Thanks to a cry for help from one of Jeff’s friends, I am back in the business of raising butterflies. It started last month with the batch of monarch and queen caterpillars that came to me in a little plastic tub and has grown to 6 species that I bring in from the yard and from periodic deposits from Jeff’s butterfly buddy.
With excess pesticide use, habitat infringement, and loss of native plants, butterfly populations across many species are in decline. Factor in coincident natural disasters and some areas have experienced sharp declines, like the over 80% population decline of the monarch in California. In the last 3 years, I have done a lot to try to provide a safe space for pollinators. I use little to no pesticides, mix in native plants with my veggies and tropical splurges, and have been working to balance desired bugs with invasive or destructive species through integrated pest management and similarly low-impact methods. I see a large number of bees and have been seeing more lacewings and lady beetles. I also see a good number of caterpillars on the larval hosts, but I rarely see them get to the chrysalis stage – the many lizards, frogs, and birds feast on the fat little bugs. In the wild, the average survival for a butterfly larva is usually less than 5%. When I bring them inside, this exceeds 90% for monarchs and swallowtails and probably greater than 75% for other species.
I first became enchanted with monarchs when I was in 2nd grade at the Old Mission Peninsula school in Michigan. My classmates would collect fat caterpillars off of the playground milkweed and we would watch them transition to butterflies. I was never lucky enough to get my own bug. Over 30 years later, this fascination was rekindled when I planted milkweed in the garden and started to attract some fat little Monarch larvae. A friend saw my pictures on Facebook and suggested I get a butterfly house to raise the little bugs indoors. I did exactly that and we watched several little caterpillars transition to beautiful butterflies that we released in the garden. Since then we have had ups and downs in dealing with hydration issues, parasites, and NPV disease – so far I seem to have worked out some of these kinks to have more consistently healthy bugs. I’m not sure how many we have released so far, but little by little we are making a dent in rebuilding the population.
These seem to be the pansies of the butterfly world – they are so much less likely to make it to chrysalis or to successfully emerge. They are overall more flimsy and soft to handle compared to the other species. Fortunately in the last few weeks, we have been having more successes – hopefully my new method of hydration is what is doing the trick!
Have I had any of these?? I only just learned that there is a species of butterfly that is very close to the Queen. Slightly different striping in the larvae and fewer spots and more brown color in the butterfly. All of my pictures of adults appear to be of Queens. The reason I was looking into this in the first place is that I have so many different looking Queen caterpillars that I began to wonder if I had some different species mixed in. This is when I learned that there are several different appearances to the Queen larvae despite the end result still being a typical Queen.
I found these guys by accident on my tall Bahama Cassia bush. When I brought them in and let them transition, I got these beautiful sulfur butterflies. I *think* they are Orange-Barred Sulfur, though the larvae also look similar to the Cloudless Sulfur. These bugs are strong! Whenever I move them from old to new plants or have to handle for any reason, they put up a strong fight! They also seem to transition easily without illness – the biggest risk seems to be cannibalism between the very large and very small bugs.
I have loads of these bugs on the passion fruit vines. They are most likely to make it to chrysalis stage outdoors – I think this is simply from sheer numbers. When I track individuals, then I lose them far more often than not – likely to the lizards and frogs. Indoors, I have variable success. They also seem prone to dehydration and being a little pansy-ish. When I feed them the more succulent smaller leaves, they do better.
I have only had a few of these so far. Despite seeing many of the butterflies in the yard, I rarely find the larvae. Fortunately the few I have raised have been pretty sturdy so far.
These are my toughest of the bunch! I have a plant growing in the yard called Aristolochia gigantea, the Giant Dutchman’s Pipe. It makes flowers as big as my face!!
The plant is also bitterwseet in that it is poisonous to many swallowtail species that might try to use it as a larval host. I can’t say that I have seen other species on this plant yet. So far, I have only seen these Polydamas Swallowtails that thrive on it. I’d like to grow some native Aristolochias but they are hard to find! I bought some seeds off of Amazon that didn’t do so well. Anyway, these caterpillars are even bigger pigs than the monarchs! They also have almost a 100% rate of transition to butterfly – great little bugs! If I can’t get a yard full of Monarchs and Queens, then maybe it will be full of Polydamas.
I have had many in the garden eating my dill. This year I plan to start intentionally raising them! I have noticed with the other plants, bringing the larvae indoors helps me to focus the plant destruction. The bugs more efficiently eat the plants in the butterfly houses instead of leaving me with patchy leaves outside. It gives me a good balance to preserving plant and butterflies at the same time – maybe it will help to preserve some of the dill.
My next effort will be to find Atalas (we have a large coontie plant across the street that I can use for food) and create a hospitable environment for some more rare butterflies like the Miami Blue. I should also see if I can rig a different place for the butterflies so they aren’t in the bedroom (Eastern light and no cats)!!