The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

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Tracy G
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The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Tracy G » 08 May 2016, 19:53

I am pretty sure that my own photos will never match the sheer fabulousness of Alwin’s Camera Magica, partly because I do not own a professional macro lens (that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it!).

I nonetheless would like to share a few images that I’ve captured during my pollinator conservation efforts. Much of what I do involves running around with a Canon PowerShot S100 pocket camera and grabbing snapshots of various species of bumblebees and their nests for a citizen science project known as Bumble Bee Watch. But this particular thread is dedicated to monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus.

In May of each year, my husband and I start checking the undersides of milkweed leaves for monarch butterfly eggs and caterpillars. In the wild, their odds of surviving are less than 10 percent. We collect the entire leaf that they’re on and continue feeding them indoors, where we can keep them safe(r) from parasitization and predation until they can be released as adults. The survival rate for the butterflies in our care is about 70–75 percent. We’re aiming for better, but that’s not bad—some of the egg cases turn out to be empty and some of the caterpillars are unfortunately already weak or diseased when we find them. We raised more than 100 last year.

The eggs measure about 1.2 mm high and 0.9 mm wide, with a ridged ovoid shape, and are generally creamy or greenish in color. Here are a couple of pictures which illustrate the appearance of an egg that I discovered beside a parking lot. More images will be coming over the next few weeks...
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“Herein therefore lies our present problem: to find forms of expression for the time-spirit of the seasons in such a way as to enrich the spirit of devotion to the soil, to express and to intensify co-operation with nature.”
...—Ross Nichols, “An Examination of Creative Myth,” in The Cosmic Shape (1946)

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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Tracy G » 08 May 2016, 22:05

Just 3–4 days after the egg is laid, the caterpillar is ready to hatch. It takes only a minute or so for the larva to wriggle free. It then turns around and consumes the eggshell. This is its first source of nourishment, after which it becomes a voracious leaf-munching machine.

This sequence of seven photos was taken in late May 2014, with my pocket camera on a small tabletop tripod and also with a two-second timer delay for each picture (to help eliminate any vibrations from my hands). The caterpillar was 2 mm long.
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“Herein therefore lies our present problem: to find forms of expression for the time-spirit of the seasons in such a way as to enrich the spirit of devotion to the soil, to express and to intensify co-operation with nature.”
...—Ross Nichols, “An Examination of Creative Myth,” in The Cosmic Shape (1946)

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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Alwin » 09 May 2016, 12:33

This is awesome! Thank you very much for sharing these wonderful pictures! :)

As far as I know the eggshell is covered with the necessary gut microflora for the little larva. So it's really essential for them to have it first.
How much leaves do they eat until the pupate? I guess it's quite a large amount you have to provide every day?!
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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Tracy G » 12 May 2016, 18:44

Thanks for your comments, Alwin! It makes a great deal of sense to me that beneficial microflora might be present on the shell. I’ll confess that I haven’t previously come across that idea in any of my reading, though. The conventional wisdom seems to be that monarch larvae eat their eggshells simply because the shells are nutrient-dense.

The larvae pass through five molts prior to pupating, a process that I will illustrate a little further along in this thread. The five intervals of larval development are called instars. During the first few instars, I give them just two leaves daily, and they typically eat relatively small portions of these. I could get away with giving them only one leaf, but they seem to feel more secure when they are tucked out of direct view, and they generally gravitate toward the gap between two overlapping leaves if I provide them with that option.

During the fifth instar, when they are preparing to pupate, they devour about three whole leaves daily. That might not sound like a lot. When I am caring for multiple caterpillars at the height of the season, though, that means I’m investing at least an hour of my time daily to collect and wash the leaves, to clean out the old leaves and the frass (caterpillar poop) that has been deposited in each cup, and to tuck the larvae back in with their meals. All the caterpillars do, all day long, is eat and excrete and sleep and eat some more. Although, I have often looked at them and wondered if they maybe also have some rich inner-caterpillar life that I know nothing about. Perhaps when they are sleeping, they dream of flying free through vast fields of milkweed.
Last edited by Tracy G on 12 May 2016, 18:54, edited 1 time in total.
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“Herein therefore lies our present problem: to find forms of expression for the time-spirit of the seasons in such a way as to enrich the spirit of devotion to the soil, to express and to intensify co-operation with nature.”
...—Ross Nichols, “An Examination of Creative Myth,” in The Cosmic Shape (1946)

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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Tracy G » 12 May 2016, 18:46

So, I’ll be posting some artsier photos soon, but as of this morning, the first pregnant female of 2016 has visited our yard. We now have ten eggs in our little nursery! Generally the females prefer to lay just one egg per plant, but I did find one leaf bearing two eggs. Here is what it looks like at our house when we’re gearing up for butterfly season. Each egg-bearing leaf is now in a 14-oz plastic cup, and I have wrapped a scrap of damp cotton around the stems of the leaves to keep them fresher over the next few days, until the eggs hatch. It is important that the cloth not be too soggy. Excessive moisture can encourage the growth of mold, which is very unhealthy for the larvae.
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“Herein therefore lies our present problem: to find forms of expression for the time-spirit of the seasons in such a way as to enrich the spirit of devotion to the soil, to express and to intensify co-operation with nature.”
...—Ross Nichols, “An Examination of Creative Myth,” in The Cosmic Shape (1946)

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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Tracy G » 24 May 2016, 00:47

I found two more eggs during the afternoon of May 12, for an even dozen altogether. They took a looong time to hatch: eight days. That is slowest for any eggs I've ever collected. It's a temperature-dependent process, and we've been in an unusually cool weather pattern.

All twelve larvae are doing well. Here is a picture of #10, taken just a couple of hours ago. Over the past 2.5 days, the caterpillar has more than doubled its size, from 2 mm to 5 mm. That hole to the left of the ruler represents the portion of the leaf that it ate over the past day or so. The caterpillar will soon molt and transition from the first instar to the second instar.
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“Herein therefore lies our present problem: to find forms of expression for the time-spirit of the seasons in such a way as to enrich the spirit of devotion to the soil, to express and to intensify co-operation with nature.”
...—Ross Nichols, “An Examination of Creative Myth,” in The Cosmic Shape (1946)

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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Tracy G » 24 May 2016, 00:50

And, just for fun, a peek ahead...

This is what they'll look like in only a week or so, in the fourth instar.
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“Herein therefore lies our present problem: to find forms of expression for the time-spirit of the seasons in such a way as to enrich the spirit of devotion to the soil, to express and to intensify co-operation with nature.”
...—Ross Nichols, “An Examination of Creative Myth,” in The Cosmic Shape (1946)

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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby winterfire » 24 May 2016, 06:29

Fascinating thread! Thank you Tracy. Following your 'babies' with interest.

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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Alwin » 24 May 2016, 07:03

This is what they'll look like in only a week or so, in the fourth instar.
This is really cool!
I wonder what the antennae are for? WiFi? :grin:
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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Tracy G » 24 May 2016, 14:27

I wonder what the antennae are for? WiFi? :grin:
Those are the tentacles, bwahaha! The caterpillars have two pairs, one at the front end, and one at the back. But yes, they're sensory organs that receive information.

The antennae are actually stubby little things on either side of the face, near the mouth. They can't be seen very well in my photo above, alas—they're too tiny and too dark. The morphology page at Monarch Watch has diagrams illustrating the parts, along with a scanning electron microscope image of the head.
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“Herein therefore lies our present problem: to find forms of expression for the time-spirit of the seasons in such a way as to enrich the spirit of devotion to the soil, to express and to intensify co-operation with nature.”
...—Ross Nichols, “An Examination of Creative Myth,” in The Cosmic Shape (1946)

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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Tracy G » 24 May 2016, 17:06

Caterpillar #2 is a slowpoke, but all of the other eleven larvae have successfully molted into their second instars this morning.

The caterpillars shed their exoskeletons in two parts: a softer body casing and a rigid head capsule. The photo below shows caterpillar #8 just minutes after its first molt. The head capsule is the shiny black ball to the left, and the body casing is the crumpled charcoal-gray blob in the background to the right. I apologize for the less-than-optimal image quality—I'm in a bit of a hurry this morning, so these were quick handheld snapshots that I took. The focus is not as sharp as I'd like, but it's still possible to see the weird translucent areas of the head and legs that are characteristic of the caterpillar's coloring shortly after molting.
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“Herein therefore lies our present problem: to find forms of expression for the time-spirit of the seasons in such a way as to enrich the spirit of devotion to the soil, to express and to intensify co-operation with nature.”
...—Ross Nichols, “An Examination of Creative Myth,” in The Cosmic Shape (1946)

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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Tracy G » 24 May 2016, 17:10

And here's caterpillar #1, who was about an hour further along in its development than #8, and thus sporting the standard black-and-white striping on its head. The body length for the larvae this morning is now about 6 mm. I love their cute little baby tentacles at this stage.
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“Herein therefore lies our present problem: to find forms of expression for the time-spirit of the seasons in such a way as to enrich the spirit of devotion to the soil, to express and to intensify co-operation with nature.”
...—Ross Nichols, “An Examination of Creative Myth,” in The Cosmic Shape (1946)

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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Tracy G » 24 May 2016, 18:40

To illustrate what will happen over the next several days, I'm going to pull up some pictures from my archives. What a week, I swear... how is it even possible that the IRS misplaced our entire 2015 income tax return except for a single, small scrap of paper that is one of our four W-2 forms?

Anyways, while I go grapple with that issue offline, here are a four more pictures to spread a little butterfly cheer.

Today is Tuesday, and the caterpillars will probably enter the third instar on Thursday or Friday. At that point, they will be about 9 mm (0.35 inch) long. It's easier to spot the old exoskeleton on the leaf at this stage. In these next two photos, the molted body casing is the gray thing in the foreground to the left. Here's a third-instar caterpillar fresh after molting...
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Last edited by Tracy G on 24 May 2016, 18:48, edited 1 time in total.
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“Herein therefore lies our present problem: to find forms of expression for the time-spirit of the seasons in such a way as to enrich the spirit of devotion to the soil, to express and to intensify co-operation with nature.”
...—Ross Nichols, “An Examination of Creative Myth,” in The Cosmic Shape (1946)

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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Tracy G » 24 May 2016, 18:41

...and the same caterpillar after it has sat very quietly in place for 40 minutes while completing the transition.
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“Herein therefore lies our present problem: to find forms of expression for the time-spirit of the seasons in such a way as to enrich the spirit of devotion to the soil, to express and to intensify co-operation with nature.”
...—Ross Nichols, “An Examination of Creative Myth,” in The Cosmic Shape (1946)

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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Tracy G » 24 May 2016, 18:43

Entry into the fourth instar should occur not later than Sunday. Starting in the fourth instar, and increasingly in the fifth instar, the larvae become more restless. They begin to explore their cups more actively, searching for the most congenial spot to pupate. So that we don't end up with chrysalises hanging from the undersides of our cupboards and whatnot, we keep them corralled by securing nylon netting over the tops of the cups with canning rings.
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“Herein therefore lies our present problem: to find forms of expression for the time-spirit of the seasons in such a way as to enrich the spirit of devotion to the soil, to express and to intensify co-operation with nature.”
...—Ross Nichols, “An Examination of Creative Myth,” in The Cosmic Shape (1946)

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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Tracy G » 24 May 2016, 18:45

If we zoom in closer, it's possible to see the lacy mat of silk that the caterpillar weaves as it explores. The silk helps the caterpillar maintain its footing on the side of the cup as it surveys its surroundings.
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“Herein therefore lies our present problem: to find forms of expression for the time-spirit of the seasons in such a way as to enrich the spirit of devotion to the soil, to express and to intensify co-operation with nature.”
...—Ross Nichols, “An Examination of Creative Myth,” in The Cosmic Shape (1946)

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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby JustinR » 24 May 2016, 22:30

This is beyond awesome. We've been trying with some success to encourage milkweed growth on a tiny corner of our property, beside a small bottom where a lot of it grows anyway and wherein we get a few monarchs, but I hadn't given any thought to mortality rates among the larvae. Have you noticed any fluctuations in numbers where you're at this year? I know I've read articles saying late freezes in the south were hard on them this year.
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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby ShadowCat » 26 May 2016, 05:55

I love this.... just letting you know :hug:
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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Tracy G » 28 May 2016, 15:27

Thank you, winterfire and ShadowCat, for your kind replies! All caterpillars are still in their third instar this morning (Saturday) and looking healthy. More photos coming soon.

JustinR, it brings me immense cheer to hear you're growing milkweed, too! Every little bit helps, as I'm sure you know. Our own property is a rather small one. We live on a 50' x 125' lot—pretty much the standard size for working class neighborhoods around here. Some of that area is occupied by our bungalow and garage, and we are also growing a variety of other native and near-native plants, most of which are useful food sources for pollinators. So, that does not necessarily leave a huge amount of space for milkweeds.

Out of curiosity, I just stepped outside and took a quick inventory, and we currently have the following quantities of these five species in our yard:

• Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca): 51 plants
• Swamp (A. incarnata): 6
• Whorled (A. verticillata): 5
• Sullivant's (A. sullivantii): 1
• Butterfly (A. tuberosa): 1

The first two kinds have been the most successful for us, so far, in terms of attracting egg-laying females.

I wish I could answer your question about numbers, but it's too early for me to have a sense of that yet. You're correct that there was a nightmarish storm, with high winds and heavy sleet, at the overwintering sites on March 8–9. Many of the monarchs who were hunkering down on the trees died after they froze or were buried or crushed. Estimates of the losses have varied wildly, though, and nobody seems to know for sure. The good news is that some monarchs had already begun their migration by then, and thus successfully departed the area before the storm hit. Here's an article by Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch that provides more detailed information.

All I can say for now is that the first female to arrive in our area was right on time this year. On average, our first sightings tend to be in mid-May, and that's exactly when she came. I'm choosing to regard that as a somewhat hopeful sign, at least in terms of our own efforts and what we can personally do to help out.
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“Herein therefore lies our present problem: to find forms of expression for the time-spirit of the seasons in such a way as to enrich the spirit of devotion to the soil, to express and to intensify co-operation with nature.”
...—Ross Nichols, “An Examination of Creative Myth,” in The Cosmic Shape (1946)

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Re: The Monarch Butterfly Picture Thread

Postby Alwin » 29 May 2016, 09:32

The antennae are actually stubby little things on either side of the face, near the mouth. They can't be seen very well in my photo above, alas—they're too tiny and too dark. The morphology page at Monarch Watch has diagrams illustrating the parts, along with a scanning electron microscope image of the head.
This is very interesting! It's truly a miracle, how these alien-like caterpillars can transform into such a beautiful being like a butterfly!
Yes, please keep posting! :)
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