The caterpillar (larva) emerges from an egg in approximately four days. After a tiny caterpillar emerges from an egg, it is hungry and needs to eat the egg shell because it is rich in protein. The larva eats the egg in a circular pattern. Then the caterpillar climbs to the top of a milkweed leaf and becomes a munching machine. If there are other holes it may be remains of other eggs. It could be that a spider, mite or even a monarch caterpillar ate the eggs.
Caterpillars have lively colors with bands of yellow, black and off-white striped skin. A young larva may roll up in a tight ball if handled. Perhaps the caterpillar is trying to protect itself from being attacked. A caterpillar will grow beyond its skin five times and each time the caterpillar needs to shed its skin. This is known as molting. Stages between molts are called Instars. A caterpillar remains soft and vulnerable until a new skin has a chance to harden and it is best not to handle caterpillars because of molting.
There are several threats to the caterpillar. Tachnid flies look for a host for its own larvae and may lay eggs on milkweed or on a caterpillar. The parasitic wasp is also a threat. Additionally, there are various bacteria and viruses that could be harmful. Notice how big the caterpillar is in the illustration? The larva appears to be in its fourth Instar.
A caterpillar has three body parts: Head, thorax and abdomen. There are two sets of tubercles, one at the head and another at the end of the abdomen. The antennae like tubercles may confuse predators because the larva mimics two heads. The front tubercles aid in sensing and smell.
The thorax segment has three pairs of true legs. All insects have six true legs. There are four sets of prolegs or false legs in the abdominal segment. Usually these are visible as in the illustration. They look like pads and have little hooks that help the caterpillar attach itself to a leaf.
There are prolegs at the end of the abdomen in the illustration; the anal prolegs are used by the caterpillar to spin a white silk button. When a caterpillar splits its exoskeleton for the last time, the larva hangs upside down and starts to molt first starting with the head. When the old skin is near the rear end of the abdomen, a cremaster is exposed. This is a strong dark appendage that is uses to attach to a silk button that a caterpillar made before it started to pupate. The newly formed chrysalis will harden and hang upside down on the underside of a leaf or twig until a monarch butterfly is born.
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Native Wildflower and Butterfly Garden, Shell Lake, Wisconsin as time permits I will add photos
June 19 – First sighting of a monarch caterpillar in area one. Saturday worked in area three for 2 hours.
June 20 – Rains off and on over the next few days.
June 21 – I showed Elizabeth Haasl the monarch caterpillar.
June 23 – It rained like a tropical storm and I worried about the little thing.
June 24 – When I checked area one for the monarch caterpillar, I didn’t see it on the milkweed at 8 a.m. It was wet out. It rained last night and I thought perhaps it was hiding. At 10 a.m. Elizabeth, a volunteer, walked through this area and saw the caterpillar on the milkweed. I am happy because we are closely watching to ensure the little creature has enough milkweed to eat.
The Memory Tree Grove at the north Monarch Butterfly Habitat in Shell Lake was completely overrun with grass and spotted knapweed in June. Elizabeth Haasl, a young volunteer has been diligently pulling the invasive species in area three for three weeks now. I tackle the grass as high as my knees. As of today one can see that there is a walking circle with a central wild black cherry tree and parameter trees. We planted chokecherry and staghorn suman in 2008. The cherry trees seem to be healthy but the sumac pretty much died. We planted a large wild black cherry tree in the center of the Memory Tree Grove in 2009 and it is doing beautifully and even has fruit that hasn’t been eaten by the birds. While I was weeding today, I noticed a dead stump of a sumac mother plant, hidden among the weeds, which was planted in 2008. The parent had sent out runners which are now two healthy young sumac trees. Think of it. The transplanted sumac may have known that it would not transplant successfully so it sacrificed itself. I love this kind of survival story. At least her DNA got passed down to the next generation.
Area three – Today we put down some red and white clover and added some good rich dark soil. Then we tapped down the seed by walking on it to force it to settle into the ground. The idea is to remove the invasive species, add a legume to add nitrogen to the soil and then this fall or next spring we will put down native seed in this area. We can’t transplant in this area because there are natural gas lines running through on this side.
The Three Sisters Garden looks great. I want to put down some fresh mowed grass as ground cover the next time they mow at Lakeland Manor. Or perhaps I can bring back some straw from Minong. The tiny butterfly weed that I transplanted from hydroponics experiment is thriving and growing in two places in area two and three. Elizabeth showed me a Hidatsa bean when she opened the shell and it was beautiful beige with reddish tones on white.
At 2:30 p.m. I rode my bike over to habitat and saw the caterpillar on the underside of a milkweed leaf. It is twice as big as it was a few days ago.
I saw that prairie purple clover is coming up in area one to the left of the bench. I see lots of gray head coneflower growing also. Is this from seed that was planted in 2008 and only germinating this year because of rain? Interesting! I have been told that some of this seed that we planted in 2008 could stay in the soil for 100 years before germinating. It waits until the conditions are just right for it to grow and regenerate. Love this earth science and lessons from the field. I find it unlikely that seed could have blown this far seeing as it is not a wind carrying seed. Perhaps a bird ate the seed and flew over this spot depositing seed.
June 25 – It looked like it was going to rain early this morning. I went to the habitat at 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and that is the moment the rain began to fall. I sang OmMa Ka Om as the rain fell. I know we are being especially blessed with rain this year. Tabitha told me her mother was doing rain ceremony for us also. When I walked into area one, I headed straight for the milkweed that is home to monarch caterpillar one but I didn’t see it anywhere on the plant.
I love to get here in the early morning when I have a little time to myself. Elizabeth arrived at about 8:30 a.m. and she looked ill. I asked her mother to take her home until she feels well. She most likely overdid it in the heat on Thursday after I left for home.
I am pleased with the mulch we ordered from Pederson’s Nursery. I am pea green with envy at the money the condos have to put down mulch. The nursery dumped hundreds of dollars of deep, rich mulch in their native gardens and it looks weedless. I only had $50 and to me it was worth it so Peterson’s gave us a half of a truck load. The purpose is to put mulch around the shrubs that we planted in 2008, 2009 and this year. The trees and shrubs’ were dressed with wood chips around them but it was recommended we change over to wood chipped mulch. I am also cutting back the tall native grass around the shrubs which are planted on the highway side so that eventually people will see them as they drive by. We want the shrubs to grow as privacy screens. This year some of the Ninebark flowered as well as the Juneberry. I can’t wait to see them set fruit in the fall. I worked in the first part of area three. One step at a time.
June 26 – It is Saturday morning and I will meet Bob Hasman at the habitat. Tyler H. came to volunteer today. He is a student at Shell Lake High School and appears to be a very curious and bright young man. I asked what he was reading as he was walking towards me on the ATV trail and he said, “Plato.” This is the kind of person that is attracted to our work in conservation, they are bright and educated. He worked for an hour pulling spotted knapweed, an invasive species.
I was clipping some of the tall native Brome that was growing near the ninebark shrubs in the far end of area two. I noticed that one of these shrubs had fruit forming. I need to photograph this. It appears that some yellow graybead seed must have scattered here because I found new first year growth.
A part time resident who lives on the east side of Shell Lake came to visit the habitat. She asked me if any monarchs were around. Both Tyler and I saw what we presumed to be a male monarch because he didn’t light for long. Every time we were near, he would fly up from the grasses and hoary asslum. I suspected he was trying to catch a female with the sporadic behavior.
I invited Josie (the part-time resident on the lake) to come to area one and see the monarch caterpillar on the milkweed. This is day eight and my how it has grown. The one I shot on Friday (I believe) happens to be a younger caterpillar and both of them are on the same plant. I may need to do a rescue tomorrow or Monday and put the smaller one on another milkweed. Caterpillars are cannibalistic and I don’t want to lose a caterpilar simply because they are competing for the same source food. I am already wondering if the caterpillar can taste the difference between milkweed plants.
Black-eyed Susan is starting to bloom as a colony in the start of area two.
June 27 – I rode my bike over to the habitat at 6 p.m. because I simply couldn’t wait to see what the two caterpillars were up to. I looked closely at the milkweed and didn’t see either one of them. Could they have wandered off to find safety for the night? I did see lots of birds flying over to roost in trees for the night and know they like to eat caterpillars but find out they are not tasty. Even so, they have been known to try.
I saw a spinx moth. It was tiny and orange in color. The wings were moving so fast I didn’t have but a moment with the night pollinator. Saw Four-O-Clocks finally in bloom for the first time. Dropped the digital camera and lost one battery so I unable to photograph much. It is curious about the Four-o-Clock because I am an early bird and work outside in the morning. I don’t usually go out to the habitat in late afternoon so the spinx moth and four-o-clock have alluded me at the habitat until today.
There is red root amaranth growing in area two in the dark rich black earth given to us by Bill Campbell of Campbell’s Country Store and Farm. I noticed that there were several other wild edibles growing here also. I picked some Lamb’s Quarter to property identify. There was Purslane and Chickweed that I will write about in depth later. There is this grass with red to purple seeds when sun hits it. I don’t have a good native grass book and will check the library to see if I can find good photos so I can identify this and other native grasses. The seeds are airy and delicate looking.
The tall grasses had tawny-edged skippers settling down for a night rest in the tall grasses. They appear to be solitary but can gather on individual grasses near each other. It is pretty to see them in the early morning sleeping contentedly. Then along came a white cabbage butterfly trying to find the just right spot to hunker down for the night. She settled on a hoary asslum that has white flowers. Butterflies know how to camouflage themselves.
I could hear the trees rustling across the street and the crickets. The habitat is alive with sound. The City owns the land next to the habitat and keeps it mowed, thank goodness because there is so much invasive spotted knapweed. The downside is that nothing can live in this monoculture, not a bee or cricket.
June 28 – I was at the habitat at 8 a.m. and several observations that make being alone in nature such a wondrous experience. I thought that the red tinge growing in the 3 sisters garden was the Hopi amaranth I seeded. It turns out it is the red root amaranth. I was so surprised when I looked at the black earth mound with amaranth growing in the pile. I pulled one up and saw that indeed it was red root amaranth. I brought some home today and steamed it for the community pot luck. The residents must have enjoyed it because there was none left when I finished working with the IT intern.
I put straw down near the three sisters garden to hold moisture and keep the weeds at bay. I didn’t see the caterpillars at this time and I thought perhaps it was because it was cloudy. It rained at 9 a.m. I walked in area two with a small sparrow. I was doing mindful walking, the sparrow was pecking for seed and it was a joy to keep within his company for at least 3-4 minutes. Other sparrows come too for the grass seed. I was watching because it looked like sparrow one jumped on a hoary asslum. Was it trying to dislodge something? The plant hadn’t gone to seed yet.
As I worked I thought of Margaret Lynk, my elder Ojibwe friend, who told me years ago, “Let nature teach you. When people come to look at the habitat they need to train their eyes to behold the littlest of life happening. You have to have eyes to see it. One person recently said, “I drive by on Route 63 and it looks so pretty.” My response was, “You need to come into the habitat and walk the butterfly wing shaped path to see the life within.”
At 4 p.m. I stopped by the habitat to check again for the caterpillars. The sun was shining but still no caterpillars. My heartvfelt a tug. Should I have removed the littler caterpillar and placed it on another milkweed on Saturday when I saw that two caterpillars were on the same milkweed? Number one looked like it was big and may have been ready to start pupating. These are thoughts that make us conscious when we bond with a butterfly. I ask myself, “Could I have saved it?” Eunice Smith who rescues and raises monarchs in Florida experiences the same kind of bonding with her butterflies. Then there was Cindy Broesch of Rice Lake who wanted to know was it best to gather milkweed pods, save and clean the seed and scatter it or was it better to make sure caterpillars had enough milkweed during its caterpillar stage? It is an ethical issue and I can understand the part of making sure caterpillars have enough milkweeds so they don’t have to compete. The caterpillar faces many challenges in its life AND I NEED TO ADDRESS THIS.