Nature's Notebook

A storm shelter for caterpillars

Monarch butterflies generally start arriving in the Uwharries in May.  Their timing seems to coincide with the flowering of the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in our grasslands.  The globes of pink flowers stand tall above the grasses at that point in the season.  By June, I start inspecting the back sides of the leaves for eggs and looking for the jagged leaf margins that indicate caterpillars have already hatched.

For some reason, monarchs don’t show up in my Charlotte garden until August.  I like to think they’re the progeny of the ones I first saw in the Uwharries in May, the first or second generation expanding their range.  By that time, my orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) has quit blooming, and the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is past its prime.  And yet, it isn’t blooms the monarchs are after; it’s the leaves.  The caterpillars will eat nothing else.  

In the past, I’ve had scads of monarch cats by early September.  This year, Labor Day came and went without a single one.  At first I worried the population had truly crashed, but reports indicated they’re actually having a decent year.  I then worried they hadn’t been able to find my swamp milkweed since I’d surrounded it with goldenrod.  I searched again the second week of September and was relieved to find a dozen cats.  Unfortunately, Hurricane Florence was only days from making landfall.  I expected my garden to get walloped.  I wasn’t sure the cats would survive. 

Earlier that week, my friend Beth Henry had given me a monarch chrysalis from her own garden.  It dangled like a jewel-encrusted earring from a branch of goldenrod.  It was due to hatch within days.  Beth also collects caterpillars and raises them in her house.  “They have so many predators,” she says.  “Spiders, birds and wasps.”  Giving them this extra level of protection increases their odds of survival dramatically.  With the monarch population in serious decline, Beth is determined to release as many into the wild as possible.

I generally leave them to their own devices in my garden, but as the winds picked up on Friday and rain began to fall, I cut several stems of milkweed bearing half a dozen cats.  I squeezed them into flower vases with narrow openings so the cats couldn’t fall into the water and drown.  Knowing that monarch caterpillars produce copious amounts of poop, politely known as frass, I placed them on a tattered old towel in my pantry. 

It was nice to have them in the house.  They provided a pleasant distraction from the stress of tracking the storm.  They contort themselves into amusing angles to reach an appealing leaf.  They eat constantly, pausing only when they’ve grown so large they have to shed their skin.  They do so five times, the phases called instars, during the roughly two weeks they spend as caterpillars.  I was enjoying them so much, I shared a couple with the nature-girl across the street.  She and her family were lucky enough to see one of the caterpillars transform from a fifth instar to a chrysalis.

A monarch butterfly. Photo: Ruth Ann Grissom

As the weekend wore on and the winds picked up on Saturday, I kept an eye on the cats I’d left in the garden.  They seemed unperturbed by the weather, but a plant in an exposed location was getting whipped around, so I brought those stalks inside as well.  On Sunday, the wind settled a bit, but the rain came down in buckets and backyard started to flood.  (There’s a reason I have swamp milkweed.)  When the plant harboring the last two cats drooped into a puddle, I collected those as well.

Once the storm finally passed, I transferred the whole operation to my screened porch.  Within days, the chrysalis successfully eclosed and the caterpillars crawled to various places and attached themselves to a piece of wood or screen.  Even though they signal their intent by hanging from their tail and curving into a J before they transform into a chrysalis, I somehow missed every opportunity to witness this.  I never saw one emerge from the chrysalis either.  I’d walk outside and suddenly there was a butterfly hanging on the screen slowly flapping its wings, the empty chrysalis torn and transparent nearby.  I’d give them a few hours to dry their wings before releasing them.  It’s fine to keep them for up to a day without a nectar source, but I didn’t want to leave them too long and risk the anoles that patrol my screened porch making a meal of them.

I considered trying to shoo them out the door.  Instead, I followed the advice of Monarch Watch (www.monarchwatch.org/rear/) and gently took hold of them by all four wings.  I’m glad I went that route.  As unlikely as it sounds, the word that came to my mind was muscular.  Their energy, their restless determination, pulsed between my fingertips.  I felt the strength and stamina they need to undertake their arduous journey.  Thanks to my friend Beth Henry and Hurricane Florence, I have a newfound appreciation for how these miraculous creatures survive.