Side Trip Into Nature

2 May

Right now the entire State of Texas is in a severe drought.  Add some strong spring winds and 90-degree temps, and our Hill Country is left with dry creeks, brown roadsides, and clouds of dust.

While I have been riding, it’s been difficult to come up with a colorful AND interesting story to pass along.  For that reason, the latest BT Holiday  has nothing to do with two wheels  or even leaving the front yard.  It’s a remarkable side trip into nature that I have to share.

Towards the end of March I decided to get serious about planting tropical milkweed throughout the yard.  Conservation groups are asking people to plant milkweed to help offset the huge loss of the monarch butterfly’s habitat; and, in fact, nurseries in Austin are making a special effort to keep it in stock to help with the demand.

Monarchs are totally dependent on milkweed since they only lay their eggs on milkweed and the caterpillars only eat milkweed leaves.  Chemicals from the milkweed makes the brightly colored caterpillars and butterflies poisonous to birds and most other predators.

Less than two weeks after planting we have caterpillars gorging themselves on the milkweed, and the next photo shows two of them munching away.

Here they’ve eaten the poor little plant down to a nub.   They start eating at the top, where leaves are the most tender, and work their way down.  Fortunately, there are other milkweed plants close by and they move over to the next plant when nothing is left.

Another day goes by and the largest caterpillars crawl off to go into chrysalis.  One of them crawls up the bird bath and goes into chrysalis there.  It couldn’t have picked a better location for us to be able to observe!  (No picture.)

This link to the Monarch Butterfly Website explains what happens during chrysalis and their life cycle in general.  Fascinating stuff!

Fast forward.  Ten days later I bring Desha outside to show her how the chrysalis is no longer green, but you can see bright orange wings underneath.  As we’re talking about it, right before our eyes the chrysalis splits open and a butterfly emerges in just a few minutes.  Breathtaking!  Left us both speechless and our mouths hanging open!  Unfortunately, no camera, but I ran in and got it as soon as the “birth” was complete.

This next picture shows our wet and wrinkly firstborn and two caterpillars that had attached themselves to the bird bath the night before.  After the caterpillars attach themselves, they assume a J position and then rest for several hours before going into chrysalis.

Several minutes go by and the next picture shows the wings are drying out and inflating.

The yellow in the background is the tropical milkweed blooms.

An hour or so later the caterpillar begins an up-and-down rhythmic motion and starts the process of going into chrysalis.  In the next pic you can see the caterpillar has straightened out some, and the little bit of green showing down by the antennae is where the striped outer skin is beginning to split.

Here we are a little farther along.   At this point I stop taking pictures so I can sit back and take it all in.  The entire process of going into chrysalis takes less than five minutes.  The second bird-bath caterpillar goes into chrysalis a few minutes later.

Now we have a bright green chrysalis and our butterfly has taken a few more steps.  Hard to believe those delicate wings come out of such a small enclosure!  It’s difficult to see, but you can make out the little patches of white silk where each of the chrysalises are attached to the bird bath.

By now about three hours have gone by since our butterfly first emerged.  He begins to slowly fan and stretch his wings and takes short hops.  Here are his gorgeous new wings opened as he rests in the skullcap below the bird bath.  The two black oval scent glands on either side of the lower abdomen tell us we have a male.

Back onto the bird bath for a quick pose.  You can see the edge of the brand-new chrysalis in the upper right-hand corner of the picture.  After a few more minutes, he takes flight and disappears over our neighbor’s roof.  Godspeed, my winged friend!

But that’s not the end of the story!  We still have nine more chrysalises on a nearby Texas sotol, and most likely there are several more hidden in the bushes.  I expect them all to open on May 5th, possibly May 6th.

But that’s not all!  In a completely different part of the yard there are monarch caterpillars busily munching away.  This morning we spotted a bruised and battered female, presumably all the way from Mexico, laying eggs outside the back door.  Here she is taking in some nectar.  (After she left I found several tiny white eggs.)  You can see a caterpillar on the underside of the milkweed pod in the lower right.

And what about the poor ole milkweed plant that was eaten down to a nub three weeks ago?  Here it is this morning, on its way to a full recovery.

You know, it was so easy.  All it took was finding a sunny spot to put a few milkweed plants.  Mother Nature does the real work.  This experience has been wonderful and I’m totally hooked.  Now that I know what to expect. . . .

Note to self:  Start saving for a DSLR camera!

Right now monarchs are making their extraordinary migration to the Northern United States.  If any of you northerners are inclined to plant some milkweed, now you know what to do!

Peace on the Road!
BT

May 13th Update

Monarch caterpillars have been falsely accused of pilfering other plants by several of Auntie Biketrash’s devoted readers!  Slanderous!  To set the record straight, the monarch caterpillar only feeds on milkweed plants and does not ever feed on tomato plants or dill or rue or anything else — although the caterpillars that feed on those plants do look similar to the monarch caterpillars.  Monarch butterflies take in nectar from a variety of plants.

Since the May 2nd post, we’ve had at least 13 butterflies emerge from chrysalis — four males, seven females, and two unknown (didn’t see them, but found the empty chrysalis).  Judging by the number of caterpillars, I’m quite sure there were several that anonymously crawled off into the bushes.   Great results from my small effort!

It looks like the monarch action here on Brentwood Street is about over for this year, but I’ll leave you with a video showing  one of “our” females coming out of chrysalis.  I call it “Birth” of a Monarch Butterfly, because that’s the term everybody understands.  The proper term is “eclose,” which means to emerge from the pupal stage.

10 Responses to “Side Trip Into Nature”

  1. Cam May 2, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

    I really love the butterfly story and pictures. I have never seen such a complete description before. What a wonderful thing to do and share.
    Thanks

    • biketrash May 2, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

      Thanks, Cam!
      It’s such a lucky thing that these three crawled onto the bird bath where we can clearly see them. There are several more hidden in the bushes.

  2. FrostBite May 2, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    Wonderful story and pictures. I love to ride buit it’s not all about riding.

  3. Debbie (Birdsall) Williams May 3, 2011 at 9:12 am #

    Awesome pictures and what memories!!! I remember collecting milkweed leaves on the playground at Hillis Elementary and putting them in a Sucrets tin to save and take home after school. I kept the leaves in a shoebox under my bed (in McCabes house when we lived there) and would check them every day until…finally the tiny little caterpillars emerged. I brought them milkweed leaves every day and finally one day i came home, lifted the lid and there was a chrysalis attached to the underside of the lid. Eventually he hatched while I was at school and I came home to find a beautiful monarch stretching it’s wings in that old shoebox. My mom helped me prepare some sugar-water in an old jar lid and we gave it to him for his first drink. I remember taking the box out to the back yard where I am sure he was quite excited to see sunlight and a few minutes later he fluttered off toward Amsden’s bushes. Learning from that experience, my kids and I raised many of them over the years ~ we always found the caterpillars eating our parsley plants in the garden, although we had plenty of milkweed nearby too.
    We gave them branches on which to chrysalis and then we’d keep the branches in a window, between the screen and the glass so they would emerge to fresh air. We also did the same thing with giant cycopia )not sure of the spelling) moths that would coccoon on the branches of our lilac bushes. It was a fun way to engage the kids in home-style learning and appreciate the beautiful and amazing, minute details of nature.

    • biketrash May 3, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

      Debbie,
      Good old Hillis, where we both learned to read and write! I remember Terry Dingman and I collecting cocoons and chrysalises one summer, but I don’t remember that we kept them alive. I had a lot of jars full of them, but who knows what happened?

  4. Cindy Smith May 18, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    Awesome pictures, Linda. Thanks for posting the video at the end, too!

    • biketrash May 18, 2011 at 1:22 pm #

      Thanks and you’re welcome!

      • Cindy Smith May 20, 2011 at 10:15 am #

        What a difference sound makes!!! The first day I watched this, my computer was mysteriously on mute (thanks, kids). I love the music you chose! And, your description was very helpful. I hope the monarchs find my little milkweed next year, which I planted a bit too late, but at your inspiration nonetheless.

      • biketrash May 20, 2011 at 11:28 am #

        That music is great, isn’t it? Check out Moritz Altenburger on SoundClick.com. He has several free creative-commons downloads, and they’re all as beautiful as this piece.

        I’m sure some grateful butterflies will find your milkweed next spring!

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