Monday, August 16, 2010

Raising Butterflies

This post will confront my insanity, and provide some insight into raising monarchs and swallowtails. I hope. Did you all get my thesis statement? I hate thesis statements, and refuse to let my students use them, by the way.

I did not expect a banner year for monarchs (around 80 so far, with peak migration Sept 8-20 in Nebraska)--they are a threatened species in my mind (read my article on them here.) But I also have been bringing in monarch eggs religiously. Monarch eggs are often on the underside of milkweed leaves, though I have seen them on top and within blooming milkweed flowers, as well as on seed pods. They are little sesame seed-sized white / cream things that look like bullets. I've found that raising monarchs from eggs is easy, whereas for black swallowtails it's best to let them get going a bit outside through the first 2-3 instars (swallowtail eggs--on fennel and parsely most often--are yellowish balls of similar size to monarchs).

So a few weeks ago I bought a used 10g aquarium and did this to it:

You can see there are a FEW monarchs and swallowtails in there (30-40). Bottom is lined with paper towel. Picked up a fitted screen for the top at a pet store that I can easily lift off.  Gathered twigs from beneath my elm. Went CrAzY.

A monarch just went, you can see his twisting, long chrysalis in the middle above. Monarchs tend to cluster near one another as they form their chrysalis--if your friend pupated off a cliff, would you?

This weekend 11 monarchs got their chrysalis on, and today 4 did within 15 minutes of one another, and 3 more will soon go. (Also notice the brown swallowtail chryslides on the top right.) It's easy to tell when monarchs are about to shed their skin (not so easy with the slower swallowtails), look at this guy:

See his shriveled skin and antennae? The line on his side? (or her) I love seeing that skin slide up and off:

This monarch (below) attached to the side, and has a flat dent. Rumor has it things will work out. We will see:

And here's a closeup of a swallowtail. They secure their bums, too, like the monarchs, but also make a sling for their upper body to recline in:

And here is my assembly line:

Container 1 has monarch eggs on leaves. Container 2 very very tiny monarch cats (they will eat the eggs if you don't move them out). Container 3 and 4 are 2nd to 3rd instar cats. Container 5 holds small swallowtails. And then the 2g aquarium with a few more monarchs about to go.

It's overwhelming, and I've bitten off more than I can chew (the cats eat so much food I head outside 3-4 times day, and the poop, my god the poop cleaned out every day or two!). But, I have to do something. I feel like I'm doing something more proactive than recycling or gardening.

Tachnid flies lay eggs in monarch larvae with a vengeance, and often the monarch "J"s up early, dies, and hangs limp as the tachnid fly larvae slides out on a slime thread. Swallowtails get carted off by wasps and used as incubation chambers. Maybe I just see a lot of my life in this whole process (take that any way you want).


Randy Emmitt said...


Great article! We collected about 20 Black Swallowtail cats yesterday for Meg's classroom. Still half are in the garden.

If you ask me I'd say that at least half the 900 odd species of butterflies in the US is threatened before I'd even think of the Monarch, they are one of the hardiest butterflies known to man. Monarchs just get more press my friend.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Randy, you are right on those points. Give me another butterfly to get hung up on, and I'll consider switching. Butterflies, bees, birds, plants--we are doing a fine job of killing them all.

mr_subjunctive said...

Butterflies, bees, birds, plants--we are doing a fine job of killing them all.

And we would have gotten away with it, too, if not for you meddling kids!

Also, there's a suspiciously houseplanty-looking plant in one of the photos. Explain, please?

Benjamin Vogt said...

Mr.S, The Mystery Machine rolls on. That's my wife's houseplant je ne sais quoi. All I know is when she's gone I should water her dozen things sometimes. I think it's green. Yes, that one in the pic looks green. I had no idea houseplants could be green. One time I babysat someone's 30 houseplants over two weeks and a few died. I don't get those indoor plants.

Ginny said...

Fascinating - I hope we'll get follow up posts.

Carol said...

Oh My! I am working on a post just like this... well ... my own way of raising monarchs... nearly thirty years now and you are right ... the later instars demand a ton of leaves! We have to be careful not to give them any with eggs on them. Last year because of the constant rain we had not one monarch ... so no caters... it was sad after so many years of the magical process being part of my life ... this year they are back. Releasing butterflies into the gardens is pure joy. Nice to see someone else shares this obsession. I have never raised a Swallowtail... love seeing it hanging from it's sling. ;>)

Amanda B. said...

Just cool- I don't even know what else to say- just very cool. Love it! :)

Window On The Prairie said...

I used to do that when I was a kid with monarchs and swallowtails. Really neat to watch. Suzanne

Christine B. said...

My kids have something similar going on a smaller scale. I give them all the caterpillars I can find (no swallowtails or monarchs though), which has been about five this rainy summer. Then they call it a "pet", put it in a little bug cage and see if they can keep it alive. No survivors yet...maybe you should take on apprentices to learn your technique. (I had to tell them that caterpillars don't eat pretzels or Junior Mints.)

Christine in Alaska

Steve said...


When you are an old man known around the neighborhood as 'the butterfly guy,' I will remember this summer as the advent of your genius/madness. Keep up the good work!

Josh Healy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Benjamin Vogt said...

Ginny--Yes ma'am!
Carol--Last year was a slow monarch year, this year is a banner one--god rain early in year for milkweeds, hot and dry now for lots of butterfly action.
Amanda--Isn't it? Lots of work though.
WOTP--I never did this as a kid (I hated dirty things, and played outside like a baseball catcher). So I'm making up for it now.
Christine--If they ate junior mints the world would be a better place. I do hope you also give your kids food to feed the cats.... :)
Steve--More likely I'll be known as the cranky mean old man who unleashes his legions of obedient butterflies to swarm loud kids who stomp on his flower beds.

lostlandscape (James) said...

Very cool to see the process so up close, albeit from a couple thousand miles away. I wish you lots of monarchs and swallowtails in the days ahead. I keep telling myself this is the year I learn about some of the less charismatic species but it hasn't happened yet. Stil, summer has a ways to go down here in this dead end corner of the country...

Gail said...

Benjamin, Fantastic! I am glad this is your obsession~it's a darned good one. I saw my first Tachnid flies at Kathleen's (Kasey's Korner) garden in Colorado~strange looking critter for sure. gail

Benjamin Vogt said...

James--Less charismatic species? I have a black weevil the size of a chocolate chip that makes perfect smooth cuts bneath sunflower heads, so I have no sunflowers. Chopped off like a sword whacked them clean through.
Gail--Obsession is way way way too much work right now as teaching starts back up again. Goodbye summer. Goodbye monarchs. Goodbye moon.

Indoor Fountains said...

Thank you for the up close and personal tour of this process.

Shyrlene said...

Ben - incredible post; your blog is a whole new level of 'garden blog' - I don't mind saying I'm a bit intimidated sometimes when I stop by.

Benjamin Vogt said...

IF--Yer welcome! Stop by anytime.
Shyrlene--Intimidated? Oh c'mon, I ain't nuthin'. However, I do have a tendencies to do things big and complicated when I do them--like my garden, my books, my teaching, I can't hold back. It IS a fault.