A mild Florida winter and a few milkweed plants extended butterfly reproduction into December and January. I found myself inviting the neighborhood children into the yard to show them my monarch caterpillars. Most of the children are under 10 but I was amazed that one 5-year-old already knew about caterpillars and butterflies. When I was 5, I buried my dead goldfish with his head above the dirt so he could breathe. Obviously, the idea of caterpillars becoming butterflies would have been beyond my comprehension. I’m still a little slow. Most children today come into the world with the ability to thumb type on cell phones. I still poke at the keyboard with one finger. Sigh.
The 5-year-old also managed to set my gag reflex in motion when she wanted to pick up a caterpillar and hold it in her hand. My hysterical mind began to scream, “Are you kidding me? Aack! Aack!” Not wanting to dampen fearless curiosity, I allowed her to gently pick up the caterpillar for a quick crawl on her palm while I stepped back a foot.
A few days later, on January 6, I called the Butterfly Lady, Cee. When she answered her cell phone, I said, “Come get my worms.” She laughed. She was a tad busy as she had just returned from a trip. It was up to me to deliver my 12+ worms to her larger food supply. I had my brother transfer them to a gallon water jug with the top cut out. I covered the jug with enough netting and duct tape to safely imprison them should I encounter a hurricane on my 23-mile trip. I also strapped them in the seat beside me where I could keep a wary eye on them.
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST CATERPILLARS
Cee’s attitude towards winter butterflies is “survival of the fittest” because she takes a break in the winter from all the work of hatching butterflies. It takes a lot of time to bleach eggs, habitats and milkweed to minimize OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha). Other butterflies, such as swallowtails, don’t require all that bleaching even though she still bleaches the habitats between batches. If you want to know about bleaching eggs, this video explains it.
MANUALLY MOVING A CATERPILLAR FOR THE FIRST TIME
On January 24, I once again discovered a lone caterpillar on the same milkweed plant. The milkweed had only 2 cold-burnt leaves remaining. I knew the caterpillar had to be moved to a larger food source. Wanting to overcome my unreasonable aversion to caterpillars, I donned a pair of garden gloves to move the caterpillar to the Hairy Balls Milkweed. My brother had mentioned it was hard to get them off the milkweed as they hang on for dear life and I found this to be true. I walked towards the Hairy Balls Milkweed with outstretched palm just in case I tripped. As I was encouraging junior to grasp the milkweed, my head snapped back when my peripheral vision picked up movement. There was a large caterpillar claiming home-ownership of that milkweed plant. I was beyond surprised – this was late January and this caterpillar had not been on this milkweed at the time I delivered the others to Cee. If it had been, it was too small for the naked eye to see. Once I got junior on the milkweed, I stepped back to assess the situation. Seven caterpillars and one of them had the audacity to be hanging out on the other Hairy Balls Milkweed that had 3 hairy balls on it. I was not happy. I did not want caterpillars mowing it to the ground before I collected seeds from the 3 hairy balls as this was my first time growing this type of milkweed.
FREEZE PROTECTION FOR CATERPILLARS
Our weather headed into a freeze on January 29 that was to last 3 days. I was afraid the caterpillars would die in a sustained freeze so I covered them with two bed sheets. They were uncovered the morning of February 2. They didn’t appear frozen — color was good and they were still attached to the milkweed but they were not moving. On the other hand, the caterpillar I left uncovered because his milkweed was too hard to cover, was moving and feeding. I checked on the sleepy heads an hour later and they were finally moving. Eight caterpillars survived the freeze. Across town on the same day, Cee found several caterpillars on the milkweed she had intended to trim.
UNUSUAL PLACES CATERPILLARS WENT INTO J-FORMATION
The J-Formation is the term used to explain when the caterpillar attaches itself by a silk pad to begin the metamorphosis from caterpillar to chrysalis. This usually occurs on a plant stem but Cee has found the caterpillars or the resulting chrysalis in unusual places.
One of her caterpillars went into J-formation on her Staghorn Fern. Cindy and I marveled that the caterpillar had to climb up the bumpy oak tree bark and slither down the chain holding the Staghorn Fern. The only other possibility is the monarch butterfly accidentally laying an egg on the Staghorn Fern instead of milkweed. As we wondered about this, I was standing there, camera in hand, but it did not occur to me to take a picture of the chrysalis or the tree or the chain. I later asked Cindy to shoot the photos for me. Honestly, I need adult supervision.