Natural Perspectives: Fostering Monarch butterfly caterpillars

Vic and I are the proud foster parents of a group of Monarch butterfly caterpillars.

A number of years ago, we planted two butterfly gardens in our yard. This year, our effort has paid off. A Monarch butterfly laid eggs in one of our gardens a couple of weeks ago. Ten caterpillars hatched from the eggs and are happily eating our milkweeds to the nub.

The purpose of a butterfly garden is two-fold.

First, the plants provide nectar for butterflies. That part is great, because who doesn't love the colorful fluttering wings of butterflies?

The second part is less wonderful from an aesthetic point of view. The garden must also provide food for caterpillars. We won't get butterflies if we don't allow the caterpillars to access our prized plants.

We planted milkweed, lantana, and a variety of sages to provide nectar for adults and food for larvae. Two years ago, I bought one bloodflower milkweed plant from the nursery at Friends of Shipley Nature Center.

This beautiful plant has red and orange flowers, and interesting seedpods. I let it go to seed and planted the many seeds in a variety of pots.

I was told to grow the milkweeds in pots, because when the caterpillars get through eating, what remains is merely a pot of sticks. The plant will normally regenerate if kept watered, so an active butterfly garden should have a rotating round of pots of milkweed.

You might wonder how it is that Vic and I are foster parenting the caterpillars. Normally, they pretty much take care of themselves. I figured that it would be simply a matter of watching the caterpillars grow, with no effort on our part.

But caterpillars aren't the brightest bulbs on the planet. When they have finished eating a plant, they crawl around looking for another plant. Since that other plant is in another pot, they don't know which pot to crawl up. Unfortunately, they haven't been finding those secondary food sources on their own.

They blithely crawl down the pot and into the driveway or into another random pot, which may or may not have an appropriate food source for them. I've rescued errant caterpillars from the driveway, and Vic has picked a number off our succulents.

We put each rescued wanderer on a fresh milkweed plant in another pot. In a few seconds, they have uncurled and have resumed happily eating the new plants down to the stalks.

We're not doing too badly as foster parents. Out of the original 10 caterpillars, we've only lost two. And who knows, they may be munching merrily away out of sight on something other than milkweed.

As you may know, Monarch butterflies go through four stages of life: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult. There are four complete cycles of egg-to-butterfly in any given year. The first three generations of butterflies in any given year live for only two to four weeks. But the last generation of the year hibernates, surviving for several months.

Our caterpillars are the first generation of this year, laid by the last generation of butterflies from last year.

When they hatch as butterflies about 10 days after forming chrysalises, they will fly northeast. Monarchs are migratory, but no one butterfly traverses the entire route. The first two generations fly northeast, while the next two generations fly southwest. They winter from central coastal California south to Mexico.

Huntington Beach hosts a small wintering population of Monarchs. Our population is no where near as large as the Mexican population, nor as famous as the Monterey population, but we have them.

I've seen eucalyptus trees in Central Park that were positively covered with monarchs on a cool morning. When the sunlight hits them, the trees seemingly come alive as the butterflies warm up and began testing their wings. Then clouds of orange and black butterflies drift away from the trees, fluttering off on the morning breeze. After a day of feeding on nectar, they return to the trees to roost for the night.

Huntington Beach has an entire park that is dedicated to Monarch butterflies. The former Sims Grove, now Gibbs Park, has been lovingly restored over the past few years to provide prime Monarch habitat.

The park is named for Norma Brandel Gibbs, Huntington Beach's first female City Council member (1970-1978), and first female mayor (1975-1976). The park is on the west side of Graham Street, between Warner and Heil avenues.

More than 100 years ago, the area was planted with eucalyptus by Charles Graham to provide lumber for our growing community. But eucalyptus makes poor lumber. Instead, the trees were used for firewood to heat the homes of our early settlers.

The park is dedicated to the founding farm families who first grew lima beans on Bolsa Mesa, families such as the Slaters, Grahams, Heils, Kettlers and Moores.

Volunteers have planted borders of gorgeous native and non-native flowering plants for the butterflies, and the Huntington Beach Tree Society has rejuvenated the grove by planting a variety of younger trees that will provide food and nectar for many generations of monarch butterflies. With pathways and many tables and benches, the park makes a perfect place for a stroll or picnic.

Go take a look.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LmurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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