Raising caterpillars on the porch

After my last blog post, I heard from a reader named Maryann in the comments section: “That plant [Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pictured in the post] doesn’t look like milkweed. I purchased ours from the Environmental Nature Center in Costa Mesa CA. Wondering if it’s different type.”

I’m so glad you noticed that, Maryann. According to scientists, North America has approximately 110 species of milkweed! It’s critical that when you plant milkweed that you use plants native to your area (click here to learn why). In specific relation to the monarch, I pulled this from a New York Times article:

In recent years amateur conservationists have sought to replenish drastic declines in milkweed, the only plant female monarchs lay eggs on. But the most widely available milkweed for planting, the scientists say, is an exotic species called tropical milkweed — not the native species with which the butterflies evolved. That may lead to unseasonal breeding, putting monarchs at higher risk of disease and reproductive failure.

The variety of milkweed in my pictures is called Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and is native to Western North Carolina where I live but not native to California. Always ask before you buy your milkweed. If a plant buyer can’t tell you the species, then you may end up buying something you’ll regret. People need to know what they’re selling and giving away. Believe me, I’ve learned the hard way.

Also a word about plant names. When naming plants in this blog, I first give the common name (what laypeople call a plant) followed by the scientific name (italicized and in parenthesis). Common names can be tricky because people can use the same name for different plants. But a specific plant can only have one scientific name. So when I say Asclepias syriaca, Asclepias is the plant genus that is common to all milkweeds and syriaca is the species of the plant in the photo above. Everyone is on the same page with Asclepias syriaca. (Also, if you use the scientific name around a botanist, you really score brownie points.)

On with the story of my fall butterflies … After finding my first few caterpillars, I had brought them indoors with plenty of milkweed. The next day, I decided it might be best to keep them on our screened-in porch instead. I didn’t want our indoor lighting and heat to negatively impact their internal clocks:

Box on table with caterpillars

I lined the bottom of my box with newspaper for easy clean-up because monarch caterpillars are precious little pooping machines. Or should I say frassing machines since scientists call monarch poops “frass”? Anyway, I knew that I had to find a better enclosure because I already had one caterpillar on the move.

“Where’re you going, kid? I’ve barely gotten to know you.”

I returned the sweet little thing to the box, but Trigglet turned right back around and set out again on walk-about:

caterpillar-cardboard

At that point, I plopped down in a chair with my laptop and searched the internet. I found that many monarch lovers use collapsable mesh laundry baskets as enclosures. So I ordered one and then spent an enjoyable hour or so watching my caterpillar move from the box, across an amaryllis, and up a porch beam. Little did I know that Baby Trigglet was ready to find a place to pupate (go from the caterpillar stage to the chrysalis stage). But why would a caterpillar move away from my simulated milkweed patch to do this? I found the answer online:

Little monarch

In the wild, monarch caterpillars generally move 10-feet to 30-feet away from their milkweed plant to find a sheltered spot to go into their next stage of development.

This is probably a survival instinct mechanism that keeps them safe from all the caterpillar predators trolling the milkweed patch.

I’m going to leave you with a few more pictures of Trigglet’s epic journey. I’ll take up the story again next week. Until then, go to the sidebar on the right and subscribe to this blog because — hooray! — I finally figured out how to put that on the sidebar. Cheers until next week, Heather:

Crawling up a stick

Acrobatic caterpillar

And higher ...

Caterpillar going up and across leaf

up-to-screen

up-the-leaf-to-screen

Final stop:

Last stop before next phase

About MonarchLover

Heather Rayburn is a native of Asheville, NC., and works at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville, a non-profit 10-acre public garden dedicated to the promotion of plants native to the Southern Appalachians. She has a B.A. from UNC-Asheville and a M.S. from the University of Tennessee, both in Mass Communication with a focus on environmental issues and social justice. She's also a dog lover and baker.

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