Each year since 2007 we have watched patiently for the return of the monarch butterfly to our little half acre. That was the year Nan was walking along the fence on the south side of our yard and spotted a monarch caterpillar acting strangely. As she stopped to observe this behavior the caterpillar became a chrysalis right before her eyes. This set off a chain reaction of excited study and observation that led to the planting of various species of milkweed in our garden and the yearly collecting of monarch caterpillars to protect them from their predators and ultimately release them back into our garden. It’s our own little effort to counter some of the impacts of the eradication of milkweed from midwest agricultural land through the use of Roundup and the drive for efficiency that virtually eliminates fencerows and other ‘non-productive’ land where milkweed used to grow.
The monarch migration from Mexico that begins each spring and leap-frogs north by generation doesn’t generally bring many monarchs to our garden early in the season. Though we have seen our first monarch the past two years around Father’s Day, they don’t stay long as they move on across Lake Erie and up into Canada. In fact, we generally don’t see more than a few monarchs until August when they come, lay their eggs on our milkweed, and prepare to begin the great migration south. So, along with the milkweed, we plant asters and goldenrod that will be in bloom late in the summer and on into the early autumn to provide a nectar source for our little friends. And we wait for them to come.
Sometimes we will have quite a few, as in 2011 when we released almost 140 butterflies. Sometimes, as in 2013, we will see only a handful. But this year has been the best so far.
We took our first monarch caterpillar inside this year on August 1. Since then there have been monarchs mating and laying eggs on our milkweed every day. I look out the window beyond my computer as I work and see several monarchs drifting from plant to plant all day long. It has been a magnificent year! (Though a bit difficult to focus on my work!)
Since we brought our first little guy into the house less than three weeks ago, we have had to work hard to keep up with the feeding as this year’s brood has threatened to eat us out of house and home. As of today (August 18) we have brought in 158 I caterpillars and quite a few eggs that have not yet hatched. (We generally try not to bring in leaves with eggs on them as we haven’t had a good track record nursing them to become caterpillars, but this year they are so prevalent that it is hard to pick a leaf and not get an egg!)
It remains to be seen just how many we will have before they start south, but there are clearly dozens of eggs on the plants in our garden now that in the days to come will become caterpillars. Also, in the next several days we will release dozens of monarchs into our garden as we currently have several screens of chrysalises and many other caterpillars who are “J’d up” preparing to become a chrysalis in the next several hours. It is already a great year for the monarch in Cincinnati … at least in our garden. And if we don’t run out of milkweed, we will contribute a record number (for us) back to the great migration