Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cottonwoods and Caterpillars

Mt. Cottonwoodseed -- :)

It's that 'snow-capped peaks' time of year here in my neighborhood -- when road construction dumps mountains of black dirt in the sink hole across the street and cottonwood seeds fall gently to blanket them in drifts.

So pretty, if I do say so myself.... :)


And if the cottonwood seeds are flying, then so must the butterflies, as this is the time of year when the amazing Monarchs return to Minnesota after overwintering in Mexico.

I saw my first Monarch butterfly here about 3 weeks ago, and the following day I discovered eggs on my garden's milkweed stalks, and the day after that I found the first hatchlings. At that time, seeing them meant bifocals and a magnifying glass. But not anymore.

What started out as half a dozen new mouths to feed quickly multiplied, bringing us from 6 to 60 caterpillars in a matter of just a couple of days....

Caterpillar chaos

I've been raising Monarch caterpillars annually for ages. I learned to do so as a child by a wonderful neighbor lady who shared her caterpillar raising experiences with me and my mother, and I went on to pass them along to my own daughters. Now my eldest grandchild is involved and already has three years of Butterfly Bootcamp under her belt.

The caterpillars I've found so far this year have been brought inside where I've divided them all into plastic beer cups, three to a cup. (When they're still this small, it's just easier to feed them that way; when they're bigger I'll give them each their own cup.) Into each cup goes a fresh milkweed leaf. Then a coffee filter is placed over the top and secured with a rubber band.

And now the fun really begins!

From now until the caterpillars make their chrysalises they'll need to be fed multiple times a day. Since they take up real estate in my kitchen most cooking ceases. Drawers are pulled out and baking sheets are put across them to form additional horizontal work surfaces. With James helping me the two of us can usually clean and feed a kitchen full of caterpillars in an hour. Then we get a break before the next wave of feeding begins. The year we raised close to 300 butterflies, feeding and caring for them in their caterpillar stage was a full-time job.

This year my amazing stand of garden milkweed has been devastated by something (or perhaps it's lived out its lifetime) and I've had to harvest leaves from a nearby wetland to feed this horde. It's a mile walk there and back again, and unless I harvest whole plants and keep bouquets of them in vases of water I'll have to make the trip at least three times a day.... Not complaining (I need the exercise!), but it seems that no sooner do I feed the last caterpillar than the first one is ready for another leaf!

See what I mean??
I'm sure there are all sorts of ways to streamline the process but this way works best for me. If any caterpillar is diseased or is host to a parasitic fly, I'm able to target that individual and dispose of it before any others are infected. And pupating caterpillars are contained so I'm not discovering chrysalises on my cupboard door handles (or worse....).

In my head it seems like this phase will last forever but in reality it'll have settled down greatly by the weekend. Even now a number of these hungry hungry hippos are hanging upside-down from their coffee filters, in 'J'-formation prior to creating their chrysalises. At that time I'll get a brief break before they 'ripen' and hatch and begin producing Round Two: the generation of Monarchs that will leave Minnesota for Mexico when they migrate.

Any visitor to my house during Butterfly Season I'm sure must walk away shaking their head. But oh well! Welcome to my personal obsession.

Could be worse, right? I could collect books! Wait....

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