A butterfly co-op


In early September, I got a call from fellow garden club member, Shirley Cail, who said she had 5 or 6 Monarch caterpillars that needed a new home. Her small patch of milkweed (the only thing the little darlings eat) was decimated by the many “cats” that had been feeding on it since spring. My own large patch of milkweed had had only a few visitors this year, so I was eager to make use of the food supply. We agreed I would adopt her cats and let them feed, grow, pupate and hatch at my house. To our surprise, we found not 5, but 25 cats, many that had left the milkweed in search of more plants, but were still confined inside a mesh corral Shirley had built to protect them from predators. As we collected them in a plastic container, a mother butterfly continued to land on the plants and lay eggs on the few tiny leaves that still remained. In order to prevent more egg laying, which would guarantee their death without a food supply, we cut off all the remaining leaves.
When I arrived home, I placed the cats onto the leaves of my potted milkweed plants and then moved the plants inside special mesh butterfly cages set up in the dining room. I combed through the leaves we removed and discovered 5 eggs which I placed on a wet paper towel inside a shallow Tupperware container. This constituted my incubator; the eggs would hatch in 4 days. I took cuttings from in-ground plants and put them into special water-filled holders to keep them fresh, also finding some eggs and some tiny hatchlings along the way. As I worked, a Monarch mother arrived to lay more eggs, which I also collected. By the time I was finished, I had 71 potential butterflies! Since then, I have been busy monitoring eggs, moving the hatchlings to the cages and supplying them with a constant supply of either potted or cut milkweed. They grow from a hatchling of 1/32nd of an inch to a maximum of 3 inches, in about 10 days, at which time they pupate and change into a chrysalis.
By the time you read this article, most of my captives will have hatched into stunningly beautiful Monarch adults and been released outdoors. Some won’t make it to adulthood, due to various reasons, but success rates rise when raised indoors. These early-fall butterflies are the ones that migrate to our coastlines to spend the winter and then start the new generations of butterflies in the Spring. It’s very rewarding to know that we can play a vital role in the preservation of these amazing creatures. A special thanks to those who have participated in our little “Caterpillar Co-op” this year and in the past two years: Shirley Cail, Edi Demik, Chris Dailey, Ken Krieger and Georgia Herman. If you are interested in growing milkweed or just finding out more about the raising of butterflies, email me at ldlonsdale4@gmail.com or call me at (760)749-8723.