Nurture, Respect, Learn, Educate, Always Grow!

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Special Monarch Butterfly

Butterflies are intriguing insects and we support many species of butterflies in our garden by providing host and nectar plants. This past year we saw record numbers of certain species such as the Variegated and Gulf Fritillaries but very low numbers in others such as the Monarch where we only spotted one all season.  Just a few miles down the road my friend, Penny had lots of Monarchs in her garden. What a difference a few miles can make!

Monarch butterfly laying eggs on milkweed

Penny spent a lot of time studying the Monarchs in her garden. She watched the monarchs lay eggs, caterpillars grow from one instar to the next but when they crawled off to form their chrysalis she never could find them. Since she wanted to observe the entire life cycle she decided to grab a few fat caterpillars when she saw them crawling away from the milkweed and put them in her habitat cage. She was then able to watch up close how it formed its chrysalis and also see it eclose from the chrysalis 8 to 12 days later. The following two photos are hers that she took of the monarch in action.

Monarch emerging from chrysalis
©Penny Stowe
When a butterfly reaches maturity it emerges from the chrysalis and uses its legs to pull itself out and cling to the empty shell so that its crumpled wings can hang down.  It pumps its wings slowly up and down to force fluid (hemolymph) into the wings. The butterfly then stretches its wings out to dry. The butterfly has about an hour to do this otherwise the wings will dry in their folded position and will be permanently deformed.

Monarch pumping its wings with fluid
©Penny Stowe

Have you ever found a butterfly with deformed wings in your garden? There are several reasons this can occur. It could be that the butterfly falls to the ground while its wings are wet and they become damaged. Sometimes butterflies don't have enough room to fully spread their wings during this critical time or the butterfly may have a defect which prevents the wings from opening properly. Crinkled wings is one of the signs of O.E. (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha), a protozoan parasite that infects Monarchs all over the world. I wrote a post about this last year, O.E. and Monarch Conservation. You can read it here.

Monarch with crinkled (deformed) wings

What would you do if you found a butterfly that had deformed wings? Well, my friend, Penny found a special Monarch in her garden and being the kind soul that she is she brought him inside. She knew that he wouldn't survive on his own. Without the ability to fly properly, and since it was early December and the temperatures were dropping, his hours were numbered.


She feed him diluted honey water from a petri dish. Sometimes she used a paperclip to unfurl his proboscis to help the drinking process along.

feeding monarch with deformed wings

The day I visited, he ate heartily. Notice his feet resting in the liquid in the photo above...butterflies have sensory organs on their feet and this would indicate to him that this honey solution was something tasty to eat. In the photo below you can see his proboscis is unfurled and he is drinking.

Monarch drinking honey water solution

Penny kept him in a temperature controlled patio where he could rest comfortably. He would flap his wings to get around and crawl on the floor. He had a favorite corner he would go to and let the sun shine down on him through the floor to ceiling windows. Penny's pet monarch lived for a good 6 weeks but then his time had come. Thanks to Penny's tender heart and devotion he had a great life considering his circumstances. In addition it was an enthralling learning experience and I am so glad that she was able to share it with me.

17 comments:

  1. How kind of her to feed and take care of the butterfly!

    I too only saw one Monarch this year (that I was sure of). It's good to hear that your friend a few miles away saw many in her garden.

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    1. I am hearing the same report from most backyard gardeners. The Monarchs are in trouble so I just keep planting more and more milkweed every year, encourage others to do the same and hope that they come. In the fall of 2012 we had lots of Monarchs. I feel that it is hit or miss depending on the way the wind blows in the direction of my garden.

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  2. Wow, that is a very kind soul in Penny. We also have a species of Danaus here in the country and also feed in a species of milkweed though unlike those in the temperate climate. I remember once when my niece and nephew are still kids, three of their playmates from the neighborhood brought to us a big larva that they thought I can care for and maybe heal. They saw it on a path and the ants already want to eat it, apparently it has a wound on it. I explained to them my diagnosis, and they just left it with me knowing it will not stay long enough.

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    1. It is good for children to see the ecosystem at work. We've found dead butterflies too and watch the ants and beetles breaking it down. It is sad to see but a necessary part of a healthy garden. Plus the little critters need to eat too. :)

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  3. Oh this is a fantastic story.... I didn't have a single egg on any of my milkweed this year in my Monarch Waystation...... Michelle

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  4. She got some great photos of the little guy.
    Cher Sunray Gardens

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    1. Yes she did! Penny made a book of her entire experience raising Monarchs with photos of the entire metamorphosis. It is fantastic!

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  5. That is so beautiful! I just love this and am getting teary. I wish there were more people like Penny. Does she have huge stands of milkweed in her garden? I only saw a few Monarchs. I have lots of orange milkweed but struggle to keep the swamp milkweed wet enough.

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    1. Me too! She is really a great steward of our local ecosystem and spreads the word every opportunity she gets about using native plants and helping wildlife. Penny has several groupings of milkweed. Last year she was buying all that she could find at our local nurseries. I am going to try to grow some from seed this year. We have swamp milkweed growing in a semi wet spot in our garden and I agree it definitely needs to get enough moisture to do well.

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  6. This was very nice of Penny. She really must love all things in life. It had to be fun watching the whole process too.

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  7. Poor little guy. Your friend really does have a very tender heart. This past year was a disappointing one for all butterflies in our garden.

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  8. What a great idea! I had a monarch hatch like this once, but I didn't know what to do with it (my cats would make short work of it in the screened in porch), so I put it out in the garden on a flower. When I went to check on it a few minutes later it was gone. I always thought that it was probably eaten by a bird, sadly. That was so sweet of your friend!

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  9. What a sweetheart your friend is. That must have been intriguing to go visit a pet butterfly. I saw my first ever monarch this year and was utterly delighted. Such beautiful insects.

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  10. Karin what a very special story and the photos are amazing. I hope to find and see one of their chrysalises one of these years.

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  11. I love your images of butterflies!

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"Don't wait for someone to bring you flowers. Plant your own garden and decorate your soul"

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