Welcome To Our Backyard 2002

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January 4, 2002

Today is cold for us with temps going down to the high 30's and it is raining. Needless to say, there are no butterflies flying as I write, but yesterday for about an hour or so, it was warm enough to see several monarchs and a few zebra longwings take to flight. There are also a few giant sulphurs on the wing now as well. In general, the swallowtails are now not to be seen, but I do have some polydamas swallowtail larva present, probably the last generation until spring. A female discovered my backyard a couple of weeks ago and spent several days flying around depositing her eggs. Too many, actually, for the amount of pipevine I have in leaf, so I destroyed a number of the eggs to try to manage the larva for the plants with foliage available. Polydamas swallowtail larva are voracious consumers of pipevine leaves.

I also have a small number of white peacock larva from a female I netted and flew in the aviary last month. They are small and only number about a dozen, but with the temps where they are, their development as well as for the other larva I have has slowed a great deal. It was nice to see a white peacock this late in the year. I am going to try to breed some up from her offspring. I have some eastern black swallowtail in chrysalis as well as giant swallowtails that will probably not emerge now until spring. I do have one giant swallowtail larva left feeding on a potted hercules club. I also have quite a good number of zebra longwing larva and chrysalis on hand. I did find a few gulf fritillary larva lately. For some reason, they haven't been particularly plentiful this year.

As far as the monarchs, I have found only a few larva of late. It has been cooler and they haven't flown but for short periods of the day lately. Also, I have observed a new wasp in the area. It is a large wasp and distinctively marked with a brown body and relatively bright yellow pattern. I had not seen this particular species before, but I have directly observed it does have an appetite for the monarch larva. I managed an attempt to photograph a specimen in the act of having one for lunch. I hope one of the shots turns out. When it warms up, I will keep an eye out for this particular wasp and attempt to capture one.

Aphid line 1/4/02: A few are present, but so are the lady bugs. No chance for these guys I think.

February 1, 2002

Yesterday, I observed my first giant swallowtail on the wing since the fall. Coincidentally, with the recent warm days, one a handful of pupa left from an October generation of giant swallowtail pupa of mine emerged. I set it free. Most of this brood emerged in the fall, but these few held out. The other swallowtails I have from the fall, a later generation of giants, polydamas (gold rimmed) and eastern black, are all still slumbering. It has warmed up considerably. Today, we set a record high mark at 82 degrees. Not bad for February.

The flying monarchs are up to squadron strength. Mostly, I see males at present. Their dogfighting is entertaining. I have brought in over two dozen fifth instar larva over the past few days. They appear to be increasing now in numbers insofar as their survival is concerned.

February 12, 2002

I have collected over 36 fifth instar caterpillars from the yard and they are now chrysalis. The first three emerged day before yesterday, having pupated on 1/25 and emerged on 2/8, 15 days as a pupa. One did not appear healthy and two appeared in excellent condition. The problem butterfly died the following day. The others are set to emerge over the next week or so.

Since locating these caterpillars, I have seen few new larva. The weather may be of fault some, but I have not really noticed females of late until yesterday when I saw one laying an egg and another one today mating. The males have been flying continuously reenacting the "Battle of Britain" for my afternoon's entertainment.

Three more giant swallowtails emerged, two females and a male. These pupa are from the fall in which almost of the butterflies emerged, but these few did not ... until now.

Aphid line 2/12/02: The aphids did mange to grow to sizable numbers even with the lady bugs present. The undersides of the milkweed leaves are covered with aphid pupa and I have seen a small number of winged adults. The lady bugs are on the winning side of the equation as I write. The aphid numbers are shrinking, but they are far from gone. There are also milkweed bugs and spider mites present. In the winter dry season, the aphids will weaken the plants, and they become vulnerable to attack by red spider mites. Spider mites love dry, cool whether. I've been doing what I can to control these guys without resorting to pesticides. If a milkweed plant shows signs of mites, I immediately feed it to a few larva. If the larva is on a growing plant, it will trim off the foliage, mites and all. When the mite's eggs hatch, due to their very short life cycle, the plant will not have regenerated foliage yet, and they starve. The plant is actually relieved of stress by this process. The water requirements drop considerably with no foliage to lose water from and fewer places for the aphids to attack. The process also rids the plant of any diseased leaves. The new growth is fresh.

I'll bet you have not thought of the monarch butterfly as a beneficial insect, did you, especially since their caterpillars are bent of chewing the milkweed plant to bits. Actually thought, they do not seem to do that much damage to the plant. The fifth instar caterpillars, my old friendly "pigpillars," are careful to sever the leaf they are about to feed on partially at the base to stop the plant from bleeding and probably reducing the amount of toxic sap flowing to the leaf while it is rapidly consuming it. It appears to be an action to slightly detoxifying the leaf. Hinged by the incision and pulled vertically down by the weight of the caterpillar, it hangs upside down feeding from the tip of the leaf up, the hanging leaf also acts as a blind concealing the larva from the view of predators. Sometimes, even when there are leaves present, I've seen caterpillars go to the top of the stem and gnaw away at the chewable end. This is pruning. By bringing the thin and more tender top down to a thicker portion of the stem, the new shoots will be sturdier. Personally, I think their just there for a sap fix. There is something attractive to them in the stem end. Usually I notice this propensity for what I call "popcycling" in larva when they are very nearly full grown, within a day or two of pupating.

Feb. 14, 2002

Three more of the monarch pupa emerged. All were strong.

Feb. 25, 2002

The monarch pupa were not all perfect. Some did not make it, wild or captive reared faired about the same. The majority were good sturdy butterflies, but you always have concerns when some die.

For the last couple of days, the polydamas swallowtail pupa from the fall have begun to emerge. The giants and eastern balcks from the same period are still pupa. I also did see a wild polydamas on the wing yesterday. I spotted a white peacock today as well as a skipper flying around and I have seen a couple of red admirals. The monarchs are, as usual, a constant presence, but few young of late, two or three larva only.

The monarch pupa from my little experiment were not all perfect. Some did not make it, wild or captive reared faired about the same. The majority were good sturdy butterflies, but you always have concerns when some die.

February 26, 2002

For over a year now, thanks to a friend of mine sending me some eggs, I have managed to maintain a breeding population of Question Mark butterflies. The larval host plants I have used are False Nettle, Hackberry/Sugarberry tree, and a Hop Vine another friend of mine was so kind to provide me. They have done well on all three hosts.

A few weeks ago, I was in the process of caring for the next generation which at the time were eggs and hatchlings on false nettle plants inside my screened in porch. Normally, the screening prevents dew from settling on the plants inside and I did not give proper thought to the weather forecast for fog except to move the plants to the interior areas of the porch which would (I thought) prevent moisture from collecting on the foilage, but it did anyway. The hatchlings for the most part drown. Of all, there is only one pupa. Despite my efforts, I lost all but the one from the small number of survivors. I think I may have a predator, probably a lizard, on the porch. There is a lizard, probably a chameleon judging by its suction cup feet allowing it to walk up and on just about any surface, that I see at only night, but usually on the outside of the screen. Perhaps, one has figured a way inside. The cats are not doing their job. Maybe I should starve them a little. No. I really would not do that.

I've named the last question mark "the lone ranger." It will be going back to the wild when it emerges. I can't keep just one.

A cloud of dust and a hearty Hi Ho Silver Awayyyy.

April 10, 2002

On March 21, the first day of Spring, the first overwintering eastern black swallowtail emerged. The swallowtails herald the spring here. At this writing, they have laid some eggs and the first generation of eastern blacks here is underway for the year.

May 1, 2002

The monarchs have been flying here all spring in good numbers. I netted what I could find in one day this week and counted 18 adults with a few still flying I'm sure.

July 19, 2002

It has been a while since my last entry. The state of the monarchs has roughly paralleled last year so far. There are no surviving larva outside, but adults are flying, although it appears in a somewhat reduced number now from earlier, and females still appear and lay eggs. The hatching larva though do not make it. Wasps and ants are most likely the main reason, but also, the "Florida malady," as I like to call it, has returned.

For those who may find this page and are not familiar with the history of this "malady," in my little patch of Florida, raising monarch caterpillars in the summer months has be a frustrating experience due to very high mortality. I have been attempting to find a cause of this for some time now, but all I have managed to consistantly observe is it is cyclical. The problem abates in the winter only to return in the spring. It seems, the belweather in spring is the point when our daytime highs begin to cross the 80 degree mark consistantly. It is at that point when problems, in my experience here, begin to develop. The clearing period is mid to late December. In January and February, the monarch larva thrive.

August 7, 2002

I am seeing a number of monarch males, I can usually count 4 with ease at any given time, but have not noticed seeing a female lately. No larva are to be found either.

August 13, 2002

Today I found three wild fifth instar monarch caterpillars on two potted tropical milkweed plants nestled under a red penta which may have offered some protection from the wasps. I found no others.

October 16, 2002

The three larva I found in August did not make it, but gradually, week by week, I raised monarchs through the months and in late July I began to see steady improvement on A. cussavica, tropical milkweed until I did raise about 50 healthy monarchs with minimal loss, but then, they went downhill again. The only variable with the milkweed this time was that I had not given them any fertilizers. It has also been unusually hot lately which may be a variable with the decline (again).

Traditionally, Columbus Day has always been the hallmark of the arrival of migratory butterflies at my latitude in the fall. Unusually, on Columbus Day, Oct. 12th, there were no monarchs at all present. Today I did observe one female laying eggs. She was in fairly good shape, but had a section blown out of her wing leaving a small hole in the shape of the wing section below the leading wing rib. She should be easy to spot again. No tag.

I have not seen any monarch males for several days, since before the 12th. Only the solitary female this morning.

November 22, 2002

Today I noticed that the scarlet/tropical milkweed in my back yard is beginning to sprout new shoots or suckers from the base. I have observed a number of times when these tender sprouts are present, the female monarchs tend favor them for egg placement rather than the underside of a mature leaf at the top of the older stems, but also will lay in both locations at the same time as well, just more so on the new sprouts.

I found five fifth instar wild larva, the first since the summer. The first one pupated 11/17 . Two others have pupated and the last two should shortly.

The summer surviving wild caterpillars numbered only three and all appeared as larva and pupa to be healthy, but all were poor as emerging adults, dying shorlty thereafter.

I am expecting the monarch larva now to become increasingly more healthy. It is the time of year for the turnaround.

We experienced an early cold front wisking down from the artic last week. It dropped our low temperatures into the fifties for several nights in a row with daytime highs in the high sixties. I happen to have a digital thermomenter from Oregon Scientific on hand and set it up near some feeding monarch larva I am raising. I noticed that at between 55 and 60 degrees, the fifth instar larva would cease feeding and below 55, all movement ceased. They would not begin to move, except for minor short lived movements, again until the temps in the morning crossed sixty.

A weather reporter on one of the local TV stations a while back announced an interesting statistic. From April 7 to October 15, at no time did the temperature drop below 60 degrees, 194 days, a new record. Concerning the problems with the monarch larva over the years, I have noted that when the highs break 80 degrees in the spring, they seem to begin to deteriorate, and when the highs drop below 80 degrees in the fall, they begin to recover. Perhaps, I should be looking at the lows. If the cause is toxic poisoning, the temperatures may self regulate the consumption of plant material by the caterpillars over time, and they do take longer to mature in the winter.

December 26, 2002

The five wild larva pupating 11/17 or therabouts all emerged as nice, large, healthy monarchs.

I happened to have some tags on hand from Monarch Watch, so this fall, I decided to tag the fall arrivals. The first was tagged 10/24, a male in fair condition, and I recovered this male again on 10/30 and again on 11/8. The first tagged female was 10/25. In all. I tagged 8 females from 10/25 to 12/10, and 7 males from 10/24 to 11/28. I observed two of the tagged males mating with females during this time, but was unable to capture either pair (too high in a tree). All the females were captured in the process of egg laying in the morning. Two recaptured males, one from 10/24 to 11/8 and another from 11/10 to 11/28, appeared to take up residency. The longest period for a female recapture was 10/28 to 10/30. The females appeared to stay a day or two universally and then move on. The total tagged was 15 with the last tagged 12/10. Since then, I have not seen any new monarchs in my backyard.

I did recover over 50 larva from the plants either started from the eggs or as larva at various stages of development, but the adults that emerged were a mixed bag as far as their health goes, but I was very short on milkweed and their diet suffered accordingly. Pupa emerging this week are much improved, but some are undersized.

The fall wave of monarchs seems to have passed by. There are no adults flying. Giant sulphurs are around and a few gulf fritillaries, but that is all I see. I did recover three 5th instar larva the past few days and I have seen at least one smaller caterpillar, but the population explosion of earlier weeks has subsided.

We will post further observations as warranted.

Thanks for visiting.

Dale & Peggy McClung