As I write, nine monarch butterfly caterpillars are alive and growing on my dining room table in Bloomfield, NJ. About a week ago my wife, Jane Califf, was working outside in our flower garden when she saw the first monarch butterfly we have seen this year. She called me to see it, and when we went back out, we were very pleased to see another one show up and the two of them fly together above and close to us for 10-15 minutes.
We were even more pleased when we saw them alighting on several of the dozens of milkweed plants growing in our garden. Jane knew enough to know that what was happening was the depositing of eggs, usually on the underside of milkweed leaves.
She also knew, having learned from our good friend and expert in saving monarchs, author Trina Paulus, that we should try to find those eggs and take them inside before spiders found and ate them, or birds ate the emerging caterpillars. Raising monarchs indoors results in a 98% success rate. The opposite is true if left outdoors. (Trina has been raising monarchs for years. One year, before monarchs were threatened with extinction, she raised close to 1,000 and then released them in a community ceremony.)
The eggs are white, raised spots the size of a head of a pin. In a short while, a tiny caterpillar emerges and starts eating the milkweed. You can find them by noticing small round holes in the milkweed and checking under the leaf. A magnifying glass can help.
We brought in the eggs over a week ago, and now we can see beautiful caterpillars, with yellow, black and white rings all up and down their bodies. We have continued to feed them milkweed leaves as needed, increasingly at the rate of one leaf per day. They have grown fast!
We are keeping them in separate, small and circular, plastic see-through containers, the kind that lots of food comes in at the supermarket. We put the top on loosely, not tight, to be sure they’re getting some air. We also had found a small monarch caterpillar that we put in its own plastic container, and just yesterday morning we found it transforming from a caterpillar into the pupa or chrysalis stage. It attached itself to the underside of the plastic top, first turning dark in a “J” formation, and soon into a jade green oval. For the next 10-12 days it will hang there as it turns into a butterfly.
We will soon have nine monarchs, if all goes well! As they begin to emerge from each chrysalis, we’ll put the plastic tops they’re hanging from between two large books on end to be sure there’s enough space for their wings to unfold without hitting anything. (To pick one up, you put your finger next to its face and it will crawl onto it. Then you can put them into a container to take outside to release onto bushes or flowers.)
This is rewarding work. Observing this miraculous process of new life, growth and birth into a beautiful monarch is very special. And it feels good to be making a small contribution, along with thousands of others around the country, to this effort to keep this species alive.
Jane and I have been following the saga of the seriously threatened monarch population for years. An article, “Battle for Butterflies” by Laura Tangley, at the National Wildlife Federation website says: “According to scientists, the continent’s monarch population has declined by more than 80% from its average during the past two decades—and by more than 90% from its peak of nearly one billion butterflies in the mid-1990s.”
As climate activists, we have learned that one of the reasons for this decline is climate disruption and extreme weather. But the most direct reason is the sharp decline in milkweed in the US Midwest.
Why has this happened? Milkweed is the only plant which monarch caterpillars can eat. Tangley reports: “Milkweeds—along with the nectar plants monarchs need to fuel migration—have fallen prey to changes in Midwestern farming practices. The most detrimental has been development and increased planting of corn and soybeans genetically engineered to survive applications of the herbicide glyphosate, or Roundup. The near ubiquitous use of “Roundup Ready” crops today allows farmers to apply the herbicide widely, killing off milkweed and other native plants that once thrived between crop rows and along the edges of millions of acres of agricultural land.
“Milkweed losses also have been driven by the massive conversion of grasslands, rangelands and former conservation reserves to monocultures of corn and soybeans—a change propelled in large part by federal pressure to develop ethanol as an alternative fuel.”
Without question there is a need for active work to build the movement for very different agricultural practices and, indeed, agricultural ownership. Corporate agriculture is not sustainable, for humans or many other species, including monarchs.
At the same time, right now, people who have land or access to it can grow milkweed. Think and act globally, grow milkweed (and raise monarchs!) locally! You can find a lot of information on the Internet about raising monarchs and organizations trying to save them (as well as bees) from extinction.