Caring For Your Monarch Caterpillars
With the reports that I have been receiving it seems the number of all butterflies sightings appear to be down this year. This seems especially true with monarchs. The weather nationwide has had a lot to do with it. What was a slow start to begin with was only compounded with massive rainfalls or excessive heat waves and that in turn affected the all butterflies and especially the monarch population. The frightening part is that Fall migration start in just two weeks! This is not a concern for the continental US yet, but once the sun no longer hits a 56° angle with the horizon at noon in Northern Canada it’s time for the monarchs to start packing their bags for Mexico. But for those of us living in the lower 48, it is only getting to be peak time for raising caterpillars and butterflies.
By now your Monarch Migration Station should be looking like a mini jungle with a combination of host and nectar plants. With your caterpillars protect from parasites, predators and too much rain they should be thriving. If you do have caterpillars in you charge there are some things that you need to remember! First of all, it is tick and flea season. If you treat your dogs and cats with topical medications always wash your hands thoroughly before handling eggs, cats, chrysalis or adults. The compound in the medication it is deadly to your caterpillars. In fact, you should wash your hand whenever you work with livestock in order not infect your larvae with anything that you may have picked up along the way. You probably never thought of it but your cell phone is probably harboring more germs than on your toilet seat at home. Think about how many places you put your phone down on to during the course of a day. No 5 second rule applies here because those containments transfer themselves quite quickly. Let’s say you treat your dog for fleas, and then made a phone call. You washed you hands and made another phone call and BAM you are infected again. Perhaps you didn’t use your phone but turned the same doorknob to get outside to your Monarch Station as you used when treating your dog. Bam youre infected again.
Another disaster to be on the watch for is if your neighbor has their lawns treated by a professional company. Guess what, they are spraying insecticides usually Bacillus thuringiensis that can easily drift on the wind into your garden or Migration Station. Bacillus thuringiensis is a naturally occurring soil bacterium disease that is fatal to the larva stage of certain insects. There are a number of strains of Bt, but the most commonly used are Btk, the kurstaki strain and Bti, the israelensis strain. Also be careful of what you are using around your garden. If mosquitoes are a problem for you because you have standing water such as a bird bath you can safely use any product the contains Bti but not the bad Btk strain. Bti will not harm your adult butterflies.
If you have chrysalis you should be misting them with a spray bottle from time to time. In the past if you ever had a problem with a butterfly not quite emerging fully or emerging with wrinkled wings most likely the problem was dehydration. So mist them often and always use bottled water because you never know what is coming out of your tap at home.
When feeding caterpillar please keep in mind that if you are ever using fresh cut milkweed you must be very careful of the white latex that drips from a pulled leaf or cut stem. If you come into contact with it NEVER get it near your eyes because it can actually burn your corneas. It is a very painful ordeal and you may end up sitting out the rest of your summer vacation with your eyes bandaged. So please always wear gloves when cutting milkweed and take extra precaution not to get it near your eyes.
Now, if you are fortunate enough to have extra plants and do not need to cut more plants you will eventually need to move your caterpillars to the newer ones. Never move or disturb a caterpillar that is motionless. In order to grow caterpillars need to shed their skin, or exoskeleton, several times during life as a larva. To do this they move away from the hustle and bustle of the plant and off to the side where they will lay dormant for a few hours to a day. This allows the old skin to split open and expose the newer more flexible skin. If you move a caterpillar while it is shedding you will harm it and probably cause it to die. However, if your caterpillar is moving about in search of food you may need to move your cat to a new plant. The best way of doing this is by using a small artist brush to do so. I prefer a #2 sable. Simply place the tip of the brush near the caterpillars head. Then while rotating the brush tip in a circular motion away from the caterpillar try to slide the tip underneath the caterpillars abdomen . This action will cause the caterpillar to roll up and onto the brush tip. Transport it to the new leaf and reverse the motion by rotating the brush tip towards the new leaf and roll your caterpillar forward and onto the new leaf. It doesn’t take much practice to become proficient with this technique.
I am going to share with you a secret breeders tip that you must promise to keep to yourself. If you are doing so good with your hungry, hungry caterpillars that you ran out of milkweed you have another resource, Butternut Squash. You read correctly Butternut Squash! You don’t use the leaves of the squash but the fleshy pulp. Take the squash and cut it open. Then scrape several thin slices with a vegetable peeler. Place the slices next to your caterpillars and they will hop right on to them. The squash will take to full term and into chrysalis. Remember that is a professional secret so keep it hush hush and just between us.