Raised indoors, monarchs filled garden with beauty

The air in our garden has been filled with activity this past week as the last generation of 2019’s monarch butterflies gathers to fortify itself before beginning their migration to Mexico. We’ve seen more monarchs this summer than we have for years. I hope it’s a sign that their numbers are increasing.

My husband raised monarch caterpillars in the house this summer. He hunted for eggs on the leaves of the milkweed in our garden and brought the egg-bearing leaf indoors. The caterpillars lived in a mesh cage indoors, safe from parasitic wasps, until the butterflies emerged from their chrysalises. They were then released into our garden where there’s plentiful food as well as plants to lay their eggs.

More than five dozen monarchs are flitting through our yard this week, many of them on the Joe Pye stand in the front garden. More are feeding on the phlox and rudbeckia in the back.

Only a few of the butterflies are ragged and old. The majority are newly emerged. They’re part of the generation that will enter diapause, a state where their body processes slow, body fat increases and sexual development is delayed. This allows the butterflies to withstand the 3,000-mile trip south to Mexican pine-oak forests where they’ll overwinter. The little butterflies travel about 50 miles a day, and about half will fall prey to storms and bad weather, human obstacles like cars and predators along the way.

Not all monarchs migrate to Mexico. Monarchs on the East Coast go to Florida, and those west of the Rockies over-winter in southern California. Other sub-species in the Caribbean and Central and South America stay put throughout their lives.

How the butterflies decide when and where to migrate hasn’t been discovered, although as monarchs move from one area to another, pupae adjust to the migration target of the area where they emerge from the chrysalises.

When this summer’s last generation of monarchs decide to head south, they’ll congregate and travel in groups. We’ve been lucky enough to have migrating butterflies spend the night in our yard twice over the years, turning one of our trees orange as hundreds of the insects rested together for the night. In the morning, as the sun hit the tree, the insects woke up and tested their wings in groups of two and three before taking to the air.

Once in Mexico, the butterflies rest in the trees by the thousands through the winter months, waiting for the days to lengthen and warm. Most years by mid-February the butterflies are beginning to head north again, and by mid-March they are gone.

Monarch numbers are decreasing about 15% each year. Preserves in Mexico and Canada in Ontario and Quebec are attempting to save the butterflies since habitat loss is one of the greatest obstacles to maintaining their numbers. Climate change and increased pesticide use also impact butterfly numbers.

Raising monarch caterpillars indoors requires daily care. Some of ours munched through more than one fresh milkweed leaf a day. But it’s easy and worth the effort. And it filled our garden with beauty all summer long.

 

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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