Butterfly Conclave

With the sun’s penchant for playing hide-n-seek in recent weeks, it’s been a slow-go for butterfly watching.  If it’s not vomiting rain, it’s cloudy, and neither scenario is conducive for butterfly activity.   But during the increasingly common moments of sunshine, the winged jewels are out and about, nectaring, mating and laying eggs–and posing for garden paparazzi.

This Giant Swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes, enjoyed a treat at the flowers of my Mexican Orchid Tree.


Black Swallowtail,  Papilio polyxenes, like this gorgeous specimen,


…are common visitors.  I’ve invited them by having their host plant, fennel, in my gardens.  They lay their eggs on it for the hatched caterpillars to eat.  This adult  is nectaring on a Henry Duelberg Sage,  Salvia farinacea ‘Henry Duelberg’. He fluttered still long enough for the wildlife gardener to snap a couple of shots.

IMGP7656.new IMGP7657.new

There was one, ONE, Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, who visited my gardens this spring, but she was a late-comer.IMGP7970.new

Given her good condition, I’m sure she was one that hatched from a parent who overwintered in Mexico, migrated north, mated, laid eggs and died here in Austin, or nearby.

IMGP7971_cropped_2170x2783..new I’m certain that she’s on her way north now, ready to continue the generations that will eventually summer in Canada, before the autumn migration south to Mexico.

In this post I’m going for the big, gorgeous, cheap-thrill butterflies that alight on flowers, remain relatively still and that anyone can take photos of.  There have been plenty fast-flying skippers and smaller butterflies/moths that I haven’t captured in digital form for posterity, but there are some nice shots of this little moth.IMGP8177.new

The Small Pink MothPyrausta inornatalis, is another regular in my garden and so pretty in its pink scales.

IMGP8178_cropped_2710x2728..new The generous rainfall and soft spring have encouraged an abundance of life in the garden and after years of moderate to severe drought here in Central Texas, that life is welcome.  I hope the insects in your garden are enjoying spring and playing their important pollinator roles–ensuring the balance that is challenged on so many fronts.

Monarchs On The March!

It’s more like they’re on the wing–winging their way north, that is.  A quick bit of news about the North American Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, from Texas Butterfly Ranch:


Scientists and citizen scientists report that the Monarchs left their wintering roosts in the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico on March 24th.   Whoop!!   My garden is  ready for the incredible migratory insects with Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica that overwintered in my gardens and is sprouting new growth,IMGP6681.new

…and a couple of new, one-gallon plants of the same, with more foliage, ready for eggs and larvae.IMGP6685.new

Additionally, Austin’s fabulous local nursery, Barton Springs Nursery, now has a regular supplier of native milkweed and my gardening/blogging buddy, TexasDeb at austin agrodolce, kindly picked up a couple of A. tuberosa for me recently, which I popped into the ground this past weekend.

IMGP6687_cropped_2890x2705..new IMGP6686.new

The Asclepias species of plants are the host plant for the Monarch, which cannot survive without it.  I’ve ordered a flat of native milkweed to plant in my spot of the world and to share, from monarchwatch.org, but I don’t know when it will arrive.  That organization is now selling four-inch pots of native milkweed throughout North America, with delivery dates in spring.  I hope I receive the milkweed soon, preferably before the Monarchs arrive in Central Texas, but if not, the plants will be here in  fall and hopefully, beyond.

The Monarchs headed to Central Texas are those who left Canada in September, migrated southward across North America and into Mexico for winter. They are the longest surviving Monarch generation, living 7 to 9 months. That generation will migrate to and mate in Texas, lay eggs and die. Monarchs lay their eggs on the milkweed plants, the larvae eat, grow,  morph to adulthood and the adults of the next generation move northward, ending in the last Monarch generation of the year hatching in late summer.  That generation  leaves Canada in August/September and migrates several thousand miles south  to Mexico for winter.

It’s a cool and wet spring in Texas this year with lots of blooms, native and otherwise, which is good for the “first” generation that will hatch in the coming 6-8 weeks. Whether there is enough milkweed for the parents to lay eggs is the question and only time and population increase, will tell.  I wrote about the precarious situation of this remarkable insect here, if you’d like to know more about their plight.

You can follow the northward migration by reading Monarch Butterfly Journey North.

Here they come!

IMGP2084.new IMGP2251.new

Danaus Perplexus


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,”



…rather than “dots.”


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.



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!