Survivor — Caterpillar Version

My garden is full tasty plants to tempt butterflies to lay their eggs.  Finally, a black swallowtail butterfly slipped in and laid a few eggs on a bronze fennel.  I've been following their progress since before the caterpillars hatched, fretting over these gorgeous creatures and wondering how much I should interfere to keep away crab spiders, dragonflies and other predators.

My garden is full of tasty plants to tempt butterflies to lay their eggs. Finally, a black swallowtail butterfly slipped in and laid a few eggs on a bronze fennel. I've been following their progress since before the caterpillars hatched, fretting over these gorgeous creatures and wondering how much I should interfere to keep away crab spiders, dragonflies and other predators.

If you plant it, will they come?  Over the past two years, I’ve planted many kinds of coneflowers and milkweed.  I’ve planted bronze fennel, parsley, bee balm, butterfly bush, autumn sedum and more.  It’s a buffet for Black Swallowtail and Monarch butterflies and others.  But where are they?  I’m not getting much business.  Friends say that the butterflies will come, but it seems a slow year. Maybe a watched garden never produces.  Everything is lush and green, the flowers are blooming, come and get it!

I jumpstarted the process in May when I bought a Monarch caterpillar at the Monarch Watch open house in Lawrence, Kansas, where I also bought three kinds of milkweed.    “Reggie” (from the Latin rex, regis,  for king, a monarch…yes, it’s corny) chewed away for a day and then disappeared.  I hope he successfully moved on to pupation.

A month later in June, I found another Monarch caterpillar, one I didn’t have to buy.  I was thrilled, even though he was voraciously chewing up the one-month planted milkweed, leaving only a stem. I did plant milkweed just for the caterpillars to eat, but do they have to eat so much!  He was almost ready to pupate when I discovered him, and he had the appetite of a teenager!  I said:  “Hey, leave some milkweed for the others!”  Soon, the caterpillar was gone, hopefully moving on to the next stage and not in the craw of a robin.  The milkweed struggled, but finally a few new shoots appeared, and then it began to flourish.  Apparently, milkweeds “know” how to cope.

A Monarch butterfly flitted in and briefly landed on several milkweed plants.  Later, I discovered many eggs, each one laid on the underside of a leaf of different plants.  I watched the progress as the eggs hatched.  Here are two very small caterpillars from July 15, 2009.  Today (July 16) when I checked I couldn't find any caterpillars, so I don't know whether they were hiding or had fallen prey to other creatures.  It's a dangerous world out there!

A Monarch butterfly flitted in and briefly landed on several milkweed plants. Later, I discovered many eggs, each one laid on the underside of a leaf of different plants. I watched the progress as the eggs hatched. Here are two very small caterpillars from July 15, 2009. Today (July 16) when I checked found only one caterpillar, so I don't know whether the other was hiding or had fallen prey to other creatures. It's a dangerous world out there!

Since then, I’ve found eggs on the under side of  the leaves of three of my milkweeds, wondering how they could all support so many caterpillars. Well, I didn’t have to worry about that, because most didn’t survive.   Most seemed to hatch, leaving a tiny hole in the leaf where they were laid, but each day there are fewer and fewer caterpillars.  Will any survive to adulthood? 

The irony is that decades ago when I wasn’t even aware of this wonderful world of caterpillars, I found seven black swallowtail caterpillars on some parsley in my garden. I didn’t know what they were.  I was so horrifed, because I had this revulsion to creepy crawlie things, that I clipped off the “infested” stems and threw them all in the trash. Now, I’d think I’d won the lottery if I found so many BST caterpillars. (OK, maybe I’m exaggerating…)  I’ve regretted that act of destruction ever since.  And who even needs parsley! 

Now I hover over “my” caterpillars, wondering how much I should interfere.  Should I chase away the crab spiders and dragon flies?

For more information about growing plants for caterpillars and butterflies go to Monarch Watch.  To read about J. G.’s beautiful garden, which is a Monarch Waystation, go to my post: Life and Death in the Garden.  For my story on the Monarch Watch Spring 2009  Open House, click here.  Click on the title of the posts, and the stories with photographs will pop up.  Use my search box to find my other stories about butterflies and caterpillars.

I didn't discover this Monarch caterpillar until it was almost ready to pupate.  It ate the leaves of this milkweed so quickly and voraciously that it left only a stem.  I thought: Hey, leave some for the other guys!  I didn't think the milkweed, which I had recently planted, would survive, but it slowly recovered and grew new shoots, ready for the next batch of hatchlings.

I didn't discover this Monarch caterpillar until it was almost ready to pupate. It ate the leaves of this milkweed so quickly and voraciously that it left only a stem. I thought: Hey, leave some for the other guys! I didn't think the milkweed, which I had recently planted, would survive, but it slowly recovered and grew new shoots, ready for the next batch of hatchlings.

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3 Comments

Filed under Animals, Butterflies, Entomology, Environment, Gardening, Insects, Kansas, Kansas City, Life, Natural History, Nature, Personal, Photography, Science

3 responses to “Survivor — Caterpillar Version

  1. Hope Frederick

    I too have planted this year to provide a buffet for the butterflies and caterpillars. I have fennel and goats rue for the babies. I planted ten thousand flower seeds – zinnia, holly hocks, (blooming this year), cosmos, spider flower (cleome), sunflowers, and marigolds. I even planted a hedge row of 12 choke cherry shrubs – to provide a host plant for swallowtails and winter food for the birds this year.

    The only butterfly I see flourishing here – The white cabbage butterfly – enjoying my broccoli plants! Perhaps I am too impatient – but I will have to go look now and see if I have some wee ones nibbling away happily after reading YOU have some at your buffet.

    Thanks, Hope, for your comment! Let me know if you do find some wee ones and keep us updated on who eventually shows up for the feast in your garden. Cathy

  2. I’ve been doing the same thing–waiting for catepillars. One day I checked my fennel (covered w/catepillars last year that went nowhere) and there was nothing. Two days later, there were 7 tiny caterpillars and tons of eggs. I guess they’re eggs. I have some white ones and some brown ones, and two different colors of baby caterpillars! I moved the plant inside my screened pool area and am “monitoring” them!

    I envy you. After a few BST caterpillars appeared on my fennel in mid-July, I’ve had nothing. I’ve had more luck with Monarch caterpillars on my milkweed, but none seem to reach a size big enough to pupate. Good luck with yours! Keep us updated. Cathy

  3. Fabulous photography! Thanks for the information!

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