Archive for July, 2013

46 Caterpillars => 18 Chrysalises

July 26, 2013

That’s right — my previous estimate of 15 caterpillars was way, way off. Once the milkweed plants were stripped of their leaves, it became much easier to see the caterpillars, and I counted 46 (more or less!). To refresh your memory, here are some of them from about a week ago:

July2013_caterpillars10

 

July2013_Caterpillars11

 

 

I have no idea why there were so many caterpillars this year! Normally, I have 5 or 6 at a time, perhaps 2 or 3 times a year. Was it the heat? The unusual mugginess we’ve been having this year? Who knows!

At any rate, there were really too many caterpillars for the plants to support. They ate the milkweed plants down to the nub of each leaf, and soon began eating the stems. Many of them were too immature to pupate at this point. Some started crawling away from the plants, but I knew they were not ready to pupate — they were looking for another milkweed plant. I was able to move a few of them to a small milkweed plant a few feet away that the butterflies had ignored — probably because it was too small. In addition, I moved some of them to the three new, small plants on the side of the house. They ate those, too, down to the stems.

Here is what the three major plants ended up looking like:

July2013_Milkweeds

 

In the end, many of the caterpillars that were too small ended up perishing, though I don’t know where or how in most cases. They simply disappeared. A few of them were attacked and killed by ants when they came down to the ground from the small milkweed — it was, apparently, located in the middle of an ant path. Some others seemed to simply succumb to the heat; I found dead caterpillars exuding fluid in a couple of places. The others met their end hidden from my sight.

The lucky ones — the ones that had reached full maturity before the leaves gave out — went off to find places to pupate.

One of them chose an unfortunate spot: this caterpillar had been one of the ones i had moved to the side of the house, and he ended up climbing the stucco wall of the house to try to find a pupating spot. Unfortunately, he could not find a horizontal surface — alas, there really aren’t any on that wall — and he formed the “J” on the vertical wall, hanging off at an angle. One of my previous caterpillars had done a similar thing a few weeks ago, and encountered no problems — but that caterpillar was attached to a wooden part of the wall. This caterpillar was attached to the stucco. When he went through the process of forming the chrysalis, which involves a lot of twisting and turning, the roughness of the wall apparently tore his body apart. I found the remnants of his body and a dwarfed, misshapen chrysalis. The picture is kind of disturbing, and I won’t post it. But I think next year I may put up trellises on that wall, so the caterpillars who end up on that wall will have an easier time of it.

The others — well, in short, I found 18 chrysalises! Here is where they are located:

Hanging from the wall overhang.

Hanging from the wall overhang.

There was one behind the box near the bottom of the wall.

There was one behind the box near the bottom of the wall.

One attached himself to my neighbor's potted plant.

One attached himself to my neighbor’s potted plant.

One pupated on one of my Asters.

One pupated on one of my Asters.

Five ended up on the wall post!

Five ended up on the wall post!

One ended up -- AGAIN! -- on my wheelbarrow, and the other on the overhead beam.

One ended up — AGAIN! — on my wheelbarrow, and the other on the overhead beam.

One crawled all the way to my Winifred Gilman sage.

One crawled all the way to my Winifred Gilman sage.

Last but not least, one found one of my Royal Penstemon plants.

Last but not least, one found one of my Royal Penstemon plants.

And here are a few of them in closeup (just a few, in keeping with the observation that they all look more or less alike!):

# 4, behind the box.

# 4, behind the box.

#5, on the plant.

#5, on the plant.

#6, on the Aster.

#6, on the Aster.

 

The crowded four-plex on the corner of the wall post!

The crowded four-plex on the corner of the wall post!

The loner on the other corner.

The loner on the other corner.

 

This guy must be able to read!

This guy must be able to read!

#15, on the other arm of the wheelbarrow.

#15, on the other arm of the wheelbarrow.

A tiny one on the Winifred Gilman.

A tiny one on the Winifred Gilman.

 

#18, on the Royal Penstemon.

#18, on the Royal Penstemon.

It’s probably not obvious, given that it’s hard to determine scale looking at these close-up pictures, but quite a number of these chrysalises are tiny — considerably smaller than normal chrysalises, reflecting the fact that many of these caterpillars, though ostensibly mature (officially, at the “5th instar”), were smaller than usual . The one on the Winifred Gilman is especially small, only about 3/4 inch long. Possibly it’s because of the extreme competition for food this time. It will be interesting to see if the butterflies that emerge are correspondingly small.

I expect these butterflies to make an appearance in the next week. That could be a crowded scene. Stay tuned!

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Second “Wheelbarrow” Butterfly Hatches

July 23, 2013

Last Friday the latest butterfly — the second one to pupate on my wheelbarrow — decided it was time to bring her gorgeous self out.

For the first time, I was able to photograph her right after emergence. When Monarchs first emerge from the chrysalis, their wings are very small, and their abdomen is engorged with fluid:

July2013_NewButterfly1

 

July2013_NewButterfly2

 

(It’s a good thing I added the terrycloth — I don’t think the butterfly would have been able to cling to the large steel bolt underneath the terrycloth covering.)

Over the next 10 minutes or so — it did not take long — she pumped fluid into her wings until they were almost normal size:

July2013_NewButterfly3

 

July2013_NewButterfly4

 

July2013_NewButterfly5

 

She stayed in more or less this state for a couple of hours, just sitting and allowing her wings to dry off and become stiff enough to be useful — and then she took off. Another beautiful, healthy Monarch in the world!

Tomorrow (I hope) I’ll begin telling the story of the 46 caterpillars (yes, 46!) that populated my meager collection of milkweed plants!

Traffic Jam!

July 17, 2013

I can’t resist posting this:

July2013_trafficjam

It won’t be long now before quite a few of them take off!

Caterpillars Galore

July 16, 2013

Well, I thought the caterpillar season was “over” because the presence of the wasps would nip the population in the bud — decidedly not so!

First off, there was a mature caterpillar a week or so ago who wandered off the plant to seek a suitable pupating spot just as I had to go to a doctor’s appointment — thus I missed seeing where he ended up. After I got back, I looked everywhere — or so I thought — and could not find him.

But just a couple of days ago, my boyfriend Hank pointed out a new chrysalis — on the wheelbarrow again, very near the one from a month or so ago. Here it is:

July2013_chrysalis1

 

July2013_chrysalis2

 

This picture shows the terrycloth I added around the pupating spot, because I feared that the metal would be too slick for the butterfly to get a purchase on, once it emerges. This caterpillar did not choose the best spot; newly emerged butterflies want to crawl UP after they have pumped up their wings while clinging to the spent chrysalis. This position, inside the “groove” of the wheelbarrow leg, means the butterfly cannot go directly up; it will have to step to the side somehow. We’ll see how it goes.

A few days ago, I wandered over to the milkweed plants for the first time in weeks, and discovered a treasure trove of caterpillars growing on them! Yesterday I counted at least 15. Just in this picture alone, I can count 8:

July2013_caterpillars1

 

Other pics:

July2013_caterpillars3

 

This one is probably the closest to maturity.

This one is probably the closest to maturity.

Unfortunately, as I was checking out the caterpillar collection, I noticed one of the WASPS was on the plant — and eating one of my caterpillars! The poor thing was long dead, and the wasp was finishing his meal. I had in my hands a pair of scissors I had just been using to cut up the terrycloth, and I swiped them at the wasp, trying to cut him in two! Alas, he flew away.

This is going to be a problem, and no doubt all these caterpillars will not survive. Already, since this wasp encounter, I have found the bodies of two caterpillars who have no doubt fallen prey to one of the wasps:

July2013_Wasp1

 

July2013_Wasp2

 

I am loath to surround the plants with netting as I did last year. The caterpillars are all in different stages of development, and it would be difficult for the mature ones to escape the netting to seek a pupating location without removing the netting and endangering the others.

So I am just going to monitor the situation. I’ve been checking the plants every few hours, and when I see a wasp I try once more to cut it with the scissors! I also have some wasp spray, but I don’t want to spray them when they are on or near the milkweed plants, lest the spray harm the caterpillars or contaminate the plants. No doubt some more will be lost.

If it looks like the wasps are taking too many of them, I may reconsider on the netting.

In the meantime, we may have another generation: while I was photographing, a butterfly happened by and deposited some eggs:

July2013_butterfly1

 

Just a quick update this time. The garden is going into its summer dormancy and doesn’t look too great — the typical turn of events with California natives. For those who’ve been trained to think that a garden should always look green and have something blooming, this can be a hard phase.  But this, after all, is the natural situation for our climate. It’s so much better to keep things as close to their natural state as possible, and just give a little help (water-wise) so they don’t fall into a completely dry state. Learning to appreciate the natural stages of the flora and fauna of your environment makes you feel so much closer to it!