Saturday, May 21, 2016

“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
~ Maya Angelou

A female Monarch butterfly is ovipositing (laying eggs) on the milkweed growing in the Container Butterfly Garden. YAY! Stay tuned.

I came across a Monarch butterfly that recently eclosed (hatched, or emerged) Thursday morning when hunting down weeds. It's a little girl, but I don't think she's too healthy. Her chrysalid is smaller than normal. Conversely, she is too. Thankfully, tachinid flies didn't find her first before she turned into a chrysalis.

-Andrew Kliss

-Andrew Kliss

The chrysalis above hasn't changed much in the several weeks (month+, really) I've had it. Normal time for a caterpillar to emerge as an adult butterfly takes two weeks roughly. From its color and abnormal length of pupation, I suspect it will produce tachinid fly maggots instead of a beautiful butterfly.

 Healthy Monarch chrysalides

Nice metamorphosis photo chronicling the steps a Monarch butterfly caterpillar takes from forming a "J" to eclosing as an adult.

-Steve Greer Photography

Three Monarch cats I found as eggs I'm raising are doing great. It's amazing how fast they grow after the 3rd instar phase! Looks like they'll blow right through the 4th, whiz past the 5th, and turn into chrysalides very soon.

Went for another egg hunt in the container butterfly garden a few days back, looking for Monarch eggs deposited under milkweed leaves. This time I didn't get skunked and found nine, so a female did come through to oviposit. I'm sure the nine come from a single mom, as all were laid on the same plant.

Update: Whilst cutting fresh food for my caterpillar charges Thursday, I came across another batch of fresh Monarch caterpillar eggs. This time, 5. There are now 14 eggs waiting to hatch:

-Andrew Kliss
Left: first batch of 9. Right: second batch of 5.

-Andrew Kliss

The three healthy cats have devoured the milkweed I gave them just a couple of days ago. At the 4th instar stage, they have turned into eating and pooping machines.

-Andrew Kliss
¿Donde esta las orugas? Where are the caterpillars?

-Andrew Kliss

With fresh food, the three cats took no time settling in safely under a canopy of milkweed leaves, sequestered in their modified 2 gal. paint bucket. For the next feeding they'll have to go into their eclosing cage for a final 5th instar stage before turning into chrysalides.

Monarch Life Cycle

And now there's artificial food (Synthesized: mmmmmm... yummy! Soylent green anyone?) for those who have run out of milkweed or don't wish to bother growing plants, but would like to raise some Monarch caterpillars nonetheless:

One desperation alternate food source for Monarch caterpillars is pumpkin, plus other members of the squash family. Only works on 5th instar cats who are close to pupating. So, if one gets to the point where plants are stripped and can't find any fresh milkweed, one can at least save 5th instars from starvation:

Monarch Caterpillars Butternut Squash

 5th instar cats noshing on squash.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

“Love is that butterfly feeling you get in your stomach, after you swallow a caterpillar.”
~ Jarod Kintz

For the Container Butterfly Garden, it's beginning to look like the need to raise cats in a controlled environment.

"Controlled environment? Pray tell, what do you mean?"

That means collecting monarch eggs and possibly 1st instar cats from the garden for raising in nursery containers. Eggs and 1st instar only because they are the stages least likely to be infected by parasites.

Monarch caterpillar instar examples

 Scanning electron photograph of a monarch butterfly egg.

 Newly hatched monarch caterpillar (1st instar) feeding on its own shell for the protein boost.

The incidence of parasitism in the container garden is getting out of hand. With the threat of Oe continuously hanging over the caterpillars' heads plus the rest of the predator/parasite crew potential threats, now parasitic tachinid flies have become unbearable.

Parasites and Natural Enemies

7 Common Monarch Diseases, Parasites + Caterpillar Killers

I also have a resident, cool-looking green spider who is hunkered down on one of my young milkweed plants that will pounce on 1st instars,  but he's so cool looking, I cast my eyes the other way in his case. Here's hoping he gets big enough to catch flies. Tachinid flies. All of them. And other egg and caterpillar predators. Yes. (I get off on spiders...)

-Andrew Kliss
My little green spider dude taking up residence on Gomphocarpus cancellatus.

I ordered two Gomphocarpus cancellatus plants online from Annie's Annuals and Perennials. Annie's still lists it as Asclepias cancellata, it's old taxonomic name. From what I've read, G. cancellatus should adapt well to SoCal gardens and could prove to be quite a substantive source of monarch caterpillar food. As the season progresses, I'll update on its merits, or lack thereof.

Back to tachinid flies:

 One of many species of tachinid flies. The one above looks most like those in the container garden.

Back in mid March, I could easily count a dozen + cats in various stages of instars. Within two weeks I saw none except for one sorry looking, lone, 3rd instar individual. Within six inches of the cat perched a tachinid fly staring directly at it. I took the little cat inside, put him in a rearing container with some fresh food, and within a day it was dead from what I believe was a parasite, most likely a tachinid.

Tachinid fly maggots with host caterpillar

I went back in the garden, promptly scouring every bit of milkweed underleaf surface scrounging for eggs and small cats. Found three eggs and one tiny 1st instar cat that were placed in rearing boxes I made. Unfortunately, I lost the wee little cat when trying to transfer it to a new box. It dropped onto a design-rich oriental carpet, where it immediately was lost to the relative chaos of the rug's surface. 1st instars are so small, one just about needs a magnifying glass to view them properly. Even with my reading glasses, it was hard to pick him out sitting on a white paper towel that lined his first box.

I have not seen one Monarch here in the container garden -- or any type of butterfly for that matter -- in the past few weeks. I check for eggs and young cats a couple of times per week on the milkweeds, but have yet to find anything new. Could it be attributed to just a lull in visitors, or can they sense the presence of tachinid flies close by, therefor avoiding the inherent dangers? I have no clue.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

"No two gardens are the same. No two days are the same in one garden."
~Hugh Johnson

Here's a gardening practice a Japanese Hawaiian gardener taught me when I was a mere grasshopper back in my 20's. Some flowering shrubs can be severely pruned back each year in order to keep them within prescribed bounds, and will stimulate profuse blooming.

One such plant this technique works especially well on is Lantana camara. It's an approach I incorporate starting April that will work in most SoCal locations. Below is a container garden lantana showing vestiges of winter doldrums, before it was pruned back hard:

-Andrew Kliss

-Andrew Kliss

-Andrew Kliss
A little over one month later

Yes indeed it is pretty drastic, but the outcome within a short time is a beautiful bushy shrub chock full o' blooms.

Other plants that can derive benefit from severe pruning include:

Took a casual stroll through the garden this morning just before posting. How enjoyable it is to visit living things that have become your friends; who depend on you to take good care of them, and who in return reward you with awe and beauty only creation can provide. Below are some photos I took with my smartphone (love this thing):

-Andrew Kliss
 Ruta graveolens, Common Rue

-Andrew Kliss
Fennel. Finocchio, or Florence Fennel

-Andrew Kliss
Verbena bonariensis, Purple Vervain

As an aside, I also wish to share some photos of a couple of cacti blooming in the rest of the yard:

-Andrew Kliss
Echinocereus pentalophus, Ladyfinger (taken a few weeks ago)

-Andrew Kliss

-Andrew Kliss

These blooms on 'High Noon' are six inches across. Some Echinopsis hybrid flowers can span 12 inches!