Although I am a fan of all things six and eight legged, slithery and slimy, creepy and crawly, my specialty happens to be the catching, rearing, and releasing of Monarch butterfly caterpillars. I have been doing this long enough, and in great enough numbers, that I now know a few secrets about Monarch caterpillars that very few people know, that I cannot wait to share with you. Secrets like, for instance, baby monarch caterpillars will occasionally hitch a ride on other bigger monarch caterpillars to get where they need to go. Secrets like, for another instance, when it is very late at night and it is very quiet in the house, and you happen to have a dining room with 200 caterpillars in it (as I so often do), you can absolutely hear them all chewing, and it is weird.
You may be thinking, “Did she say caterpillars in her dining room?” I did! This whole project started when my son found a Monarch caterpillar in our garden and I had just read an article that said the two most important things you can do to help Monarchs is to plant milkweed and, if you can, bring them inside to raise them. I thought, “I can do that.” But the only space large enough was the dining room. So, over the years, my very patient family has become accustomed to eating our meals surrounded by shelves full of caterpillars and hanging baskets full of chrysalises and butterflies.
Don’t do this! This is crazy!
I spend all summer wading through wild prairies, parks, marshes, beaches, and my very tolerant neighbors gardens collecting caterpillar eggs and caterpillars to bring back to the house to hatch and raise. I travel far and wide gathering enough food to feed them all, locating new wild prairies where milkweed might grow, and lobbing little balls of soil and clay and wildflower seeds into empty lots. I get up very, very early every day so I can open every box one at a time, clean out the caterpillar poop (called frass), and supply the inhabitants with a fresh leaf for the day. I love every minute of it, but it is very time consuming.
The most important thing you can do is practically anything! Truly! Every little bit helps. Grow native nectar flowers in your gardens, grow milkweed too. If you find an egg or two, or a caterpillar of any size, consider taking it in to raise. Their chance of reaching adulthood in the wild is between 1% and 4%, so if you bring even that one egg inside and raise the caterpillar, you are giving it a much better chance to survive and go on to make more butterflies!
“But why is it important to save the Monarchs?” You may ask. Monarch butterflies are considered an Indicator Species. What that means is that their numbers can be used to represent the numbers of all pollinator species, so if their population is low it probably means all pollinator populations are low. Monarch butterfly numbers are very low, and this is bad for all of us that enjoy butterflies and, you know, fruit. Can’t have fruit without pollinators! Another reason we work to save Monarchs is that they have an unusual biology and their migrations are amazing and we don’t yet fully understand the “why” and “how” of either of those things. It would be a shame if they died out before we learned what they have to teach us.
I could probably go on and on and on, but I think I will save some of the fascinating things there are to know about Monarchs until another time. There are so many fascinating things!
So, stay tuned! Many interesting posts to come, and all the news about Tony’s Gateway Science Center as it happens!