By Lisa Milewski
On May 2, 2020 as part of the Milkweed Monarch Watch Project, I met Cathy Johnson in Rockdale to pick up some coveted antelope horn milkweed that I divided with my sister (eight for me and seven for her). There was excitement as I planted and watched these babies grow over the next year, as well as the tribulations in caring for them through rain, drought, aphids, and the freeze/snow.
February 14, 2021 – The Freeze! Everything including my precious milkweed covered in snow.
Spring 2021 – Making a comeback.
April 2021- The milkweed not only survived the freeze, they thrived! Looking good!
May 2, 2021 – 2.81” of rain according to my rain gauge and reporting to CoCoRAHS and on May 3, 2021 another 1.13”.
And then a double rainbow end to end.
May 17, 2021 – Great recovery from rain
Even my two flame acanthus bushes are coming back which the hummingbirds love. Don’t worry, I pulled all those invasives in the back of the garden out. Especially that tall monster in the center.
June 7, 2021 – Aphids on the milkweeds – Oh no you don’t! I made a soap/water concoction to spray on the aphids and although it took care of them, it also just about did my milkweeds in. They all shriveled up and dried out but amazingly they all came back. Cathy Johnson had suggested putting flour on them the next time.
July 19, 2021 – I was beside myself to see the first monarch caterpillar on one of the milkweeds. The excitement and adrenaline overwhelmed me.
After seeing white wing doves among other birds hanging around my garden, I covered it with an enclosure I already had from when I was protecting some black swallowtail caterpillars on my dill last year.
July 20, 2021 – The last couple of days I have been obsessed with checking on the caterpillar several times a day and found two more on the other milkweeds and placed another enclosure over those. Unfortunately, that side didn’t have as many milkweed leaves so again I sought advisement from Cathy and she said I could try sliced organic cucumbers.
July 22, 2021 – They are major munchers! I am beginning to worry if there is enough milkweed so I added more sliced organic cuccumbers.
July 22, 2021 – Found more caterpillars for a total of six. Two on the other side and four in the first enclosure where I spotted the first one.
July 23, 2021 – Armyworm eating the caterpillars’ milkweed. I relocated it before it was ID’d.
July 24, 2021 – Cathy suggested providing some shade so I cut out old cotton t-shirts and used clothes pins to attach to enclosures.
July 24, 2021 – Looks like it is looking for the perfect spot to begin the transformation.
July 24, 2021- These beauties are getting bigger by the day.
By the next day the milkweeds were completely devoured. Now I’m panicking.
I decided to take cuttings from the milkweeds on the opposite side of the garden and place in cut water bottles with tape along the top with a hole only big enough for the stem to fit so that the caterpillars wouldn’t be able to fall or get inside the water filled bottles.
Now this one is looking for the perfect spot to transform.
July 25, 2021 – The floral vials I ordered came in so I took more cuttings of the milkweeds from the opposite side of garden.
By the next day, all but one of the caterpillars got out of the enclosures. I looked all over to see where they may have gone to begin their transformations but I could not locate any of them. This is the last of the six.
July 26, 2021- The last one that stayed inside the enclosure has begun to form the “J” which is the beginning of the transformation to a chrysalis.
As I take a closer look, I notice a trail of ants that ended on the caterpillar. I’m frantically trying to figure out how to get rid of them without harming the caterpillar which is beginning to transform. I did not see one ant this whole time until now. I laid out ant bait traps in their path and notice they are all over the caterpillar. Cathy suggested gently drizzling water over the caterpillar to try and get them off, which I did, but in a manner of minutes the poor thing was devoured, resembling a dry shell and ultimately did not survive. I was heartbroken and devastated.
- Have plenty of milkweed so I won’t be scrambling to make sure there is enough.
- Transplant the milkweed I currently have into pots, so that I can move the whole pot into the enclosures and move them to a safe location free from birds, armyworms, ants, etc.
- Learn more about how to keep the habitat clean to prevent any bacteria or diseases.
- Learn more about what to do if they do survive to form a chrysalis, as well as when they become a butterfly: caring for it and when and where to release it.
It took me a couple of months to even talk about this, let alone write a blog about it. What started as complete utter excitement and joy turned to such disappointment and sadness. However, I will not let all this be for nothing. I learned a great deal on this short-lived journey, and it truly amazes me that any caterpillars survive against all the odds. Now, every time I see a monarch butterfly I get that glimmer of hope, knowing how strong they are and that they will prevail!