" butterfly gardener. It makes me uncomfortable to make these creatures my captives. I feel much better about providing an opportunity for them to grow and thrive out in the world, but as part of a greater ecosystem. That's another aspect of the tragic loss of the massive Monarch population. They are part of in interdependent web of life. We all feel their loss. I encourage everyone who has an interest in helping the Monarch to try to plant native milkweed in their garden or even in a container garden on a deck. Do your part to help keep this iconic insect from disappearing. Go out and garden on!
|The caterpillar doesn't seem to mind the aphids|
|Caterpillar chewing on the spider's lair|
|New hatchling, not much bigger than an aphid|
|A fresh chrysalis, hopefully one of many|