And…They’re Off!

I released the last two Queen butterflies this week.  I brought a total of nine caterpillars into my house, mostly Queens, and one Monarch.  You can read about why I would do such a thing here and here. Three of those, all Queens, metamorphosed in the house and at least two, outdoors.

Two of the caterpillars died in the larval stage, but I’m not quite sure how many died as chrysalides.  I watched all of them for longer than the 10-14 days that is the normative time for the process and decided to remove two stems with four chrysalides to my compost pile, assuming that the very darkened chrysalides were dead.  Since I tend to be a rather lazy composter, I don’t routinely dig in new compostable material underneath the old, but rather, I dump on top.  In this situation, that was a good thing.  I checked the stems-with-chrysalides, just out of curiosity, a day or two later, and the two chrysalis shells I located were broken–not squishy as if they’d died, but actually broken as if a butterfly had emerged. My hope is that they did survive and emerge.  That’s what I’m choosing to believe and there’s nothing like a good rationalization to get through the day.

I couldn’t locate the other stem with chrysalides though. They may have actually died.  I now know that one must be careful in handling caterpillars because bacteria can damage, but I wasn’t aware of that before this little save-the-butterflies project started.  All of the chrysalides that I assumed were dead had darkened,

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…and two of them were very dark and unhealthy looking, indeed.  So I pinned my hope on the last two chrysalides, one on a stem and the one above the window.

Window chrysalis opened early Monday morning and Sir Queen unfolded from his cozy pupa.

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Buddha-fly was female, Sir Queen is male.  Note the two dark spots on each hind wing?  Those are scent spots indicative of a male.

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Monarchs sport similar markings–both Queen and Monarchs are in the.butterfly subfamily of Danainae.

It was cold earlier this week and I decided not to release him.  Once I was confident that his wings were dry, I invited him onto my finger and placed him in a protected makeshift butterfly cage–I have cats (the feline sort) so, yeah, I think that was the responsible butterfly nanny thing to do.   Using instruction from a December 3, 2013 post by Texas Butterfly Ranch, I attempted to feed him, but he never showed interest.  Butterflies won’t eat in the first 24-48 hours, but Sir Queen never ate in my presence.IMGP2932.new

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It was an instructive and remarkable experience, hosting this handsome fellow and his lady friend the week before.  I observed closely his beautiful markings, how he’d turn his head toward me when I was near, and the intricate patterns throughout his wings, thorax and abdomen.  One can’t appreciate a butterfly in nature like this–they fly away!  And eat!  And do other butterfly related things!

Though it continued chilly and cloudy this week,  I decided on Wednesday that it was better for him to be out there instead of in here.  It was warmer and I placed him on some still blooming Henry Duelberg Sage, Salvia farinacea, ‘Henry Duelberg’.

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He didn’t seem all that impressed, but there wasn’t much more I could do, except hope he eventually unrolls his proboscis and gets to work, sipping nectar.

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He was still there when I returned later in the afternoon, not having moved much.

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I hope he’ll be okay.

Yesterday afternoon I lumbered into the butterfly room, formerly my son’s room to, ahem, pack up more stuff and…Wow!

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Another boy butterfly!

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Sir Queen, the Second!

I’d noticed that the chrysalis, while darkening, developed clearly defined dots and lines and I wondered if the adult would appear–I’m glad I didn’t banish it to the compost.

I quickly ushered him outdoors as it was late in the day.  Here they are together in a nice bed of Gregg’s Mistflower–Sir Queen the First and Sir Queen the Second.

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May both fly high, nectar much, mate with abandon, and prosper.

Would I do this again, snatching caterpillars and raising them in the house?  I’m not sure. Considering that our weather hasn’t been all that cold, coupled with the questionable survival rate of “my” caterpillars, I wish I’d left them outside to take their chances. Their bodies would have slowed down with the lower temperatures, but they wouldn’t have been disturbed.  At least not by me.  Maybe they would have become bird food, but that’s part of the cycle.  NOT part of the cycle is a crazed, OCD gardener snipping them and their food source out of the garden and plunking them in a room with two bright pink walls and two neon green walls–and a Jimi Hendrix poster.

For myself, it was a gift to observe the process so intimately–larvae, pupae, adults. This business of metamorphosis is awesome–in the true sense of that word. The beauty of each stage and the intricate changes throughout–I’m fortunate to have had the time and awareness to witness this common, but remarkable, natural event.

Maybe one of the Sir(s) Queen will find Buddha-fly and they’ll cruise off together, wings entwined, into the sunset.

 

Buddha-fly Emerges!

I have nice neighbors who take care of my dog and cats (and often, parts of the gardens) when I travel. I feel fortunate in with this arrangement. They help me, I help them–that’s what community is about, right?  When I traveled from home over the Thanksgiving weekend, I mentioned to my neighbors that at least one of the butterflies I’ve been nannying was likely to emerge.  This concerned Kind Neighbors;  I think they visualized opening the Butterfly Room (formerly Son’s Room) and clouds of the winged lovelies would flit about the house. I assured Kind Neighbors that at most, only one would emerge and it wouldn’t do much, if any, flying until I arrived home.  And sure enough,  a newly emerged Queen butterfly awaited my return.

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Buddha-fly!

Initially I found her near to the floor, away from where she’d morphed on the little Buddha statue.  An easy and safe (for the butterfly) way to pick up any newly emerged adult butterfly is to wet your finger, then gently place it in front of the insect’s legs–he or she will usually climb right aboard.  My husband picked her up and she proceeded to flit about on his shirt,

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…and arm.

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She’s a female Queen;  she lacks the dark scent spots that a male Queen would have on the hind wings. IMGP2857.new

 

We escorted her to the back garden and placed her on a blooming Tropical Sage,

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…where she stayed for just a few minutes before flying to a cluster of Inland Sea OatsIMGP2865.new

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Toward sundown I noticed she’d migrated to a nearby patch of Gregg’s Mistflower,

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…and that was the last I saw of her.

Good nectaring, flying, and breeding, Buddha-fly!

Danaus Perplexus

Oops.

Sometimes, excitement over a particular project gets the better of me.  You know how it is: a thing happens and you assume about that thing, to realize later that oops, your assumption was, well, a bit off-base.

So it is with my Monarch musings of recent posts.  Specifically, the adventures of snipping some milkweed with attached caterpillars prior to a predicted freeze and settling them into my son’s vacated room for their metamorphosing process.  Turns out, most of the caterpillars are Queen butterflies, Danaus gilippus, and not Monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus.

It’s an easy mistake to make as they are both members of the same butterfly sub-family, Danainae.  They look similar, in both larval and adult stage, feed on the same host plant (milkweed) and share similar life-cycle events.  Interestingly, I’ve never had problems telling the two species apart in the adult butterfly stage, though many people do.  The adult Monarch is about a third larger, flies higher and with a different flight pattern, and sports “stripes,”

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…rather than “dots.”

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But I haven’t had all that much experience in viewing the larval stage.  That’s the thing about insects–they do their insect thing(s) and we humans don’t pay much attention unless those insect things are really obvious–you know, like flying around and landing on flowers.  It’s hard for us to miss that.

In my defense, I assumed that the ‘pillars were Monarchs because I’d seen a Monarch female lay eggs on the milkweed.  Additionally, I haven’t had as many Queens visit my gardens year, though they’re usually very common.  In retrospect, I remember observing a Queen at about the same time the Monarchs were migrating through, but don’t recall any egg-laying behaviors.

Not in my favor is the fact that I usually check and double-check my identifications because I’m not particularly confident in my wildlife critter knowledge.  When I observe a wild creature in my gardens, I usually check local sources first, like Austin Bug Collection, and then double-check the identification with a more comprehensive site like the excellent BugGuide.net, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, or Butterflies and Moths of North America.  Often I research further, comparing my photos and observations with varying sites–to avoid obvious mistakes.

In this case, I recognized that the one caterpillar that is a Monarch was different–I just didn’t follow-up on my visual observations.  I noticed he was larger, with slightly different color patterns, and that he only had two tentacle pairs–a pair of antennae near the head and a tentacle pair further down the abdomen.  The “other” cats had three sets: one set of antennae and two sets of tentacles.  You can clearly see the difference in this photo.

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I just didn’t pay close enough attention, nor did I intellectually process my observations. This kind of critter identification faux pas is one motivation behind hosting the Wildlife Wednesday garden blogging meme–to better my own citizen scientist abilities.

Well, this Monarch nannying was a big FAIL with that goal.  Bummer.  I’m not a scientist. 

In some ways, I’m glad that what I am nannying are Queens. Granted, Queens aren’t  as cool and sexy and important as the beleaguered Monarchs.  But, whatever hatches has a greater chance of normal survival–Queens can live year-round in South Texas and Austin is at the northern range of that year-round habitat.   If the caterpillars were Monarchs, the chances of a successful very late migration and overwinter survival in Mexico would be slim. Not impossible, but unlikely.  That these are Queens means that at the very least, they’ll hang around, nectar, and live out their life.

All that said, Mr. Nine Lives, aka Monarch larva, is not going to make it.  He’s currently curled up on the windowsill.  No photo here–let’s preserve some dignity. I don’t know why he’s dying.  It might be that I wasn’t careful when I handled him, that I didn’t wash my hands and transferred germs which caused illness, or that his thunk on the wooden floor and/or his dip in the water where the milkweed cuttings reside, did him in. I think the other chrysalides are progressing normally though.  I’ll report again on…whatever happens.

Despite my identification mistake and my limitations as a scientist (which are profound), I value and marvel at the beauty and miracle of the metamorphosis process. I’m grateful to witness this natural phenomenon.

Thanks to Michelle at Rambling Woods for setting me straight and teaching me something new!