Wildlife Photography Takes Forever Or How A Monarch Pupa Took Up Residence In My Living Room

I suppose it was meant to be.

I figured out that if I cut a length of Mexican Milkweed about the length of your longest finger and put it in wet soil, there was a good chance it would root and grow.

About 80 to 90% chance of success I have noticed.

Then if you planted them in a sheltered place, they would get to the point where they would look appetizing to a passing Monarch Butterfly, and eggs would get laid on it.

Knowing that the life cycle of a Monarch was short, and that I had only a few Mexican Milkweed plants, I watched them get decimated back to sticks.  They even sampled my Mango tree and some of the Coleus that are near by.

I noticed that I had three pupae forming in the plants that I had found, hopefully more than that.  There were 16 caterpillars feeding on that one sad last plant.

It hasn’t really recovered.   Give it time.

Some of them made it into strange places.  That Mango tree in a pot had one in a very visible spot.

I began video taping the Chrysalis when it began to turn translucent.  They go from a beautiful jade green through translucent, then transparent, and will crack open so that the butterfly can emerge.  It takes about two weeks.

 

I had that camera out there so long that South Florida began to come out of the Dry Season and into the Wet Season that we’re “celebrating” with a vengeance.

Seven Inches of Rain yesterday.

That last dry day though.   The pupa that was on the little Mango tree is no longer.  I went out and checked it and the pupa had vanished.   Bringing in the camera, I looked at the time lapsed video and there was a flurry of action when the disappearance occurred.  A female Cardinal bird had spotted the camera, perched near it, and spotted the pupa hanging under the leaf.  One peck and the pupa was gone.  The bird actually looked into the camera and if it is possible, she smirked at it.

Fine!  Be that way.  I took things into my own hands.

There was a second one that managed to find a home up in a set of wind chimes.  I’m leaving that one alone.  The third one, on the other hand, is now in my house.

But that third chrysalis I am taking care of.

It was on a leaf in my garden.  Specifically a red dracena plant that I had planted as shrubbery under the windchimes that are home to that second chryaslis.

The leaf got cut, brought inside and adhesive taped to a mat that my dog uses for the background.    I had a set up.  I could put the camera on the table and instead of walking all the way to the tripod on the back of the property next to the shed, I could simply turn it on and let it be.  Every time I would walk past the camera, I would inspect the camera and my little companion, and make changes if needed.

That was about 3 days ago.  I’m starting to get cabin fever.  There’s a rhythm to this sort of thing.  It needs to be observed if you want a chance at any success.  A Monarch won’t emerge late at night, so I am effectively “off duty” after dinner.  They want to have the sun to dry their wings and get ready to fly off.

It does not happen in seconds, rather a few minutes to dry, and flap about.  Then they take off.  I will be able to switch off the ceiling fans, and re-position the camera for that scene.

But for now I wait.

It’s not even a guarantee that I will get a successful video.  The creature could die.  There are no errant Cardinal birds in my house, but things sometimes just don’t “hatch”.  It’s pretty reliable that at this point it will hatch, it’s in a controlled environment at 76F and household humidity levels.

It could wander off the frame of the camera, which is close and only as wide as the leaf is.   It could do that when I am out of the house, which I have been fortunate enough not to have to go anywhere for a bit.

But at least I will get the emergence.

If you look closely, you can actually see the distinctive orange and black pattern of the Monarch’s Wings inside the clearing skin of the chrysalis.  So I believe that this one is still alive, and still growing.  Percolating perhaps.

Give it another day or three.  After all, it’s their movie, isn’t it?

And sometimes the story is in the journey and not the destination.

Sixteen Monarch Caterpillars In One Pot

Luckily, I thought to harvest those Milkweed seeds a little while back.

You see, I have a lot of pots strung along the side of the backyard near the swimming pool.  They’re all on a handy drip feed irrigation system that runs 10 minutes a day and delivers gallon per sprinkler head per hour.

Not a lot of waste.

I have a lot of plants there.  All those Milkweed plants that I thought myself lucky to get the seeds from, and I still have a lot of around the house.  Two pots each of Mangos and Bananas.  My “cuttings” pot that I am propagating a lot of strange things like Onions and more Milkweed.

Nothing bothered them until the yard got invaded by Monarch Caterpillars.  You guessed it, Momma Monarch finally found the plants.

All of them.  All at once.

All except the one on the Mango pot.  The leaves are similar to the Mango leaves, and I had that one plant growing against the Mango tree’s trunk as a support.

One by one, the eggs hatched.

One by one, the Milkweed plants got stripped bare of their leaves.

One by one, the Monarch Caterpillars got larger.

Then they ran out of food.  This one plant was the only one left.

This sole pot had sixteen monarch caterpillars in it.  For something that was endangered, I was shocked to see this concentration of caterpillars in one spot.

Then the next day it was only one or two.  They started to move on.

That same evening I found one caterpillar on our windchimes hanging out on the shed.

The next day I found myself presented with a little jewel.  A jade teardrop where that caterpillar had stopped by in that improbable place.

It chose that spot to pupate.

Monarch Butterfly Pupas are a beautiful thing in the light.  They are a translucent jade green.  There are two shimmering iridescent gold spots and a line of iridescent gold specks on the outside.  If you are in full sunlight you may be able to make out the internal form of the just pupated creature, there are structures inside that your mind translates into future wings.

Later when the creature is to take flight in Orange and Black, the pupa becomes clear, and cracks open.  It will expand its wings and fly off perhaps to find more milkweed flowers, if its cousins have not stripped it all bare in the yard.

For now, I’m presented with the little jade jewels.  Shimmering in the strong Florida Sun.

Finally, A Decent Mexican Milkweed Harvest

This rather scruffy looking pile is a lot of hard work.

It’s a bit of a story as well.

You see, I have a bit of a problem with my Mexican Milkweeds.  They’re a little bit of an obsession.

I plant them simply because the Monarch Butterflies like them.

A bit too much.  Quite a lot, actually.  It’s their main food here.

I’m also a short walk from a little pocket park that is devoted to Native South Florida Plants, M.E. DePalma Park.  There are a lot of flowers planted there that belong there.  You know it’s native because you are told – most of the flowers are not at all showy like you’re used to seeing at the garden center.  Walking past that park, you actually can HEAR the difference since all the local insects and animals are happily living in what they’ve adapted to – native species.  In fact, the Mexican Milkweed flowers are one of the larger ones there by virtue of them being a cluster of flowers.

They’re also very tasty to Monarch Butterflies.  We have quite a few of them flying by the house as a result.

The butterflies know they are there.  I’m not certain how, but if your main food plant is important to you you will learn how to pick them out.

And that would be the crux of the matter.  I normally can’t keep them growing here.

I have since found that when the Monarchs lay their eggs there, they will eat from the nectar of the flowers,

leave and the caterpillars will com out a few days later.  Those caterpillars will eat the plant to sticks.

You can propagate those sticks if you take a finger length cutting with one or two leaf buds on them, and stick them into moist soil.

This time though, I was able to get a couple plants to grow to maturity.  The Monarchs did not find them.

It seems that the trick is that if your Milkweed is growing in a sheltered area, the butterflies can’t really find them.

As a result of all that dancing around … I finally have seeds enough for myself, the people who have been supplying me, some to return to the park, and a few to hand out to friends.

The seeds grow quickly and flower fast, but only if they are not seen.  The plants don’t have any evil smell to them so they would grow indoors in a bright window, but you can’t grow indoor plants in South Florida.  Ants would find them and all the sudden you have a colony living in your living room.

Nope.  No indoor plants here.

So my seeds?  They’re happily drying out in my living room.  I’ll be taking a pod with me on one of my many walks.  I can go back to being Johnny Milkweed Seed.  I may even get some more since there are a few pods that have yet to ripen.

But … we won’t tell the Monarchs that, will we?

Mexican Milkweed is Surprisingly Easy to Propagate

Living as close to a nature preserve at M.E. DePalma Park means Monarch Butterflies float past my windows frequently.

I enjoy having them around, but it does mean that the food that I grow for them, Mexican Milkweed, is almost always eaten down to sticks.

It’s a bit frustrating because the cycle of life being what it is, the plants never get to the point where the

seeds will ripen enough to actually be able to replant.

I took a step back and looked at what was happening and realized that these things should be simple to propagate.  It turns out that I was absolutely correct.  Why wait for seeds, just wait for leaves.

The Monarchs being what they are will find the

milkweed, leave an egg or three on it, and move on.  This usually ends up where one sad little plant has three to six caterpillars fighting for food.  It also means that few live long enough to be butterflies.

My own attitude toward gardening is a pragmatic one.  If I have a plant that I like, I will try to propagate it.  If it propagates successfully, I end up having a lot of it.  For example, I am currently using “Screw Palms” or Dracenea Cane plants as ground cover because I have so much of it.  Take a cutting, drive it into semi moist soil to about the depth of your hand, and it almost always roots.

… In My Climate.  Your mileage may vary.

I have a long line of plant pots on a drip feed irrigation line.  This is specifically designed to allow me to grow more plants to take more cuttings to make the yard have more of the same plants.   It was also designed to be within the local watering regulations of a drip feed line – each head should be no more than one gallon per hour for example.

It’s quite successful.

So applying all that noise and technology, here is how I propagated my Mexican Milkweed.   I am seeing about an 80 to 90 percent success rate.

Step 1:  When the Milkweed has been eaten down to sticks, check for plant remnants where there is actually some leaf growth on it.  This will be your mother plant.  See above.

Step 2:  Cut a piece of the plant that has a leaf bud growing on it, that is at least a finger length long.  4 inches or 10 cm would be perfect.  I have had success with a cutting that had two leaf nodes on it.  About 2 inches or 5 cm.  I did not use rooting hormone, but that will only improve your success if you dip the root side of the cutting in the powder.

Step 3:  Push the cutting down into the soil to allow the existing last leaf node or two to show above ground level.

Step 4:  Make sure that the soil is kept moist and that normal growing conditions continue.  Growth should be fast and visible within a week or even a couple days.

Step 5:  When the cuttings begin to show some signs of vigor and begin to put forth new limbs, consider replanting in the ground or another pot.

That’s about it.  I have at least 20 cuttings growing now, and will be starting more when the mother plant puts out some more growth. The result would be like this flower head if ever the Monarchs let it get that far.  Usually this is where I spot the caterpillars doing their thing and turning the plant into Crudite.

Two Monarch Caterpillars

Apparently, I like to grow sticks.

Being where I am, there are Monarch Butterflies around me all year.  Wilton Manors, Florida seems to have a thing about turning itself into a nature habitat.  I’m near a park that is a nature preserve, the M. E. DePalma Park.

I’m lucky that it is handy, that park, because I walk past it frequently looking for seeds for more Milkweed.  I’ve got to borrow some more.  Monarchs are back.

They seem to know.  When the Milkweed just puts forth a flower, I notice them fluttering by my porch looking for a place to lay eggs.  I make it a point to go out back and look at my pots and sure enough under a leaf there is a grain of sand.

Monarch Butterfly eggs are about the size of a grain of sand and have a swirled pattern on top like a Chinese Bun.

The flowers never really come to term.  I almost never get seeds.   The park does, although usually about the time that the park is down to sticks, I sneak in some flowers and may even get a seed or three out of them.

We trade back and forth.

At this point I’m down to sticks.

Orchids are in bloom.

 

 

 

I have a pot of Poinsettia that is hip high, and I am 6’4″ tall.  It is in bloom.

 

 

 

My Coleus is running amok, even if I am recycling this and most of these pictures…

 

 

 

I have Podocarpus ready to plant.

 

 

 

I have red variegated Hibiscus ready to plant.

 

 

 

But that Mexican Milkweed?  That’s what it is there for.  Food for the Monarchs.  The last time I checked there were six caterpillars on one single plant.   Those plants won’t win.

Oh well, at least the Monarchs are happy and I have pictures of some that slipped in there when they weren’t watching last time!

Flying Monarch Butterfly Relocation Program

Flying Monarch Butterfly Relocation Program

At one point I had Mexican Milkweed in my yard in full bloom.  I came down with what was the Flu, and

disappeared for about two weeks.  When I could finally pull my head out of the rabbit hole, I found everything in the yard was in bloom.   Mexican Milkweed was followed by Hibiscus, Bougainvillea, six different types of Orchids, and many other oddball plants.

My “farm” in the backyard was taking well, I could make a really bizarre salad out of a carrot and some green onions, because they were even growing.  Toss in some bamboo shoots for good measure, and it could be an Asian Salad.

Yeah, that much.  I’m in the middle of a Propagation Binge here.  All my plant pots are stuffed with all sorts of things waiting to root and be put into the ground.  Why not, we’re here, we’re going to stay for a while, may as well make it look good.  Summer is coming and therefore the Wet Season so everything will get a good start once in the ground.

That first day, I explored the yard and saw that my Mexican Milkweed also had a ripening seed head.  I’ll toss some seeds in the garden, and go back to tossing them all over the area.  Sometimes they grow, sometimes not.

Fast forward a few days.  My respite from having things eaten had ended and I didn’t realize it yet.

I was inspecting my cuttings.  The easiest way to get things to root is to use rooting hormone.  Then you stick the cutting in a pot, and keep that pot wet until you see growth.  I was seeing growth, but everything was so wet that the cuttings were leaning over.  My Bamboo cuttings especially, leaning to one side because that pot was more like a mud bog and the consistency of pudding.

Working my way down the chain of plant pots that are on the low flow irrigation, I noticed Banana was beautiful, Podocarpus was perky, and even the Milkweed was looking marvelous.

Well, not quite marvelous.  It had been discovered.  At some point during the last week, the Monarchs had started showing back in the neighborhood.  This far south in South Florida, we have “indigenous” Monarchs.  They live here all year around.  I like to watch them, and watch them I did from my bouncy Poang Chair sitting in the front window of the house.  They’d float by on the breezes, and I’d cough at them while healing slowly from the Flu.

There were also the ones that were black and yellow striped Swallowtail butterflies that would dazzle the eyes as they’d flutter past looking for my orange tree to lay eggs to make caterpillars that look like bird crap and have little red antennas.  I tend to flick them off my orange tree.  That tree isn’t doing that well, and losing leaves doesn’t help.

Off in the backyard, the Milkweed was doing its thing, being food for my Monarchs.  However there was

the matter of the seed pod.  I started pulling on it.

Not exactly the right thing to do at that point.  I did get the pod off the plant but the two caterpillars that were battling for supremacy got flung off.  Their black and yellow striped minds had to be thinking that the world had gone mad, or they were on a weird twisted carnival ride.

I rescued them with a Sea Grape leaf the size and shape of a CD.  You have to put the leaf under them and allow them to climb onto it because a Monarch Caterpillar will attempt to hold tight when being pulled away from a plant.  Then your natural reaction is to pull harder and you end up with a bifurcated butterfly that will never happen.

They don’t survive.

I put the two Caterpillars back in the pot and went back to the house thinking  that they may or may not survive unless they learn to eat the coleus that is in that pot.

The pod ended up on a container in the kitchen for the next few days.

Tending to making my breakfast that particular morning, I spotted a worm.  Or at least at first glance I thought it was.  I was going to turn it into worm smear when I got the bright idea to turn on the light.  What I really had was a one day old Monarch Caterpillar the size of an Inchworm.

I finished making coffee, turned the heat off and took the discarded Sweet n Low packet from the counter.  I was going to relocate this little creature to the park near the house.  It had climbed onto the pink paper and I took it out the door, down the block, and placed it onto the leaf of the Milkweed there at M.E. DePalma Park.

Straightening up, I looked down and saw it was on another nameless plant next to it.  Try again.

This time it ended up on the ground.  Try again.

Third time the charm, it was on the little Milkweed, and on its way.  Success!

Two days later, when we walked Rack the McNab SuperDog (TM) past that plant I pointed it out to him and said “There, boy! That’s the Monarch I saved”.  He looked up at me with his brown eyes, wagged his tail and went back to walking down to the yellow flowers to water them again.

All is well, we saved a Monarch after flinging two, stranding another, and probably starving more.  Need to stop growing Bamboo and start more Mexican Milkweed here!

A Meal Fit For A Monarch

I had to take Rack out back.  If I didn’t I’d probably get dragged there by him, to the door.

Breakfast was done, it’s our way.  We go out back, do a perimeter search and poke around.  It gives me a chance to fret over my gardens.

My normal limit for working with the garden is dependent on my flock.  Flock of Mosquitoes, that is.  If they follow me around, I usually blow off staying in one place for very long. 

This was a morning where the winds were calm so I was very mobile.

I have a spot in the back of the yard where the hedges have stopped growing.  The Night Blooming Jasmine that was so perfect when we moved in here 9 years ago is now looking rather scruffy and there are holes in it where parts of the plant had died back.  One of the plants is pretty much gone.

Going into the shed and retrieving the clippers, there was work to be done.  

Before going back to the corner, I was going to trim back some of the Mexican Milkweed in the last pot on the irrigation chain.  That particular pot has one, and only one plant in it.  I can’t get anything else to grow in it, and I can’t even get a second milkweed seed to root in it.  Passive aggressive pot.

But there it is.  It goes through cycles.  Once the flowers come out, it gets discovered by the Monarch Butterflies that shuttle from here to the M.E. DePalma park.  I get to see them often, and any day I don’t see at least one Monarch, it’s a bit strange to me.

Of course it’s shredded.  The plant, if you could be generous enough to call it that, is mostly sticks with a few leaves.  One Monarch to Rule Them All was on it.  It isn’t that there weren’t multiple eggs, it is that the plant never gets large enough for more than one Monarch to grow past the size of a thick hair.

Darwin would be proud of this battle of the fittest, because that is all that ever make it past Caterpillar stage.

There it was dutifully eating away the last few leaves that were on the plant.  The next day the leaves, and the Caterpillar, would be gone.  I prefer to think it found a place to turn itself into a Jade Green Jewel of a chrysalis, but who knows.

I vowed to take the seeds out there and try to start another plant, but I doubt it will succeed.  Each time they get past a few inches, something comes along and eats it.  That would be why I put the stuff there in the first place, food for Monarchs.  If they don’t let it grow, well, that’s their choice.

At least this one had its chance. 

Maybe in that back corner.  The Jasmine doesn’t seem to like it, and that will be gone back there as soon as I get working on it.  It was one trash can full of dead limbs this time alone.