2010: A Great Year for the Orange and Black

A report from Nan:

My husband, Mark, and I have been rooting for the Orange and Black for the last 4 seasons or so. We do what we can to help out…we grow food for them, we provide housing and a nice place to hang out. They’ve done OK for the last few years, but this year was an exceptionally GREAT year. It just seemed to all come together this year for the Orange and Black. Of course, if you follow sports, you know that I cannot possibly be talking about the colors of the Cincinnati Bengals. What I am referring to is the beautiful colors of Danneus plexipus. The Monarch butterfly.

Mark and I have become Monarch ‘enthusiasts’ over the last several years and have done what we can to help increase the monarch population. We plant milkweed – Asclepias tuberosa, A. incarnata, and A. curassivica – throughout our gardens and we monitor the number of caterpillars produced each year. The summer of 2009 was a disappointing summer for our beloved monarchs. We’re not sure why, but most likely because it was a wet and cool summer (wow, do you remember that after this year’s hot, dry summer??) and we only saw a Monarch or two throughout the 2009 season. In comparison however, this year was phenomenal. We ‘incubated’ about 130 monarch caterpillars this year, lost a few of them to the parasitizing tachinid fly and watched about 125 monarch butterflies emerge in our backyard.

Usually starting in late July or early August, after the milkweed has been busy growing to its full beauty, the holes in the leaves begin to appear. Those holes…what a beautiful sight! The eggs have hatched and the caterpillars are eating. This is what we’ve been waiting for! The cleaned, plastic bins are inside our Monarch Room in our lower level and they are ready to become a safe haven for these first instar caterpillars for the next 10-14 days or so.

We bring the caterpillars in, place them in one of the MANY bins we have, and provide fresh milkweed leaves 3-4 times a day. Each bin has a volume of at least 16 quarts and is covered with a small window screen that serves two purposes: to keep the caterpillars INSIDE the bin and to provide a place for the caterpillar to ‘hang’ so it can complete its metamorphosis. We limit the number of caterpillars in each bin and we bring in fresh milkweed leaves. The caterpillar frass is removed at least once a day.

We have had the pleasure to watch many caterpillars grow through their 5 instar stages, hang in their signature “J” shape for hours before they pupate and ultimately emerge as beautiful adult butterflies. We are still learning as we go and are doing our best to recognize and eliminate parasites such as the tachinid fly and the protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE). We will continue to learn more each season as, hopefully, more and more Monarchs make their way back from their habitats in Mexico. And, as all good fans, we hope more and more gardeners join us in cheering for the Orange and Black in 2011!