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Tips from your Monarch Garden

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You are not alone

 

The goal of every gardener dedicating his or her efforts to creating a Monarch butterfly garden is to attract and keep as many monarch families as their garden can sustain. In doing so, you can expect dozens if not hundreds of various insects - some better than others. Here are a few you're going to encounter. A 2021 study found an abundance of insect visitors to your garden increased survival of caterpillars from egg to third instar. (Insect, 2021) The study was conducted in Texas.  

 

Aphids will be the most abundant insect you find in your butterfly garden provided you have one or more species of milkweed. Aphids are a soft bodied, yellow sap-sucking pest. Aphids appear on your plants from one or more winged version of aphid species. The winged aphids produce young, wingless aphids. At this point, the plant becomes a host. The aphids pierce the plant and suck the sap from milkweed despite the toxins in the plant fluid. Aphids mature in 7-10 days and then reproduce up to 60 new offspring, nearly all female. Aphids secrete a sugary liquid called honey-dew which in turn attracts ants and small bees. In extreme outbreaks, a build-up of sooty mold from a fungus can turn milkweed foliage and stems black. Aphids are rarely a problem for healthy, adult and established plants.

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Nature counters aphids with "good bugs" such as ladybugs. Ladybugs and ladybug larvae feast on aphids; unfortunately, they cannot eat at the pace the aphids reproduce. Ladybugs, also known as ladybird beetles in England, live approximately a year. Ladybug larvae look like little alligators. Most ladybugs are red with black dots but ladybugs can also be yellow and black or even black and white. Regardless of their color, farmers and gardeners always welcome ladybugs on their crops and gardens. 

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The second most common insect in your garden will be milkweed bugs and beetles. Pictured below are milkweed beetle larvae. They appear late in the summer and abundant in the Fall. They are mostly found on milkweed seed pods. Like the aphid, these are pests and will not harm healthy established plants.

 

Gardeners who prune their old milkweed flowers will generally avoid running into infestations of milkweed bugs. Like aphids, milkweed bugs will not harm the host plant nor will it deter female Monarch butterflies from visiting your plants or laying eggs. You should never use insecticides to remove aphids or milkweed bugs as this will deter or kill your Monarch butterfly efforts. Successful gardens designed for

Food & Fuel plants will attract different insects in your garden - mostly for their nectar. Bubble bees, honeybees and wasps are common visitors to food & fuel gardens along with an abundance of other species of butterflies and even hawk moths which resemble hummingbirds. The presence of predators (flies, wasps, jumping spiders) results in female Monarch butterflies from laying too many eggs on any one plant. 

Careful When Pruning

Every gardener wants their garden to be colorful, robust and fresh looking. The Monarch butterfly gardener needs to be cautious however. Milkweed plants benefit from pruning branches that have lost their blooms and before the plant develops seed pods. Often, allowing a plant to seed slows or shuts down further growth of new foliage. 

Female Monarch butterflies will often lay an egg or two near old flower blooms as seed pods will provide a nutritious meal as the Monarch caterpillar enter their stage 3 molt and beyond. Caution is recommended when pruning and discarding faded, dead flowers or seed pods. Removing too much of a branch greatly increases your chance of discarding a newly laid egg or new hatched Monarch caterpillar.

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This image represents an opportunity to save two future Monarch butterflies. Monarch eggs are nearly always laid on the underside of milkweed leaves or seed pods. They are conical and can be mistaken for other natural phenomenon such as fairy fly larvae or other insect eggs.

The egg below the newer, white egg is a Monarch egg ready to hatch. Unless you are well trained or know what you're looking for, it is easy to discard leaves, stems or seed pods with eggs. IF you prune and find an egg, don't discard it. Place the leaf with the egg on it on a live milkweed plant out of the sun, ideally under a healthy leaf with a paperclip. When the egg hatches, it will crawl to the nearest live leaf to eat.

For those overly-aggressive pruners, make sure you know what a first in-star monarch caterpillar looks like. You won't see the black, white and yellow color pattern of monarch caterpillar until the second molt. The newly hatched Monarch caterpillar looks like a common inch worm and in no way resembles later stages of this majestic creature. You can appreciate how easy it would be to miss this small caterpillar or mis-categorize it as what you're trying to protect. If you're pruning dozens of

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branches and or species of milkweed - it is even more important you check every leaf of every branch you're going to discard. As recommended above, if you find a tiny caterpillar, relocate the entire leaf to a healthy milkweed plant where the caterpillar will be protected from the sun, wind, and rain.

If you choose to prune to generate new growth on your milkweed to extend their growing season - remember there is risk to existing eggs and newly hatched Monarch caterpillars. Take the time to look for Monarch eggs or 'little fellas' just getting their start in life.

When Less Is More

We've learned that the milkweed plant is the ONLY plant a female Monarch butterfly will lay their eggs. Female Monarchs spend countless hours and days searching for milkweed plants. With more than 300 eggs to lay, it is important for you to understand how and where female Monarchs like to lay their eggs. Once you learn this, you can create those conditions. 

I was always under the impression that "if you plant it they will come"; this is only partly true. Studies have shown that female Monarchs lay eggs in a very controlled and methodical manner. Personal observations have proven females are careful not to lay too many eggs on one plant. In fact, they may lay only one egg on a plant if the plant is small. Nature has programmed female Monarchs to not put too much demand on any one plant. Monarch caterpillars are voracious eaters and can defoliate complete branches or in smaller plants - the entire plant. Laying only one or two eggs per plant increase the chances that the resulting hatching caterpillars will have enough food to eat.

 

An important mantra for Monarch gardeners reads: Less is More.  I have observed female Monarchs avoiding milkweed stands that are planted or grow too densely. Single or isolated plants are actually more attractive targets on which to lay eggs. It is theorized that female Monarch butterflies avoid densely concentrated plants as they may have an increased chance of predators to their eggs or newly hatched caterpillars.

This presents a dilemma for gardeners that want to attract and keep Monarch butterflies on their property. The solution resides in what female monarch butterflies are looking for.

  1. Increase the space between milkweed plants. This only applies to the Monarch caterpillar food sources, not nectar plants such as New York Ironweed, cone flowers, Joe Pye weed and goldenrod to name a few.

  2. Vary your species of milkweed. Randomly plant, orange, yellow, swamp white and pink milkweed, thread leaf and purple milkweed. The varieties will vary the colors and texture of the leaves which seem to be to female monarch's liking. Additionally, certain egg and caterpillar predators are less likely on some species of milkweed. 

 

It's important to remember that a successful monarch garden is one that meets the female Monarch butterfly's needs - not yours.

From Fillet Mignon to Leftovers

To satisfy the Monarch butterfly you need to think like a Monarch butterfly. Monarch's want milkweed and nectar…and a lot of it. There is a catch-22 however when it comes to milkweed as discussed in the article above for egg laying - less is more. Milkweed plants that are too crowded might discourage a female Monarch from laying eggs where predators wait. Too few milkweed plants and you'll significantly reduce the number of eggs in your garden as they like to disperse their eggs thus reduce their risk. Having grown milkweed for decades, I was always under the impression that plants need to look good to me in order for them to attract and keep monarch's attention. While female Monarch butterflies often lay their eggs on the newest and youngest leaves of milkweed plant; Monarch caterpillars will often fool you what they choose to eat.

Monarch caterpillars will travel as far as they need to find what they're looking for. Caterpillars can be found on clover, grass, decks, fences, walkways, and mulch beds. It seems sometimes they just need a break from their host plant. Monarch caterpillars also need rest. They eat roughly 80% of the time but rest the other 20%. Resting off a milkweed plant doesn't mean it needs your help to relocate it.

It is common for them to rest immediately following a molt from their old skin. It is important not to disturb them. They will sense where their next milkweed meal will come from. 

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Sometimes they just like a change of greeery

Finally, Monarch caterpillars won't always choose the most attractive lush leaves. In an abundance of full foliage of healthy broad leafed orange milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), the Monarch caterpillars (above) chose to eat aging, yellowing thread-leaf milkweed.

It is better to err on the side of leaving aging, less attractive milkweed leaves as each caterpillar has its own preference for the type and age of the leaf or stem they eat.  It is not uncommon to find the largest, 5th in-star caterpillars munching on larger and older leaves. It remains unclear whether this is due to nutritional needs or simply the ability to chew through thicker leaves. 

Managing your late-season established Monarch garden

August is an important transitional month for your pollinator garden. Most milkweeds have given their all to provide long lasting beautiful flowers for you and Monarch butterflies to enjoy throughout the summer. As daylight shortens, most of your milkweed flowers have been fertilized by butterflies and bees resulting in an abundance of seed pods.

In the northeast and mid-Atlantic US, late August through October is an extremely important time for Monarch garden owners and their Monarch butterfly guests.

Late-summer and early fall finds all your milkweeds producing seed pods in an effort to expand their footprint for the following growing season. As a Monarch enthusiast, the difficult question is:

                                                           "Should I trim off the seed pods or leave them"?

                                         The best answer is yes and no - here’s why.

Leave the seed pods

Leaving the seed pods on will provide an important food source for the last generation of Monarch caterpillars. Seed pods are nutritious and, as you see in the image below, are a great meal for stage 4 or 5 caterpillars.

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With so many leaves, stems and stalks for larger Monarch butterfly caterpillars to eat - we need to learn from the caterpillars what they choose to eat even if we don't understand why. Feeding on seed pods is often the last meal a late-stage Monarch caterpillar will eat before it climbs off the plant in search of a safe place to pupate.

Removing seed pods

Removing seed pods is also a good strategy as it triggers the milkweed plant to generate new growth. Keep in mind, milkweed plants develop seed pods at the end of their growing season even though there may be an additional two months of warm growing weather. When a cluster of seed pods are cut, milkweed plants are quick to generate new growth just below the pruned stem.

The importance of new leaf growth can't be overstated. Egg laying for the year's final generation is most often done on young, tender leaves which are hard to come by on established plants. These tender bright green leaves provide newly hatched caterpillars soft enough leaves to eat their first meal. Caterpillars found feeding on new growth in the early fall are the special caterpillars that will grow to be the only generation that fly to Mexico to overwinter.

In sum, it is advisable to remove roughly 80% of your seed pods. This will stimulate your milkweed plant to generate new growth with no harm to the plant. This new growth will be high value targets for female egg laying female monarch butterflies. Leaving one or two seed pods on each plant will be an excellent food source for larger Monarch caterpillars but will result in higher concentrations of milkweed beetles. 

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June 25, 2020

Not only has milkweed been threatened by commercial & housing development, crop farming and horse farms - enter the invasive lantern fly - fond of milkweed. The growth of lantern fly larva has been seen in large numbers on milkweed - particularly swamp milkweed species. It has not been determined at this time whether the black and white larva and its red stage larva that follows if it truly poses a threat.

Check back with us to see the latest on the relationship of the lantern fly and milkweed. 

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