environment,  science

wildflowers, mealybugs and monarchs

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Two monarch caterpillars are eating their way up red milkweed leaves.Two years ago my family drove down to a wildflower farm so we could fill our front garden with some of Ontario’s wildflowers. Of course it wasn’t until after we had replanted them and watched them grow for a year that I started to recognize the exact same plants growing wild across the street, and down the road from us. Should I fill silly for spending money on “weeds”? No, it is on the education, for it wasn’t until I was tending to my own labeled plants did I really learn to recognize them.

Big and bushy, they fill the yard with life. Insects love them. We watch ants farming aphids on the Joe Pye Weed. We found funny little white mealybugs, which led us to reading up about how the citrus mealybug contains two bacteria symbionts. Then some beautiful little yellow birds seem to delight in eating the insects so we get to watch them too.

And now, finally we have caterpillars! Monarch butterfly caterpillars start out so incredibly tiny that it is unbelievable to me that any of them survive. I counted five or six tiny little things hiding next to the flower buds and then after a few days they were gone and, I assumed, eaten. Yet the just a few days ago they reappeared from wherever they were hiding. They were no longer tiny but child-finger sized, probably on their fifth skin. They hung upside down, the leaves they are on bending downwards under their weight, nibbling away at the tips until they eat their way back to the stalks. They leave little lumps of caterpillar poop – little sets of three lumps together – on some of the leaves. They don’t make their chrysalis on the milkweed but go wandering first, so we can’t easily find their chrysalis. Four have left us already, only the half-eaten and a fifth will very soon. Three more are on their third skins, still eating near the flowers.

The little things are so miraculous. Reading about monarchs from the book Monarch Magic by Rosenblatt, we read that they turn almost completely into liquid within their chrysalis (like Odo, from Star Trek DS9, my eight year old says). We’ve noticed that one of the monarchs has lost an antenna, and the children are concerned about whether it will survive as a butterfly or whether there’s any chance that when it metamorphosis it might grow another one. We’re hoping that the imaginal disc necessary to make a new antenna isn’t in the old one.


(Click here to go to a post I wrote after finding a monarch butterfly a few weeks later…)

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