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News: 09/01/2017

The miracle of the monarchs

Monarch populations are waning; planting milkweed can help

A monarch caterpillar at Swede's Feeds

By Katrina Aimo, Swede’s Feeds

For Swede’s Feeds, it all began last summer with a couple of milkweed plants. Then the monarchs arrived. We were able to successfully raise 13 monarch caterpillars into the majestic form we know as the monarch butterfly. But, it did not end there.

The worldwide monarch population has declined an astounding 90 percent in the past two decades. This is largely caused by the increasing unavailability of milkweed, due to farming, agriculture, residential growth, and concrete. Why is milkweed so important? It is the only plant female butterflies will lay their eggs on, and it is the sole plant their caterpillars will eat. Habitat loss, use of insecticides, severe weather, and illegal logging in overwintering grounds are continual contributors to this decline.

We all can help this epidemic by planting milkweed. If you plant it, they will come! It is not only crucial for monarch caterpillars, but bees love milkweed flowers too. A female monarch can lay up to 500 eggs in her short two- to five-week lifespan. These tiny eggs are smaller than a sesame seed, and are usually found on the underside of the milkweed leaves.

Just four days later, a caterpillar hatches that is as small as the writing on a dime. A monarch caterpillar will eat almost continuously for up to two weeks and will have grown more than 2,000 times its birth size. If we grew like that, we would be the size of a school bus.

These insects don’t have it easy from the beginning; only one in 100 caterpillars make it to adulthood. Their first bite of milkweed could be fatal, since the milky substance which gives the plant its name could very well glue their mouths shut.

Once a caterpillar is 11 to 14 days old, it will begin to form a chrysalis. Hanging upside down, it seems to unzip its skin to expose the green chrysalis that lay underneath. The miracle of metamorphosis has begun.

Up to two weeks later, an adult monarch butterfly will emerge. Their wings are crumpled, and the butterfly has to pump fluid into its wings. After a couple hours, when their wings have dried, they are ready for their first flight. This transformation is truly breathtaking. The first time they take flight is mesmerizing.

Although their striking markings warn birds of their unpleasant taste, monarch caterpillars and butterflies are victim to many predators: spiders, wasps, dragonflies, praying mantids, and even cats are prone to enjoy a monarch meal.

People are encouraged to look for caterpillars or eggs and keep these creatures in a safe habitat such as an aquarium, mesh habitat, or even something homemade to help increase this pollinator’s population. Whether you’re eight or 80, this metamorphosis is a wonder to behold.

Monarchs can travel up to 25 miles a day in search of milkweed and food sources. Butterflies need a constant supply of nectar and sunshine in order to keep their energy up. Some favorite feeding flowers include butterfly bush, sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, echinacea, zinnias, lantanas, yarrow, and thistles. At Swede’s Feeds, we have many butterfly attracting plants for your very own garden.

This year, we planted four different varieties of milkweed, including some native species. We found six eggs initially, all of which have transformed into chrysalids. In about a week from now, they will emerge in their striking stage of adulthood and continue their journey south to Pacific Grove, where they will spend the winter hibernating.

Monarchs are found in North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand. Monarchs on the West Coast will emerge from our California groves in the spring to travel north once again. It takes several generations for them to migrate all the way to Canada. Monarchs on the East Coast overwinter in Mexico and make a 2,500-mile journey to Canada. Weighing less than a dime, this remarkable migration is miraculous.

We have since collected another eight eggs and feel honored to have supported these magnificent travelers on their long and trying journey. We welcome you to our store to witness these transformations and learn more about raising monarch butterflies. Walking in our garden, maybe you will spot a monarch miracle in action.

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