Neighbors Play Host to Monarch Butterflies

Written by Lindsay Olinde

Who wears lots of black, is particular about food, and flies into Austin by the thousands in the Spring and Fall? No, not SXSW or ACL attendees, something even more fascinating. Yes, Monarchs! Recently, we unexpectedly hosted two Monarch caterpillars, Tiny Tim and Mr. Big Boss Man. They taught us many intriguing facts about the neighborhood’s charismatic spring and fall visitors.

Monarch butterflies #1_butterfly

Photo by Lindsay Olinde

Already have milkweed but dream of a milkweed forest? Before the first freeze, cut off branches and put them in cups on a windowsill for the winter. Keep the glasses pretty full of water. The first month or so, you may not see many roots but by March, they’ll have plenty of roots and are ready for planting. Once planted, water often and repeat next winter for a Monarch haven of your very own. This is actually how we met Tiny Tim and Mr. Big Boss Man, they were stowaways on our cuttings.

PMonarch butterflies #2_intro

Photo by Lindsay Olinde

A caterpillar grows so fast that it has to shed its skin like a snake. Right after a shed, a caterpillar typically turns around and promptly eats its old skin. TRUE! Waste not, says Mr. Big Boss Man proving this in a video.

Caterpillars sometimes will slow down or stop moving for a couple days- we found out that they like to play possum! They are just saving energy for a big change- like to shed or go into chrysalis.

Monarch butterflies #3_5oclockshadow

Photo by Lindsay Olinde

On its 5th shed, instead of an even bigger caterpillar with even goofier antennae, we get to see an ALREADY formed jade & gold speckled chrysalis (very Alienesque and more stunning than anything in Grandma’s jewelry box). Here’s a picture of Tiny Tim’s blinged out chrysalis and even his little antennae from his last shed above.

Monarch butterflies #4_jadebling

Photo by Lindsay Olinde

About 24 hours before a Monarch is ready to emerge, the chrysalis turns almost immediately from green to what looks like black but really is so transparent, you can see its wings!

Monarch butterflies #5_wings

Photo by Lindsay Olinde

Every spring, it takes four generations of Monarchs to travel from Mexico to Canada & back. The first three live 2-6 weeks & the last gets a luxurious 8+ *months*.  Monarch butterflies drink nectar from flowers but the caterpillars ONLY eat milkweed because it makes them poisonous to predators. Pesticide-free milkweed is available now at many locally owned nurseries. Always ask for pesticide free. Also, washing your hands after handling milkweed’s a good idea.

The children’s book about the hungry caterpillar is pretty accurate! One caterpillar needs a lot of milkweed and at Tiny Tim’s peak, he was going through ~1 leaf in a half hour. Video of his feasting.

See a milkweed leaf dancing? Underneath will be a caterpillar eating. Tiny Tim sets the beat here (with the help of KUTX):

Milkweed is cheap but now rare in the Monarch’s flight path. This food scarcity and crop pesticides are large causes for the Monarch plunge making headline news lately. While there are lots of milkweed varieties (bushes, vines, red, purple, yellow…), all their seeds look similar and sail in the wind.

Monarch butterflies #6-seeds

Also, for more gardening tips to attract pollinators, pick up a Grow Green book from a local nursery or look online.  And finally, looking for the best gift ever for a friend of any age? Give a magnifying glass- we promise that everything old will seem new. This simple little thing gave our surprise Monarch moments even more awe.



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