Monarchs, others need help

By Ruth Patchett
Posted 7/27/20

I’ve changed my mind about milkweeds.

As a child, I enjoyed opening their pods when they got dry and watching the wind take away the inside. As an adult, I learned to dislike them when I …

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Monarchs, others need help


I’ve changed my mind about milkweeds.

As a child, I enjoyed opening their pods when they got dry and watching the wind take away the inside. As an adult, I learned to dislike them when I walked beans. Milkweeds never seemed to cut as easily as corn out of a bean field. Perhaps I just did not enjoy walking beans, and for some reason or other, I never was fired from that job. I was so happy when herbicide companies made my bean walking days obsolete.

Many different types of insects are attracted to milkweeds because they like to feed on the nectar and pollen of milkweed flowers. Some insects eat the milkweed leaves, stem, seeds and root. Other insects can be found resting temporarily on a plant because they want to eat the insects enjoying the milkweed. These insects are considered parasitic and unfortunately are a real problem for many caterpillars.  Who knew a simple milkweed had so much activity going on around it?

Milkweeds are wonderful because of one important species, monarch butterflies. This is the season for monarchs to start appearing. In our area, we have a large population of the common milkweed, whose scientific name is Asclepias syriaca. It is the host plant for 90% of the monarch butterflies that fly to Mexico for the winter. They stay in the same spot where their ancestors did six or seven generations before.

My friend Sue O’Neill from Hillsboro, Ind., is the reason for my interest in monarch butterflies and milkweed. God has given us all different gifts according to the Bible, and he gave the gift of healing and caring for people, animals and now butterflies to her. She is a retired nurse practitioner and has the most nurturing personality of anyone I have ever met.

After retiring, she volunteered as a CASA worker, at an animal shelter, a food bank and has been available to her friends who need an expert opinion when a medical condition arises. She now has become a friend to the monarch and swallowtail butterfly population and in typical Sue fashion, nothing is ever half done. She spends countless hours learning about what is necessary to help propagate the monarch and eastern black swallowtail population.

Sue has nurtured living things for years and she and her husband, a former biology teacher, both have a keen interest in dogs, turtles and lizards. Sue also loves plant life and raises a variety of perennials and annual flowers and garden vegetables, along with herbs. She became interested in monarchs last summer while surveying the milkweeds around her pond. Finding four, seemingly healthy, caterpillars that were gone the next day made her decide to learn more. Reading up on what predators might have caused their demise, she took a greater interest in the milkweed and monarch population, and there has been no stopping her.

A monarch female can lay 400 or more eggs, but it is done one at a time with usually only one egg to a plant on the underside of a leaf. By spreading the eggs to more plants, the monarch increases the chance for survival. An egg hatches to a caterpillar in three to five days in warm weather, and can take up to 20 days to hatch in cool weather.

The caterpillar needs plenty of food and can eat an entire milkweed plant. They prefer the young leaves at the top of the plant.  Monarch caterpillars go through five instars which means they eat, grow and molt their outer skin four times and by the fifth instar they are ready to pupate or form their chrysalis. The time period from the egg being laid to chrysalis formation is 14-18 days depending on heat.

The chrysalis stage lasts about 10 days and then the butterfly ecloses (emerges), pumping up and drying its wings and is ready to fly in a few hours. The adult monarch feeds on nectar from a wide variety of flowers such as cone flowers, zinnias, and asters.

Each summer three or more generations of butterflies will emerge. The life span of those eclosing in June and July is about four to five weeks. Monarchs from east of the Continental Divide migrate south to over winter in central Mexico at about 10,000 feet above sea level. They eclose in late August through mid-September and are considered in a state of reproductive diapauses. Due to the cool temperatures of the mountains, they remain inactive and in late February or early March they break their diapause, becoming reproductive.  Coming to Texas and other southern states in the course of two generations, they repopulate much of North America east of the Rocky Mountains.

Only one egg in every hundred laid, is likely to become a mature monarch.

There are so many predators which can cause problems. Spiders, birds, stink bugs, spined soldier bugs and tachinid flies are just a few of the many predators causing problems for a monarch caterpillar. Insecticides and herbicides also cause havoc on monarch survival. 

Sue released 50 monarchs last year and hopes to do the same amount this year. Monarchs are best raised in an outdoor environment. She has one room in her home she does not air condition, leaving the window open so the monarch caterpillars, in several large net enclosures for protection, can feel they are outside. Monitoring them every day she makes sure they have moisture and an abundance of chemical free milkweed to eat. So far, she has released more than 30 butterflies this year.

All of the five eggs she harvested from milkweeds at my home have hatched into caterpillars. I look forward to seeing the launch, if they become viable monarchs. In the meantime, I will enjoy the monarchs that are flying freely and enjoying the nectar from flowers at my home.

Not everyone has a talent for nurturing like Sue, but we can all plant flowers and even milkweeds to aid in the population of monarchs. Milkweed plants are sold at nurseries and are rather expensive. One may want to instead plant herbs such as dill, fennel and parsley, which are favorites for propagating the swallowtail butterfly. Fresh herbs are always extra special and parsley and dill, being perennials, do not need to be planted every year. Enjoy the beauty of summer flowers and butterflies while we can.