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Monarch activity in the garden

In past years I posted often about the development of monarch butterfly caterpillars feeding on our milkweed plants.

Since we are renters, we plant milkweed, native of course, in large pots around our patio.

And every year monarch mamas visit almost daily, and lay their eggs on the milkweed.

It was very common to count first in July, then in early September, at least twenty caterpillars that made it all the way through chrysalis that eclosed as beautiful, apparently healthy monarchs. This was the case until last year, when the grand total of twenty caterpillars made it to adulthood.

But this year, as you are probably aware, has been particularly hard on the monarch population.

Their population has been drastically decreasing due to increased loss of habitat, use of pesticides, and climate change.

We definitely are witnessing these negative effects, just by observing what's going on in the monarch habitat in our backyard. This year monarch mamas started to visit in June, laying daily many eggs on the milkweed. They probably laid several hundreds of eggs on the leaves.

Sadly, most of the caterpillars that did hatch and made it to at least the first instar, didn't survive.

Some of them probably were eaten or killed by natural predators, among them spiders, wasps and milkweed beetles.

We would see the tiny caterpillars one day, then they simply disappeared.

There were several that nearly made it, or did make it to chrysalis stage. But the chrysalides were very discolored, probably due to the dreaded OE Ophryocystis elektroscirrha protozoan parasite.

We are grateful to have witnessed a few monarch caterpillars that devoured the milkweed, made it to fifth instar and wandered off in the garden to form their chrysalides. There were around five of them.

The last of them was the one in the top photo, a very fine specimen who, for three days ate non-stop.

We still have daily monarch visitors, and I've even seen a couple of monarchs who could have just eclosed a few days ago, possibly in our garden. No tattered or worn wings, as we often see on adults who have been flying around longer.

This is a female who is methodically sipping nectar from every single tiny blossom on a flower head of red valerian.

Red valerian isn't a native plant, and can be invasive. But we let it grow along part of one of our fences because it is a great backup nectar source for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and, as I observed one evening, White-lined Sphinx moths (also known as a hummingbird moth because it is the same size as a hummingbird).

A monarch male resting on a rosebush leaf.

A monarch female sipping nectar from a Sulphur Cosmos.

Even with a big piece missing from one of her wings, she still flew gracefully. It looks like she had a close encounter with a bird.


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