Tag Archives: Monarch Caterpillars

A New Mystery

17 Aug

In the case of the missing Monarch caterpillars, I admit I may have unfairly pinned the blame on the White-Breasted Nuthatch, which is probably far more interested in small insects on trees rather than large caterpillars on flowering plants.

It is time to accept that the caterpillar caper may never be solved. But when it comes to gardens and all the life therein, there are numerous other mysteries requiring the use of little grey cells.

Two days ago, I saw that a single yellow flower had bloomed right in front of our wrought-iron fence. It looked like a small sunflower with a speckled center.

I did not plant it and it was not there last year.  None of our neighbors have flowers that look anything like it. So, how did it end up in the garden?

And then it hit me: this flower came from the bird feeder. It was a sunflower after all–the product of a black oil sunflower seed, dispersed by bird, chipmunk, or wind from the area by the bird feeder to a new home in the garden.

Unfortunately, it may not be a permanent home, since all signs point to this being an annual sunflower, not a perennial one. Perennial sunflowers don’t bloom from seed the first year, and they appear in clumps rather than single stems. But this guest is welcome for as long as it is able to stay, a small spot of sunshine in a garden gearing up for autumn. And maybe next year, I will disperse some seeds myself.

Nefarious Nuthatch?

15 Aug

The Monarch caterpillars are gone. In the end, there were three in total, one plumper than the others. I am hoping that the biggest one managed to make its way to another leaf under which to pupate. But the situation looks grim for the other two. Not wanting to name any culprits, I will simply say that most birds do not eat Monarch caterpillars because the caterpillars ingest toxins from the Butterfly Weed/milkweed leaves they eat, and as a result, the caterpillars taste terrible. Thus, smart birds only make that gastronomic mistake once.

But there is a bird that likes insects for another reason: to use them as mini brooms with which to sweep the entrance to its nest cavity. That bird is called a White-Breasted Nuthatch.

Among its other eccentricities, the Nuthatch likes to hang out on trees face down.

Now, I’m not pointing fingers, but in contemplating the loss of the caterpillars, I noticed a small bird that seemed immune to the forces of gravity on the tree trunk right above the Butterfly Weed  (previously home to the caterpillars). Furthermore, it remained immobile for long stretches of time, staring straight down at the Butterfly Weed in rapt concentration.The clues were piling up.

Appearance at the scene of the crime? Check. Motive? Check. Opportunity? Check.


Conclusion (based on total conjecture): having recently swept its nest with a couple Monarch caterpillars located very conveniently under the bird feeder and tree, the Nuthatch was so pleased with its efforts that it is now looking for a few more of those excellent brooms.

Lesson: Take the caterpillars indoor next year.

Mad for Monarchs

12 Aug

Yesterday, having vowed to clean up my act (and the yard, too), I discovered that one of our Butterfly Weeds had become home to two Monarch caterpillars:


Butterfly Weed is a type of milkweed, which Monarch Butterflies love. The butterflies lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves and not long afterward, a caterpillar emerges, snacking away on the leaves until it is nice and plump, whereupon it attaches itself to a nice spot, hangs upside down in a sort of J shape, and turns into the pupa from which a new butterfly emerges, completing the cycle.

Judging by their size, the two caterpillars in our yard will pupate fairly soon. I’m hoping they stay put on the Butterfly Weed, though some caterpillars wander off and undergo their metamorphosis elsewhere. If these two are happy where they are (and if predators do not get to them), I may be able to post a pupa update in the near future. I am going to let nature takes its course this time around, but if I lose track of the caterpillars, I may consider bringing the 2013 generation indoors so they can pupate in safer quarters.

In the meantime, here is another critter that loves milkweed–the Milkweed Bug. There are two types, both of which are orange and black: the Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) has a distinctive black band across its back, while the Small Milkweed Bug (Lygaeus kalmii) has an orange X on its back. We have both, which may not be a good thing. These bugs multiply like rabbits and can denude a Butterfly Weed very quickly; right now, there are only a few of each type hanging out on our plants, but I’ll have to monitor them to make sure they don’t reach critical mass and chomp away the leaf under which a Monarch pupa might be hanging….