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 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!
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.