raising monarch butterflies

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I invite you to gaze upon my caterpillar nursery!  I put it together for myself and the family and anyone who comes over to visit. . . . . . .

Year after year, indeed for the last 11 years we have lived on this property (four acres boarding state land), I have kept watch in the later summer days for monarch caterpillars.  (They are only ever on milkweed).  If I see a caterpillar, I collect it and bring it home to raise on the counter in a big jar or a fish tank.  (We used to have a different fish tank but it broke when someone tried putting rocks in it).

We were fortunate to find perhaps 4 caterpillars, and sometimes none at all.  This year, however, this epic summer of 2017, we have found over 20 of them.  If I were more scientific, I would do a precise count, but it is rather difficult and confusing to try to count caterpillars when they are all over the place and in various sizes.

I am a busy mom and wife, it’s a wonder that I have time to sit and watch a caterpillar nursery at all….or write a blog!  But these things give me much needed rest and enjoyment, they are interests that I have……and no matter what your interest and passion is….big or small….it should be pursued and nourished.

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I picked these five off their milkweed (which was almost gone) and put them on the floor of the tank so I could give them fresh food.  They looked so cute all in a row that I had to take a photo of them.

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Every couple of days I replace the leaves from the three small bud vases I have in the tank with fresh milkweed from the garden, which is conveniently right outside the kitchen door.  Caterpillars are naturally very hungry and grow quickly.  It’s fun to watch their little heads go up and down the edges of the milkweed like tiny machines.  I bet if it were quieter in my house I might even hear them chewing.

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Can you see the difference in this caterpillar?   Grace and I found two of them on Queen Anne’s lace down by the pond.  We are almost positive that they are the caterpillars of Black Swallowtail Butterflies.

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An urge that I have so far neglected this summer is to get out colored pencils and draw these beautiful patterns that I see. . . .(maybe today?)

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I clipped some cut-to-size screen (from an old window) to the top edge of the tank with clothespins.  When the they have eaten their full and are “ready”, the caterpillars go to the screen to “dangle” for a day or two, before bursting their caterpillar skin to reveal a most beautiful green and gold chrysalis beneath.

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This one’s small but they start out even smaller…..

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I have to laugh when I go out to collect fresh food for them because I inevitably end up bringing inside even MORE caterpillar babies.  David says, “Mom, how many do you NEED?”  He is probably the child who is most interested in them and I love to see his face peering into the tank.

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“Oh no this one looks different, what’s wrong with it?”  I watched it closely and realized it was molting.  It was gripped to the leaf with it’s “end” and wriggling the skin down, rather like when you or I take off stockings with our hands, and “stepping out” fresh and clean.

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Almost done!

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Ah, it feels so good.

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“fresh and clean”

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An empty chrysalis next to six green ones.

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This caterpillar is getting ready to “dangle” by finding the perfect spot on the screen and attaching itself to it with its homemade silk.  The children get nervous if I move the screen, they are afraid the chrysalises might fall off, but they are firmly attached and “just think, outside they would be safe even in the winds and rain”.  So I move the screen in confidence.

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This one had attached itself to a milkweed leaf, which wasn’t a good choice, because eventually the other caterpillars ate the leaf causing the chrysalis to drop down to the bottom of the cage.  I picked it up and dangled it over the edge of the tank.  When I hear the children say, “Mom, one of them is black!” I know that we will soon see a butterfly.

In fact, as I am writing this, a butterfly has newly hatched right in front of our eyes, and three more black ones are ready to come out any minute.

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Why just put milkweed in the tank when you can also add flowers?

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They make lovely strands of silk.  I took a picture right after this caterpillar molted.  You can see its bunched up rag of old skin up at the top of the photo.

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They eat so much I wondered what I would do if we ran out of leaves (it won’t happen this year) and then I noticed that where I picked the leaves off, new ones are growing!

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new leaves!!!

I know, this is a simple gardening concept, but I never thought to apply it to my milkweed!  The resilience of growing things is amazing.

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Milkweed grows outside the kitchen door, mingled in with our lilac bush.

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And more milkweed (tall stalks with long oval leaves) is in the side garden.

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I had to laugh when I saw a chrysalis outside in the lilac bush, I guess I missed bringing this one inside!!

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I can move the chest of drawers around to get a better view, or better lighting for photos.

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It stays like this most of the time.  Better than any TV show.

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It’s fascinating to watch them split, revealing a bright green underneath.

These changes are done so silently and quickly that we miss it most of the time.

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It wriggles in such a strange fashion and the bunch of skin drops to the bottom of the tank.

I did a short video while I was blogging this post.

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They first come out with their body much bigger than their wings.  I always think of origami when I see them emerge……it’s sort of like reverse origami.  Only God could package something up like this and have it come out as beautiful as a butterfly…

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The butterfly hangs and dries, once in a while a drip of fluid will fall.  Once I see them opening their wings for the first time I will take them carefully outside on a stick and put them up on the lilac bush.

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“I look upon a year lived as a year earned; and each year earned means a greater treasury of experience and power laid up against time of need.”  Anna Botsford Comstock

“God created the heavens and the earth to be experienced, not just read about or lectured upon.”  Bob Schultz

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I found a caddis worm

Yesterday afternoon I went to the chicken coop.  It was the first day back to school for the children so I was alone and greatly enjoying the quiet.  There were three eggs in the coop which I promptly put into the pocket of my shorts.  I held in my hand a mug of lukewarm coffee.  A rose fiestaware mug, to be exact.

Seth and Caleb were playing catch by the road last Friday.  Across the road from our house is forest and when they heard a cracking sound, they looked up just in time to see a small bear jumping down from a tree and running away into the woods.

I had this in mind as I stood and gazed around me at the edge of our property.  Would I see the bear?  Was I nervous?

Our property sits on four acres and it borders state forest.  A shallow but constantly running stream also borders part of our land.  I walked away from the coop into the forest and toward the stream.  I was wearing shorts and sneakers, the air was warm with a cool breeze and sunlight streamed through the tops of tall pine trees.  Beneath my feet were old damp leaves and pine needles, and crackling twigs.

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A frog hesitated and then took a flying leap into the water and swam under water soaked leaves to hide.  I had surprised me so I stood still for a while just in case there were any others.  In the center of the water beyond reach was a gelatinous mass of eggs.  The stream had overflowed its boundaries with the rain, forming a nice big puddle of fresh water, just right for a frog nursery.  As I looked, I saw a tiny little wooden thing slowly crawling in hesitant dips and bobs on the bottom of the puddle.  It looked like a small pine cone … walking under the water.  But that couldn’t be right, could it?

I was wearing my perfectly good black sneakers and for a brief moment I had to decide; would I or would I not get them wet?  For a pine cone?

I would.

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I dumped my coffee out and dipped the mug into the water to rinse.  The water was cold and my sneakers were instantly filled with it.  I bent down to scoop my discovery into the mug and brought it back with me, just a step or two, to dry land.

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It was a tiny creature living inside it’s own homemade case of twigs.

I kept it in the mug as I took a few pictures and a video.

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It’s “front door” –one the end of the case– was finished off with whitish twigs.

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Right before I put it back I held it in my hand.  It was less than an inch long.

I proceeded on my walk and as I walked down the trail to the road I almost stepped on a snake.

It moved away from my foot fast enough but then had a hard time slithering away because it was so cold.

*******

Back in the house, I quickly located my favorite nature book and identified the strange water creature that I had found.

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“People who have never tried to fathom the mysteries of the bottom of brook or pond are to be pitied.  Just to lie flat, face downward, and watch for a time all that happens down there in that water world is far more interesting than witnessing any play ever given at matinee.  At first one sees nothing, since all the swift-moving creatures have whisked out of sight, because they have learned to be shy of moving shadows………….and then something strange happens.  A bit of rubbish on the bottom of the brook walks off.  Perhaps it is a dream, or we are under the enchantment of the water witches!”  ~Anna Comstock

Pity me, because I have to say I have never (until yesterday) tried to fathom the mysteries of the bottom of our stream….and it was only because of that frog jumping that I stood still long enough to discover my very own “bit of rubbish.”

Things I learned:

*You can take these things home, put them in an aquarium to observe them, remove the top twigs of its case, give it tiny strips of flower pedals, and watch it rebuild using the blossoms.  They are “underwater architects.”

*The inside of the case is lined with silk.

*The worm is not attached to the case and if you turn the case wrong side up and hold it down, the worm will flip over within it to right itself.

*An artist named Hubert Duprat collects them, keeps them in climate controlled aquariums, removes them from their cases, supplies them with precious metal and stones, and thus creates (using the worms) beautiful little works of art.  Click HERE to see.

*When they are ready to pupate (turn into a fly), it fastens itself to an object in the water and seals itself up inside.  Eventually it emerges as a caddis fly.

* People make fishing lures using the caddis fly as inspiration.

*If they are located in your backyard stream it is an indication that the water is clean.

*They can make their case out of almost anything including sand, stones, or even a hollow stem.

*Someone made this.

For more information you can read the wikipedia article HERE.

In fact, the more I dig around the internet studying these things, the dumber I feel!  Why haven’t I learned about these before?  What fascinating creatures they are!

“Little brook, so simple, so unassuming
–and yet how many things love thee!”
~Edward Carpenter

PS, I didn’t see the bear.   However, I thought I heard one at one point and peed a little in my pants.  Bears, worms, and snakes….oh my!

my favorite amphibian

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The moon was quite distracting two nights ago.

Spring in general is quite distracting and I mean that in the very best of ways….after a quiet winter all nature is alive with growing things, singing birds, visiting ducks, opening buds, blooming flowers,,,,,,,and procreating toads.

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I have an affection for toads.  Thanks to the fabulous Handbook of Nature Study, I have learned some charming basics of their simple yet fascinating ways.

“Whoever has not had a pet toad has missed a most entertaining experience.  Toad actions are surprisingly interesting; one of my safeguards against the blues is the memory of the thoughtful way one of my pet toads rubbed and patted its stomach with its little hands after it had swallowed a June bug.” page 170

Every time I read the above quote I am filled with longing for a pet toad of my own.  I need an aquarium and a toad.  This would currently be the ideal time for finding a toad, I could take a pick from a very many many many of them right out of my own pond.  But soon they will be done with laying eggs and hop away again and we will only come across them randomly in the woods as we walk along.

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Toads lay their eggs in very long strings of black dots.  Soon a jelly will form around the eggs and the tadpoles will develop, tiny at first and then growing little by little until soon a miniature  toad will be perfectly formed about the size of a pencil eraser.  When that happens, they will hop out of the pond to make their way in the world.  It’s so fun to watch year and after year.

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Male toads are smaller than the females, which are plump with eggs.  All the single males sit on the side of the pond and sing a magnetic song….with the purpose of calling to himself a lovely female.

I sat and watched this one for quite a while, it never moved, and never attracted a female.  I hope it had success after I left.

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The males are so ready for action that when the kids catch one it immediately hugs their hand or  wrist, and needs to be pried gently off.  Interestingly, if a male tries to “hug” another male, he knows something is wrong right away and lets go almost as soon as it grips.  “begs pardon”

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Our dog Parker came to investigate along with us and caught a couple of toads in his mouth.  While Sarah and I were yelling at him, he rushed away up the bank with his prize.  But very soon he dropped them and started gagging repeatedly and foaming at the mouth.  I was telling my friend about this and she said that her dog did the same thing.  She found out that the toads spit some kind of nasty fluid which make the dogs drop them….a lovely defense mechanism.

I learned more this morning:  “The warts upon the back are glands, which secrete a substance disagreeable for the animal seeking toad dinners.  This is especially true of the glands in the elongated swellings above and just back of the ear, which are called the parotid glands; these give forth a milky, poisonous substance when the toad is seized by an enemy, although the snakes do not seem to mid it.”  page 173

Other toad facts:

It eats insects and worms.
It doesn’t drink water, it absorbs it through its skin.
It burrows into the ground, typically staying there during the day and coming out at night to eat…also, it burrows deeply into the earth to sleep all winter….awaking in the warmth of spring.
It breathes air by swallowing it into the lungs.
It sheds its skin as it grows, and eats it.
It likes having its back scratched gently.
Its chief enemy is the snake.

(all facts from The Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsword Comstock—a highly recommended book for all nature lovers)

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Dandelions and Violets

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Please pet me, little girl. ~Billy Cat

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I like to sleep in the garden amongst the tulips.  ~Snickers

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This little boy SETH is recovering from ear infections, bronchitis and a cracked nose (trampoline collision with Caleb)…but nothing slows him down…usually has a glove and baseball at all times and dirt on the knees and under the fingernails.  Very rare boy, one of a kind really, and belongs to a proud mama and papa.