Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Caterpillar Nursery

My husband, Skip, is an avid birder and nature lover. A few years back he collected some milkweed seeds and planted them in a couple of corners of our garden in the hopes they would attract monarch butterflies. Monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of the milkweed leaves. The eggs hatch, and little caterpillars are born. The first thing the caterpillars do is eat their egg shell then they start chewing on the milkweed leaves. After 3 to 4 weeks the caterpillars pupate and create a beautiful green chrysalis. About a month later they become butterflies.

We didn't see any monarch butterflies near the milkweed plants until last year and at that, I only saw one. I'm not sure if eggs were laid. However this year, we have seen considerably more monarchs and actually witnessed one laying an egg with her ovipositor.

She curls her back end under the leaf and deposits one football-shaped white egg.

This is an extreme close-up of the egg.

After a few days, the egg hatches and the little caterpillar is born:

It is at this point, we've been harvesting them, leaf and all and putting them in a big, clean mayonnaise jar with an old hunk of pantihose over the top.

We got the idea when we visited The Butterfly Farm in St. Martin last March Break on our wonderful southern Caribbean cruise on the Crown Princess.

The caterpillars voraciously munch away on the leaves. Because the leaves are no longer attached to the plant they dry up after a day or two so each day we put new leaves in the jar and carefully remove the old ones every day as well as any 'droppings'. We have seen the little caterpillars double in size and start to display their characteristic stripes.

Our little guys are still only a few days old.

Every day I inspect the leaves on the milkweed plants in our gardens to see if I can rescue more little caterpillars. I believe earwigs have been eating many of the little caterpillars and birds have been carrying off the ones that have grown to a good size. The big caterpillar's defense is that they do not taste good to their predators because of the bitter milkweed they are constantly eating. However a bird might not get a full taste until they have chomped into one and by then it's too late - the caterpillar is dead.

It is our hope that we will be able to witness the growth of our caterpillars until they pupate and make their chrysalises and hatch as butterflies. We will then set them free to migrate south.

I'll post updates from time to time and actual pictures once the caterpillars get big enough.

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