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July20, 2024   The Swamp Milkweed, my 2024 Perennial of the Year

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Monarch butterfly enthusiasts are a passionate group. We can't wait for spring to begin and even then we have to wait to see the first sign of last year's milkweed to emerge. It's a game of patience. I selected the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) as my perennial of the year for 2024. Reasons go well beyond the brilliant white and deep reddish-purple flowers if offers.

Unlike the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), swamp milkweed requires consistently moist soil to fluish. Once established, swamp milkweed will tolerate drought conditions but prefer moist soil over its milkweed brethren butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and common milkweed which prefer to stay on the dry side.

Swamp Milkweed - (Asclepias incarnata)

                         'Ice Ballet'

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Swamp Milkweed - (Asclepias incarnata)

                          'Cinderella'

A question was submitted to our site asking....

 

                                                   "How can I grow dry loving milkweed (butterfly weed, common 

                                     milkweed) together with swamp milkweed or even aquatic milkweed

                                                         (Asclepias perennias) on my small property?"

The answer is to provide each species of milkweed what they need to grow best. Since most milkweed grow best in full sun, make sure you choose the best sight with full sun. As for managing the different needs of moisture there are two tactics that work well. The first works well if you have a garden with a higher and lower end. Plant butterfly weed and common milkweed on the higher portion of your garden and swamp milkweed on the lowest level. The grade or slope of the garden will help in establishing your swamp milkweed after the first year Like all seedlings or new plants, manually watering twice a week for the first growing season is needed. 

A far more reliable tactic for growing swamp milkweed or aquatic milkweed is to grow them in containers without drainage holes. As their name implies, these two brilliant species of milkweed love moist conditions. Below is an example of an inexpensive and proven methods of easily growing swamp and aquatic milkweed. Since these two species of milkweed lack the extensive tap root of the common milkweed your container need not be too large. An additional advantage of planting these two water-loving plants is you can move their containers to the sunniest part of your property including in the garden itself. I suppose it is feasible to sink your container directly into the ground provided you select a container without drainage. 

​                  But does it work?                              6 Monarch Butterfly Larva and Counting...

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In as little as 10 days a total of six monarch caterpillars were seen on potted swamp milkweed. It is important to note those six all were different stages of development proving monarch eggs were laid at different times.

Gardeners can grow every available and native milkweed on their property tor all moisture needs. Success in growing milkweed plants all the way to flowering and seeding simply means knowing how much moisture each species needs and then plan on how to provide it. From the most arid loving common milkweed and butterfly weed to aquatic milkweed, anything is possible. See which species of milkweed monarchs on your property choose. 

July18, 2024   The Heart of the Monarch Breeding Season - Predators Loom and What to do about it

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Nature has a plan for every animal, plant and even protozoan! Monarch butterflies are certainly no exception to. A monarch butterfly protects itself from predators through the consumption of milkweed leaves and the toxic sap within the leaves, flowers and stem. The monarch caterpillar (larvae) isn't harmed by the chemical (cardenolides) having evolved a process called compartmentalizing. While caterpillars ingest it, it doesn't adversely affect them.

 

Only 1-2% of all monarch eggs result in a healthy adult monarch butterfly. This culling process is common in nature to ensure adults have enough of what they need to breed and continue their species. With the number of monarchs dramatically decreasing over the last 20 years - every gardener that sees the image to the left is saddening

 

Monarch predators come in all shapes, colors and sizes. Some we can easily see, others require a microscope. Spraying insecticide is NOT an option. We need to let nature run its course to ensure only the strongest and those making the best survival decisions pass their genetics to the next generation.  There are simple actions you can take without changing the course of nature but reducing short-term risks for monarchs in your garden. 
 

        Only 1-2% live to become

                      a butterfly

Common monarch butterfly predators on your milkweed

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Tachinid Fly

Mantids are top predators in the insect world. When you see a mantid on your milkweed it is as much a benevolent visitor as it is a threat to monarchs. Adult monarch butterflies are on the mantid menu. Mantids will set up on the plant's flower stalk and wait. It will stare anything it can hold including beneficial pollinators. Gardeners will buy egg cases to put in their garden, monarch enthusiasts may relocate them. 

Flies look innocent enough but certain flies, the tachinid fly for example is a first-line predator of monarch caterpillars. Tachinid flies lay their eggs in live caterpillars where they grow and eventually kill their host. Fly larva eat their way out and fly larva drop out on silk strans to the ground where they pupate and hatch into adult flies to repeat the cycle. There is little to nothing a gardener can do to prevent this. 

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Praying Mantis

The jumping spider is, for those with arachnophobia, the least menacing looking of the class arachnida. It is however a predator of very young and emerging monarch butterfly caterpillars. It is not uncommon to find a jumping spider on your milkweed plant. Their sole purpose of being there is to feed on emerging larva. Gardeners can relocate them easily far away from the milkweed plant.

Jumping Spider

Assassin bugs are as menacing as they sound. They should be removed from your plant and taken far away. I've witnessed these predators many times piercing and feasting on instar 3,4,5 (medium to large) monarch caterpillars. Immune to the toxins, assassin bugs have no place in a hardworking gardener's garden. Large and hungry, they need to go. If monarchs have nightmares...the assassin bug is in it. 

Assassin Bug

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Stink Bug

Stink bugs. The name says it all. Stink bugs are a predator of monarch butterfly caterpillars. A common pest in the home, stink bugs are commonly found on milkweed plants. Stink bugs come in a variety of colors including black, brown, green, orange or a combination of these colors. 

An invasive species, stink bugs are most active during warm weather and hide when the weather cools in the fall. Stink bugs lay their eggs in large batches in garden vegetable plants, particularly pumpkin, cucumber and other large leaf vegetables. 

Removing stink bugs is best done by putting a plastic soda or water bottle over the insect and pushing it into the container. Capping it prevents it from escaping or smelling their pungent scent. 

Common monarch butterfly visitors on your milkweed

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Reddit.com

Milkweed beetles are not a threat to monarchs but they, like the monarch caterpillar have milkweed on their menu. I highlight this insect because when and if you have a shortage of fresh, tender milkweed leaves you will not want to have your plant and flowers consumed by the large numbers of this specie of beetle that frequents garden milkweed plants. Save milkweed leaves...relocate them to that plastic soda bottle.

MIlkweed Beetle

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Common Aphid & Ant

Aphids....they appear out of nowhere. Aphids are a common pest on milkweed but do not present a threat. Aphids and milkweed have coexisted for millions of years. There's no need to remove them unless your milkweed develops a black sooty look to them. At that point you can use a spray bottle and shoot them off.  Ants consume the honeydew the aphids produce. I've not seen these ants be a caterpillar threat

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Lacewing

Welcome to the Lacewing insect. This is a wonderful insect to find on your milkweed. Lacewings are delicate but veracious at the same time. Translucent wings and delicate lime green abdomen, lacewings have an appetite for aphids second only to the ladybug larva.

You want to cheer and support lacewings on your milkweed as they will devour aphids by the hundreds. When a lacewing has found a mass of aphids, she will deposit a single egg on a strand of silk as pictured here on the left. 

Lacewings are not a threat to monarch caterpillars.  (reference)

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Lacewing Eggs

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Ladybug, also referred to as ladybird, ladybird beetle or ladybug is also a welcome visitor to your garden. Ladybugs are often thought of as red and black but can also appear yellow and black. or orange and black and other combinations including all black. 

The ladybug larva (right) may be the best natural aphid remover of any insect. 

Ladybug

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Ladybug larva

Enjoy the summer and determine whether you have enough milkweed to meet the number of monarch caterpillars you see on your plants. Summer is also a good time to evaluate the health of your milkweed. Do you have the variety of milkweed to meet the monarch's needs? I have to recommend the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) to you once again  A survey I conducted today found 4 monarch caterpillars on swamp milkweed for every 1 monarch caterpillar on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).  Swamp milkweed thrives in more moist soil than common milkweed, but the rewards of more frequent watering are worth it. Tips on how to master growing swamp milkweed in my July 20, 2024 update. 

July12, 2024   Careful Planting Choices in your Monarch Pollinator Garden

Every pollinator garden will please a monarch butterfly but only a monarch butterfly pollinator garden will have milkweed as one of its main attractions. When planning a monarch butterfly garden, it is very important to create the following list:

   *   Do you want perennials, annuals or a combination

   *   Will the plants bloom in sequence from May through November

   *   Will the plants spread either by rhizome or by seed

   *   Will the plant choice exceed the size of your dream garden size

   *   Plant only native species, monarchs will know the difference

   *   Never plant tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassivaca) 

This feature article focuses on plant selection. Making a list of the plants you want in your garden is only the first step. Your second step is to scribe next to each plant listed how tall and wide they grow. The picture to the right features a poor choice for this garden. The plant, Joe Pye Weed (genus Eutrochium) is a favorite of monarchs and other pollinators.

 

Most Joe Pye Weed grow to seven feet or higher in full sun. There is good news however for gardeners with less room. Joe Pye Weed is now available in a cultivar (a plant variety created by selective breeding or crossbreeding) version. Cultivar Joe Pye weed species grow to a more conservative height of three to five feet. 

Read plant labels carefully or you might end up with far more than you planned for and the need to transplant a great choice that simply outgrew its boundaries.  

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July10, 2024   While July is Cut/Prune your Common Milkweed...Look Carefully for Monarch Eggs or Larva

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Photo courtesy of Rhoda McNitt

July is the ideal time to cut back your common milkweed. By mid-July you'll know which stalks you want to keep for seeds or which you wish were never there. Common milkweed is an aggressive, spreading milkweed specie. Cutting it back will not kill it, in fact, it will stimulate new growth. It is the new growth that is so important to the September migratory population as we've learned from the article just below.

 

When pruning or cutting common milkweed down to the ground, make sure to inspect every leaf, stalk and flower cluster to make sure you are not discarding monarch eggs or small larvae (monarch caterpillars). If you don't have time to do a thorough inspection of each of your discarded plants simply lay the plant in front of other common milkweeds that you are not pruning. Any eggs that hatch will enable the young caterpillar to climb to living milkweed nearby. Any small monarch caterpillars will climb off the wilting leaves and onto adjacent healthy living plants as well. 

Look closely at the picture to the left. There is a sizable monarch caterpillar in the dense center of this flower cluster. It is easy to overlook something even as large as this late-stage monarch caterpillar. 

So, while July is 'prune your common milkweed month' to promote healthy new plants for the migratory monarch generation, be mindful of the current generation in your garden that play an important role in passing along their genetic material to the next generation. Special thanks to Rhoda for sharing her photo with us.  Do you have any interesting monarch larva or butterfly images to share?

June 22, 2024   It's Time...Time to Cut 1/3 of your Common Milkweed to the Ground

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7 Days After Mowing

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14 Days After Mowing

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30 Days After Mowing

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)  is second only to swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) as the preferred plant for female monarch butterflies to lay their eggs. Second only perhaps because even as swamp milkweed grow into mature plants their leaves remain small and tender, just the right recipe for a 1/16th of an inch baby monarch caterpillar. As the name implies, common milkweed is the most common and abundant specie of milkweed along the mid-Atlantic and northeast coast.

Common milkweed comes in second for 'most desirable egg laying plant' because the leaves of the common milkweed can grow to an enormous size and undesirable thickness. As the plant ages, it becomes impossible for a new monarch caterpillar to eat its leaves. Unlike the common milkweed, swamp milkweed leaves remain the same size and tender through the plant's long life. Female monarchs will seek out the newest growth and or most tender leaves to deposit their eggs.

Common milkweed is an aggressive perennial. Growing to heights exceeding 7', leaf production slows toward the late summer and fall. This reduces the attractiveness of common milkweed for mid-late summer generations of monarchs. Of particular importance is the last generation of migratory monarchs. The August and early September timeframe is when female monarchs are depositing their eggs which will become the migratory monarch generation. IF there are fewer ideal target leaves for females to lay their eggs, there is a potential for a lower butterfly count for this critical generation. There is good news, make that GREAT news. The common milkweed has several advantages over the stylish swamp milkweed.

                       Common Milkweed Advantages for Female Egg Laying

     * Remarkable regrowth - whether a branch or the entire stalk is cut, common milkweed regenerates

                                                 new growth faster than any other milkweed species.

     *  New growth offers soft, tender and highly attractive new leaves for egg laying female monarchs

     *   Common milkweed often sends out rhizomes (underground roots) to generate new plants

     *   Plant regeneration is FAST. offering a fully pruned common milkweed to produce a new plant 

          in as little as two weeks giving gardeners the opportunity to prune or cut back in mid-July to 

          have fresh new, tender leaves for the migratory monarch caterpillar generation. 

The images to the left are all of the same plant. Township mowing took this plant to ground level on May 20th. Within a week there were 8-10 new leaves. A week after than it had over a dozen new leaves and had sent out a new shoot. One month after being completely cut to the ground the milkweed became a new, stronger plant. 

Dates                                 Leaf production           Rainfall         Temperature Range

May 20-27                          10-12 leaves                  0.05"                  55 F - 87 F

May 28 - June 4                 12-20 leaves                  0.30"                  47 F - 87 F

June 5-20                            33 leaves                       3.24"                  52 F - 90 

Common milkweed is resilient. This study of a roadside milkweed under normal growing and climate conditions produced over a new leaf each day. This information is extremely important! Gardeners now have a guide on when to cut their milkweed to ensure female monarchs in late August and September have fresh new milkweed leaves to lay their eggs and for their larva (monarch caterpillars) an abundance of edible leaves rich in nutrients. 

                                                                                    It is critically important monarch caterpillars feed on a healthy palatable milkweed in

                                                                                    late summer into fall. This generation i(eastern, non-southern monarchs) are                                                                                                        programmed to migrate and not breed until the following year. The fall monarch 

                                                                                    caterpillar produces a considerably larger adult monarch butterfly following a slightly

                                                                                    longer period of time in their chrysalis. Wings averaging 4" help the monarch conserve 

                                                                                    energy by catching thermals (columns of rising warm air). Fewer wing strokes means

                                                                                    less energy expended. Leaves and lots of them are needed this time of year. 

                                                                                     ACTION ITEM - Find your pruning sheers

                                                                                     Gardeners it is advisable to prune back your common milkweed. I'd recommend you 

                                                                                     cut back half of your common milkweed close to the ground July 1st and the other half

                                                                                     August 1st. This will create a series of new growth for the final generation of egg laying

                                                                                     female monarchs. For those who collect seeds for the following year, you                                                                                                               might consider a pruning program of:  1/3 cut by July 1st, 1/3 cut by August 1st and                                                                                           leave the remaining 1/3 for seeds and to allow larger instar 4 and 5 caterpillars to eat                                                                                  eat the seed pods, that is of course if they can battle the mob of red milkweed beetles that time of year.

                                                                                    A bonus for a pruning program is it ensures you will have plenty of fresh milkweed                                                                                             leaves for those educators or taggers that choose to captive breed a few in the fall.

Studies have shown however captive breeding to be a potential hazard to the health of the migratory monarch. Stress, lack of environmental conditions such as diurnal temperature and humidity swings, UV rays, hydration, diurnal light exposure and increased load of the spores of the OE protozoan are variables thought to contribute to less than healthy migratory adult butterflies. Unlimited fresh, tender milkweed leaves are perhaps the most critical to larval health and development so you'll have that to offer. 

If you're like me, it's difficult leveling your common milkweed to within inches of the ground since you've been nurturing them all season long but they will come back stronger for the experience. 

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  New, soft & tender common milkweed ieaves are

scarce in the fall - just when they're needed most

June 15, 2024   Like Guacamole?   WATCH The Netflix Documentary:  Guardian of the Monarchs

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Buy Avocados Grown in the U.S.A

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The Netflix documentary: Guardian of the Monarchs uncovers the danger and damage the Mexican cartel is unleashing on the sacred sanctuaries of the monarch butterfly in the mountains of south-central Mexico. Designated as protected habitat by the Mexican government in 1986; the documentary shows heavily armed and masked militants illegally logging, burning acres of conifer trees and diverting steams and aquifers toward avocado plantations. The danger for the monarch butterfly is the disregard for the few acres where monarchs overwinter. Destruction of Mexican overwintering habitat could be the single greatest threat and to the migratory monarch. Mexico exports more avocados than any other country in the world. The United States however does grow avocados in three states.

"Unfortunately, drug cartels control much of the state of Michoacán, where they charge avocado producers a protection fee to avoid damage to the crops."

                                                                                                            (World Atlas.com)

The destruction Mexican monarch butterflies overwintering acres to satisfy consumer's appetite for Mexican grown avocado for guacamole is heinous.

                                                      Solution?         

                   

        Buy avocados grown in Florida, California or Hawaii.

So how do you know the guacamole you ordered was made with avocados from Mexico?  Ask. Ordering guacamole made with avocados from Mexico further increases the chance of habitat loss for monarchs and pushes them closer to potentially an endangered status. 

I designed the logo above to support U.S. grown avocados. The monarch's tag indicates this monarch was tagged in the U.S. and made it Mexico. It along with myself ask you to buy and consume avocados only grown in the United States. If demand goes down for Mexican grown avocados there is a chance the overwintering mountains of south-central Mexico will once again be a safe haven for migratory monarchs' overwintering sites from November through late March. While habitat loss, use of herbicides and pesticides partly responsible for the declining population of the monarch, the destruction of overwintering sanctuary sites have rapidly become the #1 threat to the eastern monarch population. The speed and destruction of Mexico overwintering habitat by the cartel may play a role in the World Wildlife Federation's determination of whether to advance the classification of the monarch from threatened to endangered. Do your part. Buy only U.S. grown avocados.

May 10, 2024...Feature:  Swamp Milkweed

This segment will focus on the female monarch butterfly's favorite milkweed plant to lay her eggs:

                                    The Swamp Milkweed.

                                      (Asclepias incarnata)

This beautiful perennial grows on long sturdy stems that fork as it grows taller. The vanilla scented summer blooms are deep pink to purple. There is a cultivar variety that offer a white flower. This plant is native to every state except: California, Oregon, and Washington state. While the name suggests incarnata is limited to swamps or ponds, once established it will flourish in normal garden conditions. It is not drought tolerant, however. 

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Pink Swamp Milkweed Flower

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Pink Swamp Milkweed

          "Cinderella"

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White Swamp Milkweed

          "Ice Ballet"

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White Swamp Milkweed Flower

This milkweed is a favorite among gardeners and monarch enthusiasts as it does not spread. Swamp milkweed lacks a rhizome (an underground root system). This plant grows upright. You can expect incarnata to reach a height of 3-5' and it offers plenty of space between branches enabling other garden plants to share the sun. Like all milkweed plants, once established, it does not like to be moved. 

Swamp milkweed is the ideal plant for early and mid-summer generations of monarch butterflies. The final generation of monarch are mate in early August followed by the female laying her eggs in mid-late August. Unlike its Asclepias relative the common milkweed, swamp milkweed does not regenerate when heavily pruned or mowed. That said, leaves and branches eaten by monarch caterpillars (larva) will regrow. Since the lanced shape leaves remain soft throughout the season, female monarchs love this plant through the first frost. In short, do not heavily prune swamp milkweed...leave this task to the common milkweed where aggressive pruning will reward you with new tender leaves just in time for the fall monarch caterpillars. 

Swamp milkweed is toxic. The plant is not under the intense latex flow pressure of common milkweed but incarnata does contain the same white latex fluid that makes the monarch caterpillar poisonous. Like all milkweed plants swamp milkweed is very late to emerge in the spring. I usually leave stalks from the previous year's plant to remind myself where I planted them the previous year. Enjoy this fabulous milkweed. 

Since pink and white milkweed share the same needs of full sun and moist soil they pair well together. Since swamp milkweed is a favorite of female monarchs make sure you leave enough room for the 4" winged monarch butterfly to easily navigate around the plants. 

Milkweed planted too close together will limit the number of eggs a monarch will deposit. Theories that support this include an increased number of predators on plants too concentrated. Additionally, the female monarch will not be able to fly between the plants limiting the number of targeted leaves she will be exposed to.

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April 1, 2024...CAUTION:  Milkweed is slow to emerge, it's where you left it last year

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If you had milkweed in your yard, garden or field last year, it is still there! Don't be discouraged if you haven't seen any new sprouts as milkweed is one of the last perennial plants to emerge. Spring is notorious for teasing gardeners with swings of unseasonably warm weather, particularly in early April. You can expect the first signs of last year's milkweed sprouts by the end of April or as late as mid-May depending on the soil temperature. 

Gardeners need to be particularly careful in how they prepare and clear their garden following winter. New milkweed shoots are fragile and easily broken when garden hoes or rakes are used to clear weeds that have already established themselves on top of where milkweed sprouts will emerge. For this reason, it is recommended that weeding is done carefully by hand where milkweed grew last year. 

The emergence of milkweed will vary even within the same species. The amount of sunlight that hits the ground on last year's milkweed underground roots will determine which spouts appear first. The warmer the ground, the sooner the emergence. 

I found it particularly helpful leaving the dried, hardened stems from last year's milkweed plants. It assures me where to expect this year's plant and, more importantly, where to most carefully weed by hand. 

Emerging Orange Milkweed  (Asclepias tuberosa)

February 16, 2024...Weed control in your garden this season

This time of year gardeners look at the calendar and out the window...a lot. Spring can't come soon enough. Not helping matters, garden centers and big box stores have fully stocked shelves of planting trays, annual and perennial seeds. Gardens in late winter look pathetic. Clover and chickweed are thriving even before pitchers and catchers arrive in Florida for baseball's annual spring training. Gardeners feel overwhelmed by the barrage of weeds that take front of center well before plants are even available at local nurseries. Winter plans turn to weed control for the new season once and for all. Retail, hardware stores and online sites offer choices for eliminating weeds but come with important fine print, potentially life-threatening fine print for some, in a word Glyphosate.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in many weed killer products, most commonly associated with the product: RoundUp®. While an effective systemic weed killer it is non-specific in what it kills. Glyphosate is present in many weed killers and has no place in gardens. Milkweed and other high nectar emerging plants will be permanently eliminated by broad spectrum weed killers. While you might be tempted to reach for the sprayer to get that pure topsoil look with no greens before planting this year, don't. You have far more to lose than you do to gain.

Reminder!  Milkweed is a perennial. It is one of the last plants

to emerge in the spring. A soil temperature over 65 degrees

is needed for last year's milkweed to emerge. In the

mid-Atlantic this is commonly around the middle of May.

Use of broad-spectrum herbicides will destroy healthy

emerging milkweed plants like this orange milkweed,

Asclepias tuberosa and others. (right)

There are natural products that control post-emergent weeds without controversial chemicals. Vinegar preparations are one type gardeners report success with. A call to your local nursery or even university can assist in making this year's weed control safer for you and your returning perennials. While weeds grow quickly, they can't grow faster than you

can remove them. Use of a hoe or long handled rake gives you control which weeds you rake out. Early and new weeds from seeds have very shallow roots and are easily unrooted.

Drugwatch is an A+ Better Business Bureau rated consumer-based agency providing help for those injured from products like RoundUp®. For more information and updates on lawsuits associated with RoundUp® visit here.

 

RoundUp® is a registered trademark of the Monsanto company.

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Red Deadnettle 

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Harry Bittercress

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Common Chickweed

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May 14th, Oxford, PA

February 10, 2024...Eastern Monarch Butterfly Overwintering Declines 59% Over Previous Year

World Wildlife Federation, February 7, 2024. The eastern monarch butterfly population declined by 59% over the previous year. Calculated by the number of acres where monarchs were observed in overwintering sites, the 2023-2024 data is the second lowest population count since 1993 when record keeping began (WWF, 2024). 

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 Reasons for the Year's Dramatic Decline

* Increased temperature & drought along   

   the monarchs' migration routes

* Reduced availability of milkweed resulting

   in fewer eggs being deposited on leaves

* Increased herbicide use

* Decreased availability of nectar plants. 

   Nectar plants enable migrating monarchs      to renew their energy and fat storage for

    their epic journey to Mexico

                                   

                                           worldwildlife.org

Experts cite monarchs are resilient and will find a way to prevail. The long-term trend however from 1993 to the 2024 data shows a 95% reduction from a high roosting population in 1996-1997 of 18.2 acres down to only 0.90 acres in 2024. Monarchs remain a highly specialized insect relying on only one genus (Asclepias) of plant for survival. While there are over 100 species of milkweed across the United States, natural habitats are declining due to an increased footprint of structures such as storage facilities and distribution plants. Charles Darwin cited in his work The Origin of Species that an organism that cannot adapt and evolve in their environment are at increased risk of long-term population decline or extinction. (Darwin, 1859).

While we cannot change the extremes of weather, which experts believed played a significant role in reduced availability of milkweed and nectar plants along migration routes last year, we can plant and irrigate milkweed and high nectar yield perennial plants that bloom during the fall migration on our own properties. Goldenrod and aster remain late season, long blooming and drought resistant favorites of migratory monarchs. Below are two outstanding organizations helping monarchs and providing signage for your monarch 'food & fuel garden. 

Support: Monarch Watch here                                                                                                           

Support: The World Wildlife Federation here

February 9, 2024...Looking back on 2023 highlights and remaining challenges

A total of 101 monarch caterpillars were collected from local milkweed plants for analysis. Of those, 51% were male. Of the caterpillars raised in environmentally controlled containers, 80 butterflies were tagged and released. Of the 20 that didn't make it, 10 fell to parasitic fly predation. The remaining 10 did not make it out of their chrysalis possibly attributed to Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (Oe) infection.  Of the 10 that died in their chrysalis, 82% were 4th or 5th instar caterpillars. 

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Parasitic Fly Analysis

2023 was a record low year for deaths due to parasitic flies with only 10% of caterpillars infected. The two previous years had record high fly predation rates of 50% in 2023 and 58% in 2022 of their total caterpillar count. It is unclear why the 2023 season had such a low incident of mortality from the same species and location of Tachinid flies. Every parasitic attack took place before September 6th, possibly reflecting on the seasonal lifecycle of the parasitic flies at this location. Parasitic larvae can be either Tachinid fly or parasitic wasp larva. This season, like the past four seasons at this southeastern Pennsylvania site, only Tachinid flies were the predators.

Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (Oe)

The 2023 season found the lowest severe (defined as a total spore count) Oe rates and the most butterflies with no infection at all in the last four years of analysis. Reasons for this may include thorough care in cleaning materials used to house developing caterpillars. A 20% bleach solution soaking followed by a full dishwasher cycle was used to prevent Oe spore contamination from season to season. A concerning uptick in moderate infection rates was noted, however. Oe can be fatal but is not always. It remains unclear how many

moderate or severely infected monarchs fail to complete the grueling fall migration because of this parasitic protozoan.

January 28, 2024...What is "Oe" and how is it a threat to the health of monarchs?

 

 

 

Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, more commonly referred to as "Oe", is a growing threat to monarch butterfly populations. Oe is not a plant or an animal but a protozoan parasite with a specific host which includes monarch butterflies, queen butterflies and other butterflies that rely on milkweed to lay their eggs. Oe exists as spores on the leaf of milkweed. When a caterpillar emerges from its egg it begins eating milkweed leaves and in doing so the spores on it. Once inside the caterpillar the spores 'hatch' into a single-celled organisms and begin rapidly reproducing inside the growing caterpillar.

                                                                         

The ill effects of the OE begin to appear in some but not all emerging adult butterflies.

Damage caused by OE includes, but are not limited to an inability for monarchs to

emerge from their chrysalis, malformation of wing development and negative

consequences in navigation. Researchers noted healthy monarchs (those completing

migration) have far fewer incidences of Oe infection. Experts in the field of Oe research

have linked raising monarch caterpillars in captivity to higher incidence of Oe exposure.

For this reason, if one chooses to raise caterpillars only older caterpillars of

instar 4 or 5 caterpillar should be collected. Contamination by captive breeding may

spread OE infection.. 'Migratory culling' is a term applied to monarchs. It is a

demonstration of only the strongest specimens migrate to south-central Mexico to

overwinter and return in the spring. Those that don't migrate (Florida populations for

example) have the highest incidence of infection.

                                                                  One common link to high incidences of Oe is the presence of the tropical milkweed (Asclepias 

                                                                  curassavica). This is a tropical plant and should remain in the tropics. It not recognized by monarchs                                                                    north of its native growing longitude (South and Central America) and will not survive colder 

                                                                  climates.

                                                                  The average gardener will never know if monarchs are infected with Oe. Microscopic spores             

                                                                  accumulate on the abdomen of adult monarchs and are extremely resilient.  Ongoing Oe research 

                                                                  and publications are being led by Andrew Davis and his team at the Odum School of Ecology, 

                                                                  University of Georgia. To assist in their research on Oe prevalence for monarchs in your garden, visit

                                                                  their site at Project Monarch Health.

                                                                  Project Monarch Health offers those interested in determining Oe levels for their monarchs by 

                                                                  requesting a no cost kit to sample up to 30 butterflies. The kit includes complete 'how to'

                                                                  instructions, data sheet, adhesives for gathering spores and a return address envelope. Researchers

                                                                  from the university send results of your sampled butterflies back to you while the data becomes

                                                                  part of a larger ongoing national study of Oe.

Oe spores and protozoans have been around as long as monarchs and milkweed plants. New data suggests a relationship between commercial and residential rearing of monarch caterpillars and tropical milkweed plantings with increased prevalence Oe infection rates. (Journal of Animal Ecology, 16 February 2022 https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2656.13678.)

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Adult monarch butterflies infected with Oe spores look identical to one with no spores at all. Only under a microscope can the spores become visible. 

The image on the left is a newly emerged adult monarch moments away from being tested for OE spores. The materials used for this important research are available from:                               

                     Project Monarch Health

The image to the right shows how small each spore is when viewed through a microscope (next to wing scales). Spores accumulate on the abdomen of adult monarchs. Researchers individually count the spores to determine the level of infection.

Credit: Project Monarch Health

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Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica)

Likely infected with Oe protozoans

January 14, 2024...Building a better mousetrap...optimizing conditions for raising caterpillars

The goal of all monarch conservation is to improve the environment of which these majestic insects once thrived. Planting more milkweed, reducing pesticide and herbicide use and protecting overwintering sites is the answer. That said - raising monarch caterpillars whether for hobby, research or tagging will continue. Knowing this we must raise them in habitats that will result in normal sized, healthy adult butterflies. Previous news articles (on this site, Aug. 12th & 28th, 2022), listed conditions for healthy caterpillar development. Looking back on last season, I was overlooking key conditions needed for healthier caterpillars: natural light, natural exposure to moisture and diurnal temperatures. This prompted me to build a better housing container, 'mousetrap' if you will, for next season (image right).

The new habitat enclosure enables one to keep the developing caterpillar outdoors This provides:

   *   protection from all predators    *   diurnal natural lighting        *   diurnal humidity

   *   diurnal temperatures                 *   reduce competitive stress   *   mobility of placement

   *   easy feeding & cleaning             *   water for milkweed stem    *   ease of transportation

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Outdoor Single Monarch Caterpillar Enclosure

The new habitat enclosure removes critical stressors proven to be detrimental to natural caterpillar growth in published clinical papers. Enabling natural light and dark cycles supports caterpillars' circadian rhythm cycles. Isolation removes competitive stress of potential food shortages since monarch caterpillars are not communal. Placed outdoors in a filtered sunlight location, caterpillars will develop under more natural conditions and therefore have a better chance of normal development. Leaving caterpillars to fend for themselves is best of course, however; if one wants to raise a few for hobby or research, providing the most natural conditions makes sense.  

Monarch enthusiasts should refrain from any enclosure that can't provide natural light and uninterrupted light cycles as these conditions were detrimental to monarch navigation. (UC, 2022)

Limitations to this enclosure remain. Thorough cleaning of the materials to remove the seasons OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) protazoan parasite contamination completely remain to be seen. Limiting room for broader foraging may be a limitation on exercise and may prove to be a limitation.  Evaluation of 20 new enclosures compared to 20 in mason jars using an outdoor garage method will be conducted in the upcoming season. Endpoints include: survival, wing size from the migratory generation and OE from year to year. Stay tuned. 

December 31, 2023...An analysis of when migratory monarchs are tagged      39'.79" N   -75'.94"W

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Monarch conservation and care is a year-round commitment. Some times of the year are slower than others of course but, if you're really committed, every month counts. Winter for example is a time to make sure you've submitted all your data to various university studies including tagging data, parasitic data and OE abdomen samples. If you're like most people and don't get into any data mining, winter is a time of reflection. What did I do right last year, what could I have done better? For me, winter is a time to look back on my data. How many monarchs did I tag? How many were healthy? Did my captive bread caterpillars produce full size or larger adults? IF one chooses to raise caterpillars in captivity - it needs to result in producing large, healthy butterflies. Do I even know what size the migratory monarch's wing should be? These and other data questions will be answered in a future site posting. 

              2019 - 2023 Analysis of When Monarchs were Tagged 

Monarch tagging data can tell you a lot. It tells me when not to plan travel away from home. For instance, I'll be unavailable until further notice between September 10th through the 25th. The graph above shows the early, mid and late season for tagging for a five-year period ending in 2023. The weather, specifically the temperatures during the later summer and early fall weather play a factor on when monarchs enter their chrysalis and how long they remain in their chrysalis before emerging into an adult butterfly. Daytime high average temperature for September and October were very close over the 5 year study window differing by only 2.0 F while the overnight low averages varied by as much as 8.0 F.  Warm temperatures accelerate monarch development while cooler temperatures prolong development. Case in point, in 2020 a cold air mass dropped an overnight low temperature of 38 on September 22nd. This year also coincided with 2 monarch butterflies emerging from their chrysalis as late as November 2nd. (red circle).  

The year 2023 found an increase in average day temperature by 3.2F and a warmer overnight low average increase of 2.9F. The monarch tagging season did show a positive correlation to earlier emergence from chrysalis compared to other cooler years. Of the 80 tagged monarchs in 2023, 56% of monarchs emerged as adult butterflies before September 15th compared to other years with only 35% of butterflies emerged before September 15th.

In the depth of winter there are many tasks and considerations for the upcoming year. Did all the milkweed you planted do equally well? If not, was it too wet for the orange or yellow butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) or too dry for the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) you planted? Did your milkweed not produce robust flowers and seedpods? Perhaps there was not enough sun where you chose to plant them. Now is the time to reflect on what your garden will look like in the new year. Don't be concerned about digging out last year's milkweed - expand to a brighter, sunnier area next year. Just one or two plants apart from each other will make a difference. Remember our motto - Save the monarchs...one milkweed at a time.  

November 19, 2023...Book Review: 100 Plants to Feed the Monarch

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We are delighted to offer our site's first book review. Published in 2021 by the Xerces Society, the 288-page softcover book 100 Plants to Feed the Monarch is a valuable resource for every gardener. It is formatted in an easy-to-use field guide layout and includes the top nectar plants, trees, shrubs and vines needed for monarchs. The milkweed chapter alone showcases 34 North American native milkweeds. Each plant featured includes a sharp color image of the plant's bloom and foliage along with the plant's common and scientific name. The authors include a 'native rage' color map for each plant to ensure the plant will thrive and be recognized as native by local monarchs. 

One of the features we like best is the reference banner for all 100 plants. The banner not only the features the plant but the conditions the plant requires to thrive. Below is an example of a popular monarch milkweed. 

                  Butterfly Milkweed (Butterfly Weed,  Orange Milkweed), Asclepias tuberosa

100 ways to help monarchs

Exposure      Soil Moisture          Bloom Time           Flower Color        Height           Availability

    Sun          Medium to dry           Summer                  Orange               3 feet                 Wide

The introduction to the 'Life of a Monarch' first chapter is followed by an excellent chapter entitled: Guidelines for creating and protecting monarch habitat. A step by step of 'what to do and not to do' helps even novice gardeners be prepared for a productive monarch season. Pages 38-39 provide a sample garden layout by plant type and bloom time. If you own just one or two books supporting monarchs, this should be one of them. 

November 5, 2023...Blueprint for Creating the Delaware 'Gold' Coast

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   Seaside Goldenrod Thrives in

                Coastal Areas

Recommendations to improve conditions for the endangered species monarch butterfly (Danaus plexipuss plexipuss) by notable organizations such as Monarch Watch, Project North, Xerces Society, the North American Butterfly Association include increased plantings specific to monarchs' needs. Increasing the availability of native milkweed is the universal push to increase the surface leaf area for female monarchs to lay their eggs and for their caterpillars to consume them. An important concern for monarch survival includes too little food in the form of fall nectar plants through their migration route. 

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                Migratory Monarchs                        on Seaside Goldenrod

As summer wanes nectar plants die off. Roadside and highway mowing further decrease nectar sources for migrating monarchs. The problem is widespread throughout the United States. As discussed in the October 30th article below; the Delaware Coast is an opportunity for qualitative and quantitative improvement for monarchs. As a barren coastal area for migrating monarchs - seaside goldenrod is recommended as the plant of choice to extend and expand nectar sources. 

Flight Route of Fall Migratory Monarchs

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Proposed Planting Sites of Seaside Goldenrod

To evaluate the need of migratory monarchs one needs to identify their flight route. That route takes thousands across the Delaware Bay. The Delaware Bay covers nearly a 600 'monarch mile' flight without the ability to land or refuel. While determining needs, there may be a higher concentration of monarchs in the southern portion of New Jersey, specifically Cape May, NJ. as monarch butterflies follow their food source while flying southwest toward their winter roosts in southcentral Mexico. 

The map (left) highlights coastal Delaware where high nectar fuel plants would be most welcomed by monarchs who have completed the journey across the bay. Since monarchs don't fly groups of flocks, it makes sense to consider the coast of Dover, DE through the tip of Cape May, NJ as logical targets to plant seaside goldenrod on Delaware's sand dunes. 

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Seaside goldenrod is an inexpensive, native, hardy and favorite nectar source of monarchs. Goldenrod is native in all 50 states. The seaside species is particularly valuable for this project as our planting sites include sand dunes to create a visual attraction for arriving monarchs. Seaside, as the name implies, is suitable for harsh marine environments. The beauty of this plant is the timing of its prolific golden flowers which coincide with the monarch fall migration. 

Benefits of planting goldenrod also include excellent erosion control. Given the fragile nature of coastal sand dunes, goldenrod should be well received by local and state governments and environmental authorities. The vision? Deep yellow-gold bursts of goldenrod color will illuminate and secure coastal dunes while offering refueling centers as they land on the country's first state. 

The message:  Welcome to the Delaware 'Gold' Coast refueling centers. 

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The success of the project requires state and local government approval since planting sites are on protected, state owned sand dunes. Once approved, local garden clubs, nature centers, state parks and conservation organizations would play a role in creating this historic project.

Proof of this project's success include spotting monarchs feeding on the newly planted goldenrod. Additionally, there's a scientific component that includes reporting monarchs with a tag on their wing. Each monarch spotted on a 'gold coast' goldenrod is a demonstration the project improved conditions along the migratory route. 

Efforts are underway to gain the state support needed to make the project happen. We have gained traction to date. Leadership of the Cape Henlopen, DE State Park have broken ground on a Monarch Butterfly Welcome Station. Targeted to open in the summer of 2024, the park will feature an education center and a field dedicated to the monarch butterfly with a blend of 70% late-season nectar plants for the migratory generation and 30% of native milkweed species for spring and summer generations. More on this as it develops.

Improving and maintaining the monarch butterfly population conditions are a long-term project. While the state project above is lofty and requires tremendous coordination, the beauty of saving monarchs is as simple as our motto: "Save the monarchs...one milkweed at a time." 

October 30, 2023... Migrating Monarchs Find No Nectar to Refuel on this Delaware Beach

Tens of thousands of monarch butterflies from New England migrate south to overwinter in Mexico each fall. Their migration route is thought to be aided, in part, by the Atlantic coast. This route funnels many into southeast New Jersey just east of the expansive Delaware Bay. Once monarchs take flight from the secure ground of the New Jersey coast - there's no place to land until they reach the coast of Delaware. Relative to their size, the flight distance is roughly 500 miles. The monarchs that congregate in southern NJ are treated well, very well. The officials and townspeople of southern NJ offer fall migratory monarchs plenty of what they need - nectar rich native plants to replenish their energy reserves. Their journey however has just begun. The next step for NJ fall monarchs might be their most treacherous - flying the entire Delaware Bay in one flight with no place to land until reaching Delaware.

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The Delaware coast needs to step up their efforts to meet the needs of famished monarchs. Monarchs constantly look for late season plants that offer a high ratio of nectar to flower. Today's barren dunes in Delaware may contribute to a high regional mortality of monarchs flying south for the winter. There is hope however as an exciting conservation project has begun.

The first safe landing ground for many of New England's coastal migratory monarchs include a coastal band from Dover, Delaware through the point of Cape Henlopen, Delaware. This strip of coastal land consists of beach and sand dunes. One might think it an inhospitable environment for a late season flowering nectar plant. Fortunately, nature offers the perfect native plant - the perennial seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), a monarch favorite.

Landing Sight for Thousands of Migrating Monarchs. Not 1 nectar plant in 

                                  sight on Delaware's longest beach

Seaside goldenrod checks all the 'must have' boxes as the perfect migratory monarch plant. It is native to all 50 states, salt, deer and drought tolerant, has prolific late season and long-lasting blooms. If that weren't' enough - seaside goldenrod has an extensive root system which helps control dune erosion.

While evaluating all the late season, high nectar yield monarch favorite plants - the goldenrod becomes the obvious plant of choice given its durability and ability to grow in harsh conditions while requiring little if any care.

As I looked at the barren Delaware coast last year it was void of any color and completely inhospitable for monarchs, it became clear what was needed. The Delaware gray coast needed to become: The Delaware 'Gold' Coast - gold referring to seaside goldenrod.  A comprehensive commitment to adorning 50 miles of sand dunes with goldenrod would become this migratory monarch project impetus.  

October 22, 2023... Lessons from this year's season 

The 2023 monarch butterfly tagging season ended with reports of good sighting numbers this year compared to last. The weather in the mid-Atlantic supported healthy returns of last year's milkweed plants. A good milkweed year provides millions of healthy leaves for monarchs to lay their eggs. 

While cleaning my monarch lab this year I took note that a few decisions I made earlier in the year made studying monarchs easier for me and healthier for the caterpillars I raised. If you tag monarchs to help Monarch Watch's ongoing study or participate in other university studies, you'll want to make this hobby enjoyable and efficient. Below are tips for next year for those who raise monarch caterpillars for study or fun.

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Not all Ball jars are equal. The more you see the better for you and the caterpillar

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Retrieved 8/29, Instar 5, chrysalis formed August 31st

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Isolation reduces stress, reduces OE risk and allows you to move jars outside

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Tweezers help remove most of the caterpillar' silk

*   Choose a canning jar with the clearest view, Unobstructed views allow you see how much milkweed remains in each jar

*   Remove the top of the jar and hot glue a screen to allow air circulation. Simply trace around the metal top of the canning jar on screen           and cut

*   Use painters' tape on each jar to record data including date collected, instar, date of chrysalis, measure wing size

*   Fold tape to create a tab for easy removal after the season, painters' tape leaves no residue behind keeping the jar clear

*  Tweezers help remove most of the silk spun on jar screens

Every jar should be sterilized after each caterpillar. Put a tablespoon of bleach in each jar, fill it with water and let soak for 30 minutes. Then place each jar in the dishwasher for a full cleaning cycle. Experts recommend this thorough cleaning to reduce OE transmission. 

                                             Successfully raising monarch caterpillars require replicating their natural environment. Isolating

                                                                                each caterpillar reduces stress and transmission of disease.

October 16, 2023... Goldenrod Plant vs. Ragweed 

Goldenrod is NOT ragweed. It bears repeating - goldenrod is NOT ragweed. Think of ragweed as the evil imposter of goldenrod. Ragweed causes annoying, disabling allergies, respiratory disorders and for some worsens chronic respiratory diseases. Ragweed is not a plant you can purchase, want to plant, or have near your home while goldenrod is. 

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Goldenrod bloom

Goldenrod is a completely different plant genus compared to ragweed. Despite this; the two plants look similar when blooming, bloom at the same time of year and even have a similar flower structure called cluster flower stalks. Additionally, both flowers attract pollinators including monarchs.

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Goldenrod leaves

Ragweed leaves

Ragweed bloom

Photo: Blogspot.com

Photo: Sight owned

Photo: Blogspot.com

Photo: Blogspot.com

Goldenrod is an important pollinating plant for monarchs that does not have the sinus irritants ragweed does. The easiest way to determine the difference between goldenrod and ragweed is looking at the shape of the leaves. Goldenrod is one of the few late season blooming plants for monarchs that aren't considered an allergenic plant. As monarch butterflies migrate from northern climates to southern, more tropical climates they need to restore their energy reserves.  Plants, such as goldenrod, provide much needed nectar and enable migrating monarchs to reach their overwintering roosts. 

Goldenrod is widely available at nurseries and garden centers - to my knowledge there is no market for selling ragweed which sends its own message. 

October 12, 2023... What makes a successful monarch migration season ?

The great monarch migration is well underway. The migratory monarch butterfly (Danaus plixipuss plexipuss) may be the most miraculous living organism on earth. Weighing less than a paperclip, some fly 3,000 miles in as little as four months. A tropical insect, it must escape the cold and barren states of North America to overwinter in south-central Mexico. 

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Migratory monarch favorites - goldenrod and aster

The Perfect Conditions for Successful Monarch Migration

   Several factors impact the ability for monarch butterflies, from as far as Canada, to safely navigate to Mexico to survive the winter.  

Weather

Sun and warm temperatures are ideal migrating conditions. They allow for plants along the monarchs' migration routes to keep their blooms and provide nectar which refuel butterfly energy stores (lipids). Sunny weather also creates thermals (rising columns of air) which help butterflies conserve energy when flying. It is suggested monarchs take advantage of cold north winds to push them south further conserving energy. Winds pushing up from the south create a headwind. On these days monarchs are thought to maximize loading up on nectar staying closer to the ground and flowers. While not scientifically proven, we can't put it past them to fly south with a tail wind and fuel for days with a headwind. All bets are off however when temperatures are 55 degrees or colder as monarchs cannot fly below 55 degrees. 

Flowering Plants

Monarch butterflies, unlike when they were in their caterpillar phase, can only drink to gain energy. The sole source of energy is nectar. Like the hummingbird, nectar is the only source of energy to allow flight for monarchs. Nectar is only available from flowers for all migrating monarchs. Proper growing conditions for fall flower plants have been a critical survival factor influencing the migratory monarch migration. 

Severe drought or wind fires can reduce or eliminate regions of life saving nectar plants. Increased land development is erasing the once abundant fields of goldenrod

and other go-to high nectar yield flowers monarchs depend on. 

Climate is playing an increasing role in monarch survival. Paralyzing early fall snow or ice storms along migration routes can kill millions of monarchs before ever reaching Mexico. Warmer than average springs can trigger early migrations running the risk of late spring snow and ice storms which can kill migrating monarchs returning to North America to jump start the next year's season of monarchs.

                               What can you do to help the monarch migration?

             Consider planting late season, long blooming and high nectar yield plants.

        Seaside Goldenrod                  New England Aster                New York Ironweed

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Photo: Journeynorth.org

Late or early winter weather can kill

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Butterfly Bush

Goldenrod is not ragweed. Ragweed contributes to late season allergies and hay fever symptoms. Goldenrod is a drought and deer resistant plant that thrives on neglect. There are many species of goldenrod, I chose seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) as it has large blooms very late into the fall season. Butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) was included as it is available in a non-invasive species form (Miss Molly, Lo and Behold series) and available as a dwarf species for those with limited space. 

October 7, 2023... Reflections of one 2023 tagging season

The tagging season for the northern and mid-Atlantic regions is nearly completion. A few late season chrysalis remain. 

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Allow me, if you will, to reflect on my season's tagging efforts. I tagged 80 adult monarchs of the 100 caterpillars I retrieved. The captive bred caterpillars were retrieved from milkweed at an instar of 4 or later. My choice of the last caterpillar instar selection is to allow natural selection to yield only the strongest survivors. My strategy is to expose the pre-chrysalis caterpillar to 98% of its life as a caterpillar in the wild. My hope is that the 1-2 days I raise in an isolated, sterile environment with food, hydration, diurnal temperature and humidity swings will not compromise their health, growth and ability to navigate to Mexico.  While I support tagging, I believe every precaution should be made to replicate the caterpillar's natural conditions. 

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First monarch tagged this year

Likely brothers & sisters

 It is difficult to find a small monarch caterpillar and think you can protect it from the harm of predators, parasites and obstacles in their way. It's human nature to think we can out-perform mother nature but consider this - if we can increase successful populations from nature's 1% survival to adult butterfly of 80% in captivity- where will the additional 80% of milkweed food and egg laying plants needed come from?  Food for thought so to speak. The pros of modest tagging by individuals or organizations are two-fold; purchasing tags from Monarch Watch supports their conservation efforts and creates migration data. I purchased 200 tags knowing I won't need them all but offer the money overage as a donation to this great non-for-profit organization. Additionally, I grew 1,200 milkweed plants from seeds and donated 1,100 to my community through my road-side donation program 'Save the monarchs...one milkweed at a time'. 

Experts suggest the best strategy for helping struggling of monarchs is to plant more native milkweed. By expanding the overall surface area for female monarchs to lay eggs, more eggs will be deposited, and, in return, more plants mean more food in the form of milkweed leaves. It makes sense not to accelerate the growth adult monarchs under artificial conditions if we haven't created an infrastructure for them to survive.

In order to walk the line between natural selection and the joy of tagging - I'll continue to captive-raise late-stage caterpillars (known by some as the 'walking stage') while planting or donating far more plants than I tag. Of the total caterpillars I raised to tag this year, 20% were lost to parasitic flies, OE or something else. My goal is to plant or donate 1,000 new milkweed plants in 2024 meeting my goal of ten times the number caterpillars I captive-raised for tagging. If each of us who tags monarchs grows and plants native milkweed, the concern of a food shortage will be lessened. 

October 6, 2023... Time to Milk the Milkweed - Harvest Those Seeds

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October finds the last of the migratory adult monarch butterflies taking flight on cool northwest winds. It's this new season more northerly wind that helps conserve energy for monarchs that are pushed south to warmer latitudes where greater supplies of flowering nectar plants are found. So...is the season over...?

                                       

                                       Far from it.

October is the ideal month to find and retrieve milkweed seeds. The milkweed plant produces thousands of seeds, far more than it needs to return the following spring. Nature has designed an ingenious system of spreading seeds called dispersal. Each seed a fluffy sail-like feature called floss or silk.

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            Healthy Common Milkweed

                 Seed Pod and Seeds

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 Why would I want to

    collect milkweed     

              seeds?

               Healthy Swamp Milkweed

                    Seed Pod and Seeds

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Designed to catch the wind, the milkweed seed has been created by nature to travel to new areas where milkweed may not have been established. It does the plant no good to drop its seeds directly where the parent plant has already been established. A seed and silk can travel for miles before catching on to something, when it does, it will drop its seed. 

If you collected seeds for the following year - they will need a cold, damp stratification period before they will germinate in pots. For field planting, scatter a small amount over a large area, patches of milkweed are better for monarchs than too many growing close together. 

Only a few milkweed pods are worthy of harvesting their seeds. Many pods find damaged seeds, mold and mildew or show evidence of milkweed bugs both in larval and adult bug form. The image above would be a seed pod worth leaving on the parent milkweed stalk. 

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Milkweed Bug - Image: Univ. of Warwik

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October 5, 2023... Friend and Foe of the Monarch Garden

The preying mantid is, unquestionably, the apex predator of the garden. Fearless; they attack anything that moves including hummingbirds! In the summer, they can be beneficial as they eat both tachinid flies and parasitic wasps that await monarch caterpillars. Tachinid flies and parasitic wasps lay their eggs in monarch caterpillars. Once inside they hatch into maggots inside the caterpillar or chrysalis. The fly or wasp maggots eat their way out of the developing monarch resulting in 100% mortality of the monarch. So, preying mantids are beneficial as the eat predators of monarchs but, unfortunately, mantids also eat monarch caterpillars and adult monarch butterflies later in the season.

Camouflage mantids prey on monarchs

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Mid-summer attack on tachinid fly

ATTENTION - ALL THOSE WHO TAG MONARCHS...

Preying mantids feast on adult monarch butterflies.  Not only do they devour monarch butterflies - but they are especially aggressive with the fall, migratory monarch generation! Typically, female preying mantids are the threat as by September and October they will have mated and eaten their male mate. Fall mantids are large and relentless. With a dwindling fall food supply - mantids are commonly found camouflaged, waiting on flowers. Insects, such as monarchs seek flowers to gorge on their nectar. Fall flowers with high nectar yield are scarcer than summer flowers. Mantids are cunning and strategic in their hunting technique. Rather than hunt, mantids wait for their food to come to them. Unfortunately, monarchs are drawn to fall flowers such as goldenrod, butterfly bush, ironweed and aster. Waiting patiently on flower stalks, mantids, with their excellent eyesight, see the orange and black monarch coming long before it lands.

Monarch enthusiasts who tag monarchs for fun or research often make the mistake of placing newly tagged monarchs on plant's flowers so they can easily fuel up on nectar before their long journey to Mexico. Captive-bred; newly tagged monarchs are at the greatest risk of being eaten by a mantid. The reason newly emerged tagged monarchs are most at risk as that it takes 2-4 hours for new butterflies to dry their wings before they can fly. Monarchs are completely defenseless and unable to fly until their wings are dry and firm. Before placing a newly emerged, wet to damp-winged monarch on a flower, consider a more reclusive stem or branch. I've learned the hard way how important it is to release new butterflies in a safe location - see image to the left.

Mantids are magicians at hiding themselves. The mantid on the left turned from bright emerald green from the leaf she was previously on to the dark grey shade of a dead twig in less than a minute. A word of advice for anyone releasing the vulnerable butterfly carefully survey an area several times before releasing a monarch. 

October 1, 2023... How to Avoid a Caterpillar Food Shortage

For the record, Iam not against township mowing. As you have read from the August 27th article below, mowing benefits outweigh letting aggressive weeds overtake milkweed and pollinator plants. Additionally, predators are kept in check with routine mowing. This article will focus on how to effectively keep young, healthy milkweed alive for the final generation of monarch butterflies.

The final generation of monarch caterpillars do not have the luxury of time on their side due to dwindling milkweed availability for August egg laying females. This may be a factor in a reduced population of the final generation monarch butterflies. Along with roadside and highway mowing, milkweed plants are weathered, dry and feeling the effects of 4 months of blazing sunshine. Imagine if you could offer your egg laying migratory generation female monarchs new, fresh and tender milkweeds in late August through November.

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Introducing, my field of dreams. The image to the left looks much like a late spring common milkweed. Infact, it is a late August stand which is an example of ideal mowing timing. Estimates place up to 34% of all available milkweed grows along roadsides (Flockhart, 2015). Eliminating or even reducing this source of potential egg laying and caterpillar food would be devastating. 

For monarch enthusiasts, especially those who elect to tag monarchs, having a steady, reliable and healthy stand young vibrant milkweed in late August is critical. The key to abundant milkweed for monarchs from August through November is a combination of careful mowing and pruning of milkweed.

It is best to prune milkweed to keep some older, seed pod sections while pruning lower branches to generate new growth.

August 30th - My Field of Dreams

Milkweed is hardy and regenerates relatively quickly. Factors include how low to the ground the plant is cut and the weather. If the milkweed is cut at a typical level of 4" - it often takes 45 days to regenerate new growth suitable for a female to lay her eggs. It is important to note that studies have shown female monarchs seek out young, tender new growth to deposit their egg(s). 

Temperature, and to a lesser degree, rainfall also play a role in how long it takes for a milkweed to regenerate. Basically, the warmer the temperature, the more rapid the milkweed recovery. 

                             

                                      Plan of Action to have Fresh, Strong, Young Milkweed from August thru November

   1.  Find or plant a stand of common milkweed under your control (where mowing will not occur)

   2.  Cut 1/3 of the plants down to 4" above the ground July 1st (check for eggs or caterpillars before discarding)

   3.  Cut another 1/3 of your milkweed 1/2 of its size (check for eggs/caterpillars) on July 30th

   4.  Leave the remaining 1/3 of your milkweed uncut, to grow allowing for seed pods to develop

Controlling the growth of common milkweed mid to late summer will ensure all stages of plant growth. This will give the migratory

female monarchs a choice of where she would like to deposit her eggs and it will create viable leaves for her caterpillar offspring through their lifecycle. 

August 27, 2023... Now You See Them...Now You Don't     Mowing Killed Them All

Before Mowing

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After Mowing

Township mowing is, I suppose, a service intended to improve visibility for drivers and prevent hardwood trees and invasive species from taking over. 

We can assume mowing roadsides after August 1st that every monarch egg, caterpillar, milkweed leaf and seed pod are destroyed. An unnecessary tragedy. Every egg and caterpillar killed were one of a critical migratory generation. Considering the migratory monarch is now an threatened species...this should not continue.

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Mowing roadsides and along highways destroy habitat and nectar plants needed for migratory insects. Mowing does provide an important service for traveling visibility; however, the timing of mowing needs to be re-evaluated. Since monarch butterflies take, on average 20 days to go from an egg to an emerging adult butterfly - the availability of milkweed throughout these 20 days is critical. State DOT's and local townships need to create a once a year NO-MOW window policy to protect the habitat of the migratory generation of monarch butterfly. Ideally, refraining from mowing from July 15th through November 1st will respect the timeframe needed for the year's last generation of monarch butterflies. Published studies have shown that mowing actually has a positive impact on milkweed growth and regeneration - just now during the most critical generation and time of year. The final generation of monarchs' face thousands of miles and months of near non-stop flying to Mexico and risks, the least we can do is coordinate mowing times to give them all a good start. 

August 22, 2023... The Tussock Caterpillar - hungrier than 100 teenagers

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Loss of available milkweed is considered by many to be an important variable in the decline of the

monarch butterfly population. The last thing monarch butterfly caterpillars need is competition to 

the tender leaves of the milkweed plant. Introducing: the milkweed tussock moth.

The tussock moth caterpillar is one of Nature's few creatures that not only tolerate the poisonous sap of all species of milkweed plants - but they seek it out and ravage the plant before your eyes. I'll admit I'm bias to the monarch butterfly and any naturalist will say there's plenty of food to go around so don't worry about sharing your milkweed with the tussock moth caterpillar. I can not. 

Monarch butterfly caterpillars normally find themselves alone on a milkweed plant because female butterflies lay only one or two eggs per plant to assure the caterpillar will have all it needs to eat through its 5 instars. Monarch caterpillars are slow but deliberate in choosing the leaves they eat. They appear in no real hurry. Enter the tussock caterpillar...or should I say, an army of tussock caterpillars with appetites like no other. Many gardeners visit their milkweed only to find them stripped of all their leaves with only green stalks remaining. Tussock month caterpillars appear, almost out of nowhere, on milkweed in incredible numbers. They consume milkweed leaves 10x faster than most monarch caterpillars leaving little if any food for monarch caterpillars.  My advice? Remove them all as soon as you can. Do with them what you please but they are a serious threat to the supply of milkweed leaves for monarch caterpillars. One word of caution: do so carefully. 

The Tussock Caterpillar

The hairs of the tussock moth have their charm but can cause irritation if touched. Some recommend using gloves when removing them from your milkweed as they can create a rash. Monarch enthusiasts know how valuable every milkweed leaf is for a growing monarch caterpillars so it seems logical to remove competition by removing every tussock caterpillar. If you're concerned for their wellbeing, consider this - tussock caterpillars also feed happily on the dogbane plant. Considering monarch caterpillars cannot live on dogbane and tussock caterpillar months can...the decision is easy. 

August 11, 2023...  When you know you're a "science geek"

Most people consider it a good day if they go to their mailbox and don't have any bills. An even better day is when your mail includes a check you weren't expecting. For some (and you know who you are), the best mail day is when your Monarch Butterfly Tagging Kit arrives from Monarch Watch! If you feel exhilarated - you're probably a science geek, consider it a badge of honor. 

Experts are divided whether rearing monarchs negatively impacts the success rate of monarchs reaching their overwintering site in Mexico. Tagging monarchs provides researcher valuable information. While many 'taggers' solely tag adult monarch butterflies using nets, others raise caterpillars until they pupate. It has been estimated that only 1% of

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tagged monarch butterflies make it successfully to Mexico. For those monarchs that are raised and then tagged; the success rate drops by half or down to one half of 1%. An additional huge challenge to a successful migratory tagged monarch story includes the fact that the tag needs to be found and reported. I was lucky enough to be in the half of 1% in 2022.

To increase the chances of having your captive raised caterpillar successfully emerge as a healthy butterfly, tagged, and make it successfully to Mexico let me offer these 'need to haves':

   *   Fresh milkweed at least once daily                    *   Clean container daily               *   Replicate outdoor humidity 24/7

   *   Provide diurnal temperature swings                  *   Provide UV lightning                *   Provide natural ventilation

   *   Provide hydration (very little, daily)                    *   One caterpillar/container        *   Protect from curious predators or pets

The list above strives to replicate the caterpillar's natural environment. The positives of raising monarch caterpillars include the enjoyment of doing so, but also to remove all threats of predation through their grown cycle. By providing as many features of a monarch caterpillar's natural environment while rearing them - you are increasing the chance your emerging butterfly will be as large and strong as wild monarch butterflies.

 

My lucky tag ACZL522 traveled 2,508 miles from where it was tagged in Oxford, PA to El Rosario, Mexico. Good luck to you.

August 11, 2023...  The extent one monarch caterpillar travelled to transform to a chrysalis

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As a seasoned monarch butterfly researcher, I thought I'd seen nearly everything! When I drove up to my local CVS store several weeks ago, I saw how driven monarch caterpillars are to find out of the way sites to change from caterpillar to chrysalis. There were no visible milkweed plants in the shopping center where these pictures were taken.

When one considers how far she traveled off her milkweed plant, through a busy shopping mall and across the pharmacy drive-through, it reminds us how important it is to provide your milkweed garden a safe for caterpillars to escape to. 

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Why do monarch caterpillars risk such a journey? It is thought monarch caterpillars leave their host plant and sole food source to reduce the risk of predation by flies, wasps, assissin bugs and select birds immune to their toxins. 

July 26, 2023...  Be on the lookout for monarch eggs...

A young swamp milkweed got the attention of a female monarch. She laid her egg on an unusual part of the plant but mostly likely did so because she couldn't fit under the leaf!

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If you've never seen a monarch lay one of her 300 eggs it's quite easy. Any monarch butterfly that flies around a milkweed plant without any blooms or on a plant not feeding on the flowers is likely getting ready to lay her eggs. She will land on the surface of the leaf and dip her abdomen under the leaf and deposit a single egg. Female monarch butterflies 'are wise' in not laying more than one or two eggs per plant to ensure the hatching caterpillar has enough to eat and not have to compete with a sibling. It is also important to note that the younger and more tender the milkweed leaf - the more attractive it is to deposit an egg. 

July and August are the months where 2nd and 3rd generation monarch butterflies are laying their eggs. Since roadside milkweed are common sites for female monarchs to lay their eggs - try to anticipate your township's mowing along the road. By anticipating mowing down milkweed and the eggs on their leaves, you can play an important role of relocating eggs or small caterpillars before you see this:  

                                                                 Relocating eggs, small and larger monarch caterpillars is easy. To relocate an egg, simply

                                                                 break the entire leaf off the host plant and place the leaf on a milkweed plant out of 

                                                                 mowers. Since the egg only takes 3-7 days to hatch - it will have a far better chance at

                                                                 survival than under township mower blades.

                                                                 Relocating caterpillars is best done by also bending and breaking off the entire leaf and

                                                                 placing it on a milkweed plant where no current caterpillars are feeding. 

                                                                 It's difficult to predict when your township will send out crews to mow down all the wild

                                                                 flowers supporting beneficial pollinating insects. There are two strategies I use. One, when

                                                                 plants reach 3' tall it's time to start looking and relocating monarch eggs and 

                                                                 caterpillars. The second cue it's time to save all the eggs and caterpillars is when you

                                                                 see mowers in other neighborhoods in your township. 

Is it worth the effort? Considering each one you save carries the DNA for the final generation to fly to Mexico - the question answers itself.

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July 16, 2023...  Monarch caterpillars search for privacy and protection

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A new generation of monarchs have arrived for most of the country. You'll notice that many of 

your milkweed plants have frass on their leaves which means that either a monarch caterpillar has 

been dining on your leaves or better yet - there's one somewhere on your plant. Monarch caterpillars are shy and cautious. They prefer to feed from under the leaves to keep from being seen by predators. 

The caterpillar in the image to the left is feeding on a white swamp milkweed. You'll note how she has pre-cut the main stalk to reducing the flow of sap thus reducing her risk of being stuck to the plant. This technique doesn't hurt the milkweed, in fact, this type of natural pruning actually helps the plant regrow new leaves and make the plant shorter and stockier. New growth is very attractive to adult female monarch butterflies as this is a highly attractive portion of an adult plant.

Stage 5 monarch caterpillar

The need for protection is never great than when a caterpillar transforms from a caterpillar to a chrysalis. The caterpillar in this image was one day away from leaving her host plant and searching for an out of view and harm's way. Monarch caterpillars leave their host plant to reduce the risk of parasitic flies and wasps that prey on monarch caterpillars. The box above and behind the caterpillar is a monarch butterfly caterpillar changing station. I use these to offer caterpillars a place to transform close to but not too close to where they stopped feeding. Protection from rain, UV rays, mammals including mice is the primary goal of using such a structure. Monarch caterpillars have been known to crawl through lawns in search of a structure suitable for their transformation. 

Having seen this - it prompted me to offer these safe havens to monarch enthusiasts. 

July 3, 2023...  Milkweeds are difficult to move

At this time of year milkweed you've planted or last year's established plants  are likely in

full bloom. Congratulations and thank you on behalf of all the femalmonarch butterflies

looking to lay their eggs. Sometimes you buy milkweed from a roadside stand (thank you)

or even if you pay the high retail cost of milkweed  at your nursery, milkweed are not fond

of being transplanted. Some species are more for-giving, many are not.

                                                                   The reason? Milkweed not only have very long

                                                                    and established root systems but the roots

                                                                    are extremely fragile.

                                                                                                     

                            Here is a list of the milkweed and their forgiveness in being 'dug up' and transplanted. 

                    I will never forgive you                          I'll be mad but get over it                              Move me gently

                    Common Milkweed                                Swamp White or Pink Milkweed                  Whorled Milkweed

                    Orange or Yellow Milkweed                   Aquatic Milkweed

                    Purple Milkweed (pricey, temperamental

One final word on transplanting (besides: don't), if you have to relocate one - do so during their most dormant period. Dormancy for milkweed are in the winter months. Include as many of the roots as possible and store them in a cool environment such as a refrigerator. Replant entire root ball in April or early May.

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     Thank you for visiting me

Extensive root system already!

July 1, 2023...  Provide your monarch caterpillars a safe place transform into a butterfly

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Monarch butterfly caterpillars are, for the most part, defenseless. Once they've eaten all they can they scurry to find a safe place to transform from a caterpillar to a butterfly. Monarch caterpillars search for a safe, out of sight place to attach themselves to a secure structure. Once attached, they spin a small silk pad, hang upside down and transform into a chrysalis. The chrysalis phase of butterfly development can take 10-14 days or more depending on the air temperature. 

A safe place keeps the chrysalis out of direct sunlight and out of view of predators. Safe places are not always easy to find. Monarch caterpillars often leave their milkweed plant and can travel hundreds of feet to find just the right spot. To meet the needs of monarch caterpillars some gardeners choose the Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar Changing Station. This exclusive product is offered as not only a safe haven for monarch caterpillars but also makes a decorative garden addition.  Learn more about this product in our virtual Store.

Thank you Joann

April 18, 2023...    Importance of Light When Germinating Milkweed Seeds

Growing milkweed from seeds requires: cold winter storage, patience, consistently warm soil temperatures and the right                                                                                                             quality of light. This segment will focus on the need for the proper lighting when                                                                                                   germinating milkweed seeds. The seedling to the left is a butterfly weed   

                                                                                (Asclepias tuberosa) plant. It is a Hello Yellow variety, known as a cultivar. The 

                                                                                 seed was started in early April and grown using a heat mat indoors to keep the 

                                                                                 soil near 80 F. 

                                                                                The plant emerged inside where the first two leaf peddles grew quickly. While it

                                                                                takes time for the seed to sprout - once it has, it rapidly reaches for the sun.   

                                                                                Note the two first leaf stalks inside the red ovals. The stalks grew quickly in                                                                                                          artificial light. It was immediately moved to an outdoor greenhouse with full sun                                                                                                  exposure. The young plant responded favorably and rapidly producing its first     

                                                                                two true leaves and its second pair of adult leaves shortly thereafter. 

                                                                                I'd like to call your attention to the shape and distance between the leaves. When 

                                                                                seedlings, or adult plants are starved for light they get what is called 'leggy'. 

By increasing the length and intensity of natural sunlight the seedling began growing stockier meaning the distance between the leaves shortened. This is an indicator the plant is getting enough sunlight and has a good future. Gardeners do not have the luxury of time when germinating milkweed seeds. Waiting as little as one day too long can ruin a germinating plant. If the stem exceeds the plant's ability to support itself, it often results a poor prognosis the plant will grow into a healthy adult plant. 

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April 18, 2023...    Unearthing Last Year's Milkweed

Spring means cleaning out last year's leaves and beginning the task of weeding. As a perennial plant, milkweed emerges each year, normally well after all other garden weeds have completely covered the ground and even flower. How you prepare your garden for the coming growing year is very important. Below are emerging orange and yellow milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Emerging milkweed may look like an ordinary weed. The leaves are fragile and easily broken. Gardeners are wise to be careful of where they walk and never simply rake out weeds. Clearing a garden of dead leaves and weeds must be done by hand. A good technique for remembering where last year's milkweed was growing is to leave several of the stalks from the previous year. Be patient, the soil needs to be 65 F or higher for milkweed to emerge or for milkweed seeds to germinate. Unfortunately, most spring weeds grow in far cooler soil temperatures. Expert your emerging milkweed to be crowded by annoying weeds including, but not limited to clover. Be careful not to disrupt your milkweed root system when removing weeds such as clover near the base of milkweed plants as root systems of clover are extensive.

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April 7, 2023...    Visiting Your Favorite Nursery?  Buy Goldenrod & Aster

Early spring means seed and plant catalogues in your mailbox. Thoughts turn to your favorite nursery and wondering if they have their plants out. Seasoned gardeners head right to the perennial pollinator section. In early spring, greenhouse plants from wholesalers offer a few hardy favorites for the most impatient gardeners. With a few species on the shelf and for the highest prices of the season - you find yourself buying plants you wouldn't ordinarily buy later in the season. Milkweed is not in the offering in the early spring. Milkweed is one of the latest emerging plants and therefore one of the last plants a nursery will put on their shelves. 

                                                                                              Much of the focus of helping monarchs

                                                                                              is to plant milkweed. In addition to milk-

                                                                                              weed is the recommendation to buy and

                                                                                              plant goldenrod and aster. These two

                                                                                              plants are critically important sources 

                                                                                              of nectar for migrating monarchs late in

                                                                                              the season. These two plants are also 

                                                                                              late and long blooming flowers. Since

                                                                                              milkweed won't be available for sale

                                                                                              until early May - plant these native,

                                                                                             perennials to meet the need for the

 

 

migrating generation of monarchs visiting your garden. Experts have identified the lack of, or a shortage of nectar as a significant reason for mortality of monarchs trying reach Mexico to overwinter. (Agrawal, 2017) Milkweed remains the most important 'food' plant for monarch butterflies and their caterpillar young. Goldenrod and aster are plants now being recommended as 'fuel' plants for adult monarch butterflies. The nectar of these late season plants enable monarch butterflies to convert the surgery nectar to lipids. Lipids are energy stored as fats monarchs draw upon during migration and hibernation. 

It may be a lot to ask gardeners to think about what their garden will look like in October, however, strategic planting of goldenrod and aster in the spring will allow these plants to become established. Planted early in the season will ensure these plants will be in full bloom when the last generation of monarchs visit gardens.

AGOLDENROD.JPG
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Seaside Goldenrod

New England Aster

March 17, 2023...    The Dreaded Dampening-Off

You have been patient all winter waiting to plant those milkweed seeds from last year's
plants. An unexpected and terminal problem with germination is the dreaded dampening off.
Dampening off is a soil-born fungus that feeds on the seeds themselves. This disease is most
common under cool and damp conditions. 

Seeds will appear strong and healthy up to the point where the milkweed's first 2 leaves
appear. Then, overnight, the plant will collapse usually at ground level. Dampening off can also
affect the root system and result in weakened growth or the death of the plant. This 'disease'
is not limited to milkweed plant seeds and is a common problem even for the best gardeners. 

There's little one can do to avoid a percentage of seedlings to fall to the pathogens that kill
seedlings. Milkweed seedlings might be somewhat 
higher at risk for dampening off than other
plants, particularly swamp milkweed species and the milkweed plant Aslecpias perennias,
a true aquatic milkweed. 

Milkweed seedling dampening_edited.jpg

March 17, 2023...    Growing Your Own Milkweed

St. Patrick's Day makes one think, for some, of the green of a newly sprouting milkweed plant. It's time for stored milkweed seeds from last year's plants to be removed from your refrigerator or garage and get them started. Beginning milkweed seeds before Spring has risks. The primary risk of planting this early is lack of bright sunlight. 
                                                                                  
                                                                        Germination of properly stored milkweed seeds can take as little as 5 days to emerge                                                                              with the proper soil temperature. Once the first true leaves appear you will need to p                                                                                provide either a plant light or grow in a greenhouse. Windowsills will not provide enough                                                                          light and result in the plant growing so quickly it will outgrow its ability to support itself.                                                                          The plant will likely never recover. I've never had luck saving milkweed plants with only                                                                            two leaves and a non-supportive stem.

                                                                        The time it takes a milkweed seed to germinate will vary be species and the soil                                                                                        temperature. In my experience orange milkweed germinates relatively quickly followed                                                                            by yellow milkweed. Yellow milkweed is a cultivar of the orange species and is often                                                                                 plant and more difficult to raise to adulthood. 

                                                                        One major problem of growing milkweed from seed is the dreaded dampening off                                                                                      condition. This is a fungus discussed above in more detail above. 

                                                                        Beginning milkweed seeds before Spring has begun requires careful attention to the                                                                                plants need for its tap root to grow rapidly. This feature of the milkweed plant makes                                                                                growing them in pots a challenge. Transplanting young milkweed requires great care not                                                                          to damage the single tap root.

February 13, 2023...    The Winter That Wasn't

The weather for most of the eastern half of the country this winter has been unseasonably mild. Average temperatures of 10-15 F above normal were common. While this hasn't impacted the hibernating monarchs in Mexico directly - it will have a short-term impact on milkweed plants in the south. 

Conditions in the U.S.
Above average temperatures have been accompanied by normal rainfall supporting a healthy conditions for milkweed along the 2023 migration route north.  An early emergence of milkweed is not as concerning as a late cold spell that jeopardizes the survival milkweed. There remains plenty of winter before spring and anything can happen, for now, the winter season has been favorable supporting migrating monarchs this coming season. 

Conditions in Mexico
More importantly than the climate in the eastern U.S. this time of year is the high and low temperatures in south-central Mexico. Above average temperatures can trigger an early migration. Early migrations have been shown to be detrimental to monarch survival as lack of milkweed and freezing temperatures
can threaten important breeding along the way north.
                                                                                        The forecast in the mountains of south-central Mexico for the 
                                                                                        next two weeks may prove problematic. The forecast for the
                                                                                        average high temperature while monarch hibernate
is 4-6
                                                                                         degrees above normal. Fortunately, the temperature forecast
                                                                                         for overnight lows is expected to be slightly below normal. 
                                                                                         Monarchs enter a pseudo-hibernation, meaning they are not
                                                                                         fully asleep but remain just active enough drop down from their
                                                                                         roosts during the heat of the day to drink and in-take minerals. 
                                                                                         Since monarchs cannot fly at temperatures below 55 F, 
                                                                                         all monarchs return to their roosting trees well before dark. No
                                                                                         further activity is done since monarchs need to conserve             
                                                                                         stored energy reserves for their migration north. 

                                                                                                                  

Hibernating Monarchs, WorldWildlifeOrg.jpg

Photo credit: WorldWildlife.org

January 23, 2023...    Third week of January 2023 hibernation - perfect conditions

The health of the entire United States monarch population relies on safe overwintering weather conditions. The most severe winter weather event took place in March of 2016 where up to 38% of the population of monarchs died as a result of the snow, wind & ice storm. 

                                                                      Fortunately for the tropical insect, it chooses its wintering rest area in 
                                                                      southern portions of Mexico where severe storms are rare. The risk 
                                                                      remains however as the entire monarch populations spend their winter in
                                                                      one of only four popular forest sites resulting in extremely concentrated
                                                                      gathering called roosts. 


                                                                      The winter of 2022-2023 has been on or very near the average high and 
                                                                       low temperatures. The significance of this allows the monarchs to use as
                                                                       little of their stored energy in the form of lipids from their fall migration.
                                                                       The picture on the left is not only an example of extreme weather events

Photo Credit: David Kurst
and the devastation caused by this outcome is also very possible if monarchs migrate back to the U.S. too early. Late spring winter storms may be statistically more likely than sub-freezing temperatures in south-central Mexico. 

While Mother Nature is not something we can control directly - preparing your property with food in the form of milkweed and fuel in the form of nectar is so important to meeting the needs of majestic insect. 

Frozen-Monarch-2-scaled Photo credit David Kust.jpg

January 16, 2023...    The 6 Cycles of Monarch Butterflies

Monarch butterflies are unique among, not only the classification of butterflies (lepidopterans), but in the entire insect world. It is their incredible migration and hibernation needs of this tropical insect that make it so amazing. Unfortunately, with each cycle - there are natural and man-made threats which put entire species at risk.

                                                             
The six cycles of Monarch Butterfly
     
      1.   Overwintering - where monarchs spend the winter months                      November through April
      2.   Early spring migration back to warm southern states                                Late February through April
      3.   Breeding through their migration north for the summer                            March through May
      4.   First colonization of the summer generation north of 40 degrees N         May through June
      5.   Summer breeding                                                                                            May through September
      6.   Fall migration to Mexico                                                                                  August through December         

        Source:  Monarch Watch


Looking closely at the six stages of life, 5 of the 6 stages of the life of the monarch butterfly, or 83% of life stages are opportunities for human intervention in the form of preserving milkweed for food and nectar plants for fuel. One could argue the first. and most critical stage (overwintering/hibernating), is also an opportunity for mankind to improve conditions. Progress has been made by the government in south-central Mexico to restrict logging where monarchs spend their winter. So, actually every stage of the endangered monarch butterfly can be improved. Mother Nature is the only variable we cannot control. 

Click to "Contact Me" on how you can improve conditions in your area and help return monarch butterflies to a healthy population once again.     

January 15, 2023...    2nd Week of January Hibernation...Successful

This week rates overwintering conditions as: "Perfect". There were no storms of snow or ice and overnight temperatures were exactly where they should be enabling monarchs to conserve energy from summer nectar stored as lipids. 







Overwintering in southcentral Mexico is the most critical of the 6 cycles of the monarch butterfly. It ranks as critical because 95% of the monarch population gather together within a few narrow acres. Destruction at this stage would result mass destruction of a concentrated area of monarch butterflies expected to return to the southeast of the U.S. in late February through March. 

week 2_edited.jpg

Source: www.msn.com

January 8, 2023...    Make Your Most Memorable and Impactful New Year's Resolution

 

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January 6, 2023...    The first week of Monarch 2023 hibernation in Mexico is a Winner

 

Summer is officially 111 days away as this is written. The monarchs that left your garden in the fall are now in south central Mexico in a town called: Oyamel, Mexico. Most if not all monarchs overwinter there or close to it. Thought I'd share with you this week's weather down there.

 

While it's normal to think a nice warm retreat is ideal for Monarch butterflies in the winter, having consistent temperatures too warm can trigger a devastating early migration back to the southeastern United States weeks or months before any food supply would be available. Overnight lows this week are not too harsh and there is no sign of rain or ice which may have a negative impact on survival. We will check back next week to evaluate the conditions of our next season's migratory monarchs. 

Week.jpg

Source: www.msn.com

December 30 2022...    Monarchs Storing Energy, Await Spring at their Winter Retreat...

monarch_migration_map.jpg

Source:  Monarch Watch

 

Winter is in full swing and the monarch butterflies that were in your yard this fall are in pseudo hibernation in south central Mexico. Conditions there are perfect to slow metabolism, enable them to rest to conserve energy while occasionally dropping down to drink from the nearby river that nourishes the oyamel fir forest.

The winter icon at the left of the map is where all the eastern U.S. monarchs spend their winter. All monarchs east of the Rockies and in southern Canada cluster together by the millions on the narrow hilly mountain ridge.

Just the right amount of: humidity, cool air, fog, conifer trees and water supply attract monarchs to a specific, localized region each year. It is remarkable that 2/3rds of the U.S. population of monarchs congregate in such a small area, nearly 2 miles above sea level. The weight of layers of monarchs on fir trees bend the branches of mature evergreens.

 

As we've learned in the spring and summer months - monarchs are constantly under threat. While over wintering, severe weather, in the form of rare ice storms are a significant risk to monarch butterflies. Each winter season scientists carefully monitor the weather and estimate pre-migratory population to estimate the overall health of monarch butterflies for the next summer season. 

November 3, 2022...    Tachinid Flies Resulted in 43% of Monarch Caterpillar Deaths

The close of the 2022 season found what previous seasons have found - parasites nearly dominated the monarch butterfly landscape. One can make a distinction between predator and parasite when studying monarch butterfly populations. While the outcome is similar in death of the caterpillar, chrysalis or adult butterfly - it is relatively easy

to measure parasitic causes of death and impossible to quantify predator deaths.

The death of monarch caterpillar may be an ant or jumping spider the day the caterpillar emerges from her egg. In later instars a caterpillar may succumb to an assassin bug or green stink bug. None of these predators leave their calling card - only a discarded shell of a caterpillar remains, if this is even found. For this reason, it is impossible to determine how many monarch caterpillars are killed during their instar lifecycle. Parasitic causes of death are, however, easy to determine. For monarch caterpillars, parasitic flies (tachinid flies) and parasitic wasps are the most common threats. 

                                             Of the 124 caterpillars I raised in captivity in 2022, 53 caterpillars

                                             died as a result of tachinid flies laying their eggs directly into

                                             the caterpillar. 43% of the total migratory caterpillar stage of 

                                             monarchs died. One of the justifications I use for raising monarch

                                             caterpillars in captivity is to remove the caterpillar from this 

                                             specific and common threat. If a caterpillar is raised in a habitat