Observations Our Backyard 1996

Synopsis 1996 / Home

July 1, 1996:

Today we have ten Monarch caterpillars at various stages of development being harbored on our back porch to protect them from the wasps and hover flies who have been most efficient in taking the caterpillars before we can locate them. These are the lucky ten this week. We've taken to intermixing potted plants within the outdoor beds to collect eggs before they hatch to preserve as many as we can.

As we are in Mid-Florida, it is unusual for us to observe Monarchs at this time of year. They have normally migrated out of the area by now and we don't see them again until Christmas time. We have noticed that our current releases (past month) have been mostly,if not all, female. Whether this is temperature dependent sexual selection or not, we currently do not have an answer. The temperatures here have been between average lows of 75 degrees and average highs of 90 degrees.

July 17, 1996:

All the lucky ten are gone now, butterflies all. We have temporarily abandoned the temperature sex selection theory as of the ten, three were male and the temperatures have been consistent with our earlier released butterflies (all female). Still, seven are female, an over two to one ratio.

Yesterday, we located and rescued another eighteen 'pillars. Our back porch is rapidly becoming a milkweed nursery. Eighteen caterpillars will consume at least two of our potted milkweed plants each before reaching maturity. The eighteen caterpillars are just hatched and will take several days to consume a plant now, but when they reach the "pig-'pillar" stage, munch city.

Including the lucky ten, we've released 24 Monarchs this month to date, the majority female. We will track the male/female ratio more accurately for a while beginning with the 18 new 'pillars.

July 21, 1996:

The eighteen 'pillars are growing rapidly now and are just shy of an inch in length today. A few days of respite remain yet before they begin consuming mass quantities of milkweed leaves. The intermixing of potted plants with bedded plants has resulted in a further collection of eggs (total number of collected eggs unknown as yet). We are going to the nursery this afternoon. Two female Monarchs were laying eggs again this morning. We need more pots.

July 24, 1996:

Last night the 'pillars grew and are now full fledged "pig'pillars" and munching leaves practically as fast as we can change plants. Fortunately, the 'pillars should be only a day or two from metamorphosis (I hope). The eighteen are down to fifteen by today's account. Some wander off the plants at night and roam the porch until I can recapture them or they run out of time (if they are old enough) and hang somewhere on the porch. The 'pillars get lost when they climb down to the base of the plant and over the edge of the pot. We've created little 'pillar highways to guide them to the next plant, but some of them just can't read the signs.We'll come out some morning and presto, there is a butterfly on the screen (which we then capture and set free). We also now have several "baby 'pillars" munching as well. Our little experiment of mixing potted plants with the bedded plants has allowed us to bring eggs inside before they hatch. Outside, as soon as they hatch, the wasps get most of them. The only record of their passing is usually a small munchy hole about the size of Lincoln's beard on a Lincoln head penny. They don't last very long with these guys. I am getting curious about this wasp, however, and have left some eggs unattended (we couldn't feed them all anyway) to observe this fellow in action. Does anyone have a list of known predators of monarch caterpillars? We've seen a species of wasp and also a hover fly very methodically patrolling our milkweed. They check each plant leaf by leaf, and are very patient and thorough. They arrive at first light.

July 26, 1996:

Twelve of the fifteen became chrysalis yesterday and the other three are hanging, about a day behind the others. Since we live in Florida not too far from Cypress Gardens, I decided to call and see if they wanted to put these fifteen in their butterfly conservatory (if your near Orlando on vacation, it's a very nice place to visit), and spoke with Richard Hosterberg at the conservatory who informed me of something I didn't know: Monarchs do not fair well in the confined environment of a conservatory. Their experience with them at Cypress Gardens has led them to exclude from "flying" Monarchs as they fly too far and high and spend their time trying to push through the glass to the world beyond. They just gotta be free. We'll let ours go in the backyard as usual. Incidentally, if you are curious as to how many milkweed plants it takes to raise fifteen caterpillars, click here.

August 7, 1996

The first butterflies began emerging Aug. 1st and as of today 14 are male and 6 are female with 8 males and 2 females Aug. 1st, one each Aug. 2nd, 1 male and 3 females Aug. 6th, and four this morning, all male.

August 10, 1996

Four more butterflies today, three male and one female, bringing the totals to 17 male and 7 female for a grand total including the lucky ten (not documented with our male/female ratio experiment) to 34 releases. Currently, there are no more to count (unless a porch escapee has yet to emerge) as we discontinued capturing eggs for a while until our potted food plants recover sufficiently to raise more. Our humble butterfly garden is in bloom now and as it is our first attempt at growing one, we've taken the liberty of posting a photo if you'd like to take a look.

August 19, 1996

We have no monarchs being raised at present. We see Monarchs regularly, but they may be migratory or not yet mated as they do not exhibit egg laying behavior (to my untrained eye), and appear to be more interested in the flower nectars. Very soon, our food plants will be ready to recycle and we plan to be more diligent in searching for eggs shortly.

However, we have some other guests now residing on our back porch and are trying to rear them:
Cloudless Sulfurs. We were given seeds of Cassia Alata by another enthusiast which we planted in the garden. As the plant is large and the garden small, we planted only a few locations, which, when caterpillars began appearing, were thinned to gain a few food plants for potting. As I observed the original group, I found they are picky eaters and only will eat the young, juicy leaves and snub their green noses at the older, bigger, but tougher leaves. Instead, they crawl off looking for better pickings, since, in the wild, the mature plant normally has much more new growth available than my potted plants offer. The two we managed to raise escaped into the porch and hung (my guess) in the ferns (I discovered the first one when he flew out of the ferns past me.). The second one emerged this morning. We decided to leave them in the wild for now until we can supply sufficient food plants or find a better solution to effectively rear them in captivity.

August 23, 1996

No Monarch eggs were left behind by the earlier visitors. However, we are raising some Giant Sulfurs now thanks to Rick Mikula's inventive use of discardable consumer packaging to manufacture a very good caterpillar raising solution. Rick Mikula resides in cyberspace at The Butterfly Website which is on our links page if you wish to access the butterfly raising container info. The Cloudless Sulfurs have disappeared from the garden, replaced by another species, although we now know it is definitely another Giant Sulfur as we have raised one caterpillar to a chrysalis and it is identical to the two Cloudless Sulfurs chrysalises with the exception of color.

August 30, 1996

Still.no Monarch eggs to be found although butterflies are present. We released three Cloudless Sulphurs (one porch born from the earlier escapees) and the mystery Sulphur bringing our Cloudless Sulphur total to five released plus the one mystery Sulphur. We photographed him and will identify later.We have also raised five more mystery Sulphurs to chrysalis stage.

September 3, 1996

We successfully raised in containers three more Cloudless Sulphurs and six mystery Giant Sulphurs bringing our Giant Sulphur total to an even dozen released. However, I must note a few of the adult butterflies did not survive as some appeared to be weak fliers when released. I found one in the butterfly garden with its wings damaged beyond repair due to the fact it could not fly well enough to lift itself out of the tangle of plants which is our butterfly garden and battered its wings against the plant stems until unserviceable. Sadly, I had to destroy the little butterfly.

We have not seen caterpillars of any kind lately as it is now summer's waning time and the butterflies of autumn apparently have yet to emerge.

September 20, 1996

A possibly new species of Giant Sulphur visited the butterfly garden and laid eggs today. I placed potted cassia alata plants around the edge of the garden (my old original"food" plants which have grown into three gallon containers now) while the butterfly was present and she peppered two of them with eggs which I have brought inside to protect from predators. We've tentatively identified the mystery sulphurs as the Common Sulphur according to the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies.

Incidentally, here in Florida, we have a small (6 inch) species of lizard which is foreign to the state and when introduced, replaced the natural chameleon lizards which were less aggressive. The chameleons changed color to match their background and at one time you could even buy them as pets by mail order via ads in comic books. Everyone just had to put one on a plaid fabric just to see if the little fellow could change to match. Chameleon headache #128 was the only result.

Well, a couple of the current foreign introduced/now semi-native lizards have snuck in the back door and taken up residence in the ferns and other plants which abound on the porch. They are very fast and hard to catch. I wasn't concerned about them (they come in all the time) until I observed they have added the Giant Sulphur caterpillars to their diet. I placed several mature caterpillars (you can tell because they begin to change their coloring and appear translucent) on a tree branch I have for them to hang on and one of the lizards scampered over and snatched one when my back was turned (smart little fellows) and was making off with it when I turned around. That explains in part why our caterpillars were disappearing from the plants both inside and outside. I thought they just wandered off and were hanging elsewhere on the porch. Nope, lizard lunches all they must have been because we have had no "wild" hatches on the porch lately. I'll have to go on lizard safari and capture these wild beasts or, ahem, I'll just leave the cat loose on the porch for a while. She occasionally adds them to her diet.

October 1, 1996

The Monarchs have completely disappeared, but the Giant Sulphurs are still present as our cassia alata has reached full bloom. The possible third species mentioned earlier turns out to be Common Sulphur according to the now visible caterpillar coloring.We have released another eight Sulphurs, 2 Cloudless and 6 Common. The ants in the garden are apparently now taking a toll of the eggs.

Of note: This past weekend, we attended the Butterfly Gardening Program and Plant Sale sponsored by Manatee County Cooperative Extension Board in association with the University of Florida and Manatee Master Gardeners, and announced the official opening of this web site at the event. We made up a few shirts featuring the site and our mascot, The Florida Monarch Pig'Pillar, and did have some requests about purchase. We will see what we can do.

October 8, 1996

The Monarchs have apparently migrated completely away from our area. We have no sightings to report of Monarchs, but we are still raising and releasing Sulphurs with 2 released and 9 more in chrysalis or caterpillar stages. We would have had three releases, but two emerged during Tropical Storm Josephine this past weekend, and one of them was, during the night, blown into the water from the driving rain of the storm on the floor of our normally sheltering screened in porch, and drown. Sad, but natural. The storm also must have drown more butterflies in the wild. How many? Our statistics show 50% with a statistical sample of two. However, the margin of error is huge. It also flattened much of our butterfly garden, but we're leaving it natural for a while before removing any dead plants. The wind crunching of the larger, mature plants has let the light in on small plants below which are now beginning to grow. The scene resembles photos of some of the forest damage done from the Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption except there's no ash and the victims are flower stalks instead of fir trees.

October 13, 1996

Yesterday, Oct. 12th, Columbus Day (the real one), we sighted Monarchs for the first time since late August. They were circling over our milkweed patches. We've checked for eggs, but have found none yet. If we find them, Columbus Day, at least this year, is the bellwether of the return of the Florida Monarch Butterfly over winter breeding population to our backyard located about mid-way down the west side of the peninsula of Florida.

As for the Giant Sulphurs, we have not seen any new caterpillars or eggs recently although the butterflies are regular visitors to the garden. Incidentally, the sulphurs we are raising currently are once again of both species we attracted this summer, Common Sulphur and Cloudless Giant Sulphur, but are few in number. Of the 11 we are protecting, only 4 are Cloudless Giants, the rest all Common. All but three released to date.

October 16, 1996

Eggs were found on several milkweed leaves Sunday and I collected some samples. The first Monarch caterpillar hatched today. That puts us back to Columbus Day or thereabouts for the first butterfly possibly traveling south, not north. It seems early, but I have a hatchling to prove there are breeding Monarchs in my backyard for the first time in three months.

October 20, 1996

We've managed to collect two dozen or so hatchlings which are now happily munching fresh milkweed on the back porch. Since the sightings of egg laying Monarchs around Columbus Day, they have again disappeared. All the hatchlings are from this period and there are no new eggs we can find. Sulphurs are still present and we now have six new small larva we are raising, two in chrysalis, and two nearly mature caterpillars for a total of ten.

October 23, 1996

The Monarch caterpillars have become "baby 'pillars" grazing the surface of the leaves, making small holes as they grow a little larger. One of the hatchlings, however, is already into the next molt, which we call the "munchy'pillar" stage because their jaws are not yet large enough to consume the tougher parts of the plant like the center veins of the leaf, so they munch around the softer parts, leaving the tougher parts, creating an irregular lacy pattern of buzz sawed leaves.This one caterpillar is obviously older than the others which are still very small. This draws me to the conclusion possibly two fertile females laid eggs here since the eggs must have been laid days apart.

Still, since this brief activity, no new Monarchs have been sighted. The Monarchs that were here may not be leading the migration as we thought earlier, but if they're not, what are they doing here, where did they come from, and where did they go?

A note on our Giant Sulphurs: The species we are currently harboring (probably Cloudless Giant Sulphurs) lays its eggs individually in groups of two or three (our observation) and only at the topmost growing point of the host plant, cassia alata, on the newest growth as the hatchling caterpillars cannot manage the maturer leaves. Even as they grow, our observation is this species will only feed on the tenderest, newest leaves. The other species we observed this year (probably Common Sulphur) is much more gregarious consuming even the coarsest leaves.

Oct. 24, 1996

We counted at least 26 Monarch caterpillars today. Still no more sightings of Monarchs.

Oct. 25, 1996

The Sulphur caterpillars have grown and revealed themselves to be butterfly #2 (Common Sulphur). They are so difficult to tell apart when small. They look very much alike, green with a yellow lateral strip. This means both Sulphurs are still present or, at least, were. These eggs were laid before tropical storm Josephine blew through here.

We recounted the Monarchs and arrived at twenty-seven, discovering an overlooked, lone baby pillar among all the muchy'pillars which I'm calling "Lobo" for kicks.

Unfortunately, we are now actually back at 26 as we had a death. I spotted one of the muchy'pillars laying on his side motionless on the topside of a leaf. The munchy'pillars have been going through a molt and when I nudged the caterpillar with the end of a pen, he came alive and I thought he was simply having difficulty shedding his skin and I left him alone. I did notice a clear fluid discharge on the leaf which I thought unusual, but I thought from his writhing, he was shedding skin and had prematurely broken free of his silken track on the leaf which they spin practically everywhere they go. As they motor forward, their head will move from side to side leaving a zig zag of silk for traction. When I returned a few hours later, I discovered he had died. Whether by disease or injury, the fluid discharge is a symptom of a fatality. The caterpillars that are older and larger are aggressive and possibly this is from injury from a larger caterpillar. I have seen them strike out at each other if crowded too close in the same manner male walruses do by rearing back and throwing their heads forward. Usually, there is no harm, but at this stage there is quite a size differential, and I segregated the larger size population away from the smaller caterpillars to minimize this possibility. The second (and probably most likely) is disease or a parasite. That I will know only if more become sick and die. At the moment, they all appear healthy.

The one early caterpillar is still ahead of the pack and now has molted again to become a "leaf cutter." I've named him "Captain Zero." (The caterpillars at this stage will partially cut the leaf underneath at the base, causing the leaf to hang straight down. They then reverse themselves and travel down the underside of the leaf to the tip and begin consuming the leaf from the bottom up. This is a form of concealment. The larger caterpillar is creating a blind to one side and using the stem of the plant as a shield to the rear.)

Oct. 27, 1996

"Captain Zero" decided to hang today. The others should only be a few more days behind. They're "pig pillars" now for the most part and feeding them is a real chore. As it turns out, we have 33 caterpillars. I missed a few while they were small. They all appear healthy at this point.

Nov. 9, 1996

Today we sighted two wild Monarchs, the first for several weeks. "Captain Zero" emerged healthy on Nov. 7th and was released in Ft. Myers (I have taken a job which requires travel and I transported "Captain Zero" with me so I could call my wife and warn her that the others would begin emerging the following day of which ten did). "Captain Zero" was a female which makes her more of a Jane Elway than a Capt. Kirk. The rest should emerge today and tomorrow for the most part. We are going to attempt a captive breeding program from this stock.

Incidentally, we received a report from a gentleman named Frank Sledge from Orlando. Frank reported a sighting of Monarchs in Orlando Nov. 3rd. I may begin a mapping project if we get enough sightings. I am primarily interested in "first" sightings for measurement, but any sighting reports are welcome as the dating info will eventually produce a graph. Thanks Frank.

Nov. 10, 1996

We have a few milkweed plants in a pot and along the fence at my parents winter residence a few miles away. While checking the property and do some chores, I spotted one fat little munch pillar on the potted milkweed. He's a different age, younger, than the butterflies we now have emerging in droves (it seems). He represents another female laying eggs in the area about a week or so after our Columbus Day butterflies, about the same time as Frank Sledge's sightings in Orlando.

Nov. 25. 1996

Monarchs are a regular visitor to the garden now with four sighted just yesterday. Apparently, the migration is upon us.

Nov. 26, 1996

Frank sent us a third sighting report from Orlando. The four monarchs in our backyard are still here. I've noticed they all appear to be male and have been chasing each other in circles in a ritual combat of sorts. I am beginning to think male monarchs may be territorial like Red Winged Blackbirds in a meadow, carving out their own milkweed patch and defending it against all intrusion by other males. It may also be of note there are eggs present and our first new gathered egg hatched today.

Dec. 20, 1996

Merry Christmas everyone. To update the observation that male Monarchs may be territorial, I noticed one of the Monarchs had a clipped wing tip and began observing him. I witnessed a very unusual event. He dive bombed another Monarch and actually forced him to the ground by landing on his back while in the air. He then held him down a few seconds while beating him with his wings, evidently an act of intimidation. When he flew off, the Monarch on the ground beat tracks for greener pastures. I have noticed that after each little air battle, the clipped wing male returns to the same milkweed patch (we have three in the yard) and continues his vigil. As soon as another male appears, he attacks and drives him off. The apparent plan of attack is that the males circle each other (quite tight circles and very rapid rotations) to gain the upper position. The more determined and probably older resident male usually wins.

To update our 33 Monarchs in our captive breeding project - it has been successful, in fact, a little too successful. We managed to get them to breed in a breeding cage and ended up trying to raise over 400 caterpillars ... too many. We managed about 250 before running our of milkweed leaves. Of the original 33, as of this date, one female is still alive, but she is very old now for a butterfly. We'll keep her because her wings are a bit tattered to release her. Of the 33, most were released after breeding was completed if they were in good shape. We artificially feed several because their wings had become damaged in the cage and did live quite long, although all remaining but the lone surviving female died last week when the weather turned cold at the age of about a month which is a long life for a butterfly.

Since our captive breeding project went well, we've decided to open a butterfly farm, so this is our official announcement. The name of the business is the Florida Monarch Butterfly Farm and we bought the licenses last week. If you are looking to buy butterflies, give us a call at (813) 381-1932. We are currently only selling inside the state of Florida.

Synopsis 1996:

Monarch Butterflies were present from all year through August and in mid-August, although the butterflies were present, egg laying ceased. No Monarchs were sighted throughout September and were not sighted again until October 12, 1996. The arriving butterflies in October were laying eggs.

Thanks for visiting.

Dale & Peggy McClung

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