Complete Overhaul of Caterpillar Diaries in the Pipeline

Welcome to Caterpillar Diaries! The fact that you’ve made it here is something akin to a miracle, as this website is unlikely to show up in a Google search.

This is because the Word Press theme I chose when I created this website is not “responsive” – that is, it doesn’t adapt to the different devices people use to view websites (eg, phones and tablets vs a desktop computer) and the layout goes a bit strange! Google, in its wisdom, has decreed that sites that are not “responsive” when viewed on mobile devices will not appear in searches on such devices.

And so we must search for a new theme. I’ve put this off (because there are 100s of 1,000s of themes and it’s a bit of a daunting task), but it’s time I took a deep breath and got back into it.

Not only will I change the theme/layout of the site, but I will update the site to give you the information and visual experience you are looking for.

I’m not ready to give myself a deadline yet, but it will be soon (ish)! In the meantime, I hope you enjoy what’s there (and forgive me for any weird layout things and random text in Latin)!

A disastrous end to the butterfly season

I wanted this blog to be only a happy place. Who wouldn’t be happy surrounded by butterflies? But today, I’m feeling down.

This butterfly season (summer of 2014/15) ended in disaster. I don’t think that’s too strong a word for it.

For one thing, every single caterpillar I had since late January has died. Only about a third of them made it to the chrysalis stage. Of these, most never emerged – the chrysalis just gone darker and darker (the wrong colour – not the pretty black that we expect, but a dirty black in streaks around the inside of the chrysalis) and then shriveled or fell off its perch. The one or two butterflies that did emerge were deformed and unable to fly.

It’s clear that they had a disease known, for short, as OE. (It’s full name is Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, and it is actually a protozoan parasite, rather than a virus or bacterium.)  It is common in Monarch butterflies, but this is the first time I have had it wipe out all my caterpillars.

The other thing is that almost all of my swan plants have died. I never managed to get on top of the infestation of oleander aphids, and the plants started getting sick. I don’t know whether the aphids gave the plants a disease or just weakened them to the point they could not resist disease. However, out of 60 plants, I have only about 3 healthy plants (another 3 or 4 might survive, but it’s not looking hopeful).

So, I’m feeling a bit despondent. I pretty much need to start from scratch.

Perhaps once it gets closer to the new butterfly season, my spirits will be lifted to start again.

A late start to the new butterfly season

This summer, like many butterfly enthusiasts around the country, I’ve totally missed what l call the first wave of caterpillars and butterflies. From mid-November to the end of December, I spotted only two or three Monarchs flitting about our garden in search of nectar or swan plants to lay eggs on. Our visitors found our various dahlias, but my swan plants were safely hidden away in the butterfly garden, doors closed, as they were in poor shape and not ready for caterpillars.

After my first season of caterpillars, I nurtured my swan plants back to health – squashing and even spraying (with organic pesticide, once there was no chance of butterflies reappearing) the Oleander aphids that had infested them, re-potting them, and adding nutrients to their soil. Last year, however, l was less diligent. My surviving swan plants spent the winter (of 2014) with a mild infestation of aphids, my irregular squashing and spraying attempt insufficient to eliminate them completely.

So I kept them in the enclosure, away from prowling butterflies. But few butterflies came, and they seemed to have no interest in my plants. They even ignored the six new little plants I bought in December and stashed in the open greenhouse.

It wasn’t until yesterday, when I cleaned out the butterfly garden and started re-potting my plants, squashing aphids as I went, that the butterflies appeared. I saw two or three different females (as many as I’d seen in total this season), and they wasted no time laying eggs on the plants, old and new. It was a beautiful sunny day, with the promise of more summery weather to come, and seeing the butterflies back in the garden made it more special.

Welcome, Monarchs. I’ll try to make my garden a better place for you.

[I’m working on a video of my butterfly area clean-up to post here.]

This is a Work in Progress

Hello! If you’ve found my blog, thank you so much for checking it out!

I’m working on getting it up and running, learning to use WordPress and YouTube etc, and organising the 1,000s of butterfly and caterpillar photos and videos that I’ve taken over the past year or so (I want to post the best ones!).

When I’ve finished, there will be lots of photos, videos, and posts for you to view and enjoy, as we learn about the fascinating world of the Monarch butterfly together.

So, please bear with me for now, and keep popping back to check how it’s coming along! Click here to go to the life cycle diagram.

The ‘Crazy’ Butterfly Woman

Caterpillar growth spurt

The other day, I admired how lush (beautifully green) my butterfly garden had become. My tall swan plants were all getting quite bushy, some with clusters of delicate white and purple flowers. So I arranged the plants (they are all in pots) and tidied everything, topped up the potting mix, swept up, and watered all the plants. It looked amazing. For a whole day!

Now, suddenly, I have a caterpillar population explosion! Again. This is the third time this summer I have found myself with more caterpillars than I can count. (It is probably the last time, as there are usually three generations of butterflies in a season.)

This is what happened. The other day, I had three or four enormous caterpillars. I admired them, photographed them, chatted to them about how fat they were. As well as those ones, there seemed to be about 20 medium-sized caterpillars, a bunch of little ones, and eggs here and there under leaves and so on. In the space of a few days, my enormous caterpillars gobbled a last meal and found places to pupate (turn into a chrysalis), while the medium-sized ones became fat, and all the little ones got bigger too. Now they’re all more noticeable and easy to see on the plants. And it seems as though they appeared from nowhere!

The other reason they’re more noticeable now is because they have stripped the leaves off several of the smaller plants, so there’s nowhere for them to hide. And they are noticing each other. They seem to eat even faster when there are a lot of them together, probably in case the leaf they’re eating is their last meal!

20130411_8299

Am I obsessed with monarchs, or is it just a rumour?

It was only 15 months ago (Nov 2012) that my family and I moved to the town we live in now, on the Kapiti Coast of New Zealand. This is only my second butterfly season. And yet, people tell me I'm obsessed, and maybe a little bit crazy!

Where we lived previously, which was an elevated, windy area, we saw very few butterflies. The most frequent of those we did see was the red admiral, a beautiful but small, native butterfly.

A red admiral butterfly

When we arrived in Kapiti (at the end of the NZ spring), I was immediately captivated by the large, bold butterflies that fluttered around our flower garden, looking for tasty nectar. I must surely have seen monarch butterflies previously, as the colour and pattern of their wings were familiar, but I was surprised by how big they were and by how frequently they visited. My kids, aged 3 and 6 at the time, were also delighted by the butterflies.

I was keen to encourage more butterflies into the garden and to provide learning opportunities for the kids. So, in January, after some research into what monarch caterpillars eat, I went to the local garden centre to get a couple of swan plants (the main type of milkweed we have in NZ). I had a vision at that time of my two little plants growing into large bushes, with cute, stripy caterpillars and green-and-gold chrysalises hidden amongst the mass of leaves, and orange-and-black butterflies fluttering around contentedly.

I soon learnt how naive I was!

I planted my two swan plants in the garden, with plenty of room to grow, and waited for the butterflies to visit. Within a couple of days, however - as well as seeing the butterflies fluttering around and laying their eggs - I spotted two lovely, medium-sized caterpillars that seemed to appear from nowhere (but must have already been on the plants when I bought them).

The kids and I observed these first two caterpillars daily, as they fed on the swan plant leaves and grew bigger and bigger. We saw some tiny new caterpillars appear too, and we thought they were cute! When the time came, both of the original caterpillars left the plants, and we discovered one had formed its chrysalis on a nearby shrub (we never found the other one). Then, in early February 2013, I photographed my first newly emerged monarch butterfly, still drying its wings on the shrub.

My first butterfly I raised in my garden

Meanwhile, the tiny caterpillars grew, and more hatched from the eggs, and suddenly my swan plants were overrun with caterpillars. Ten tiny caterpillars don't eat much, but ten medium and large ones do! I bought more swan plants, then more, and each was quickly stripped of its leaves, so that only the stalks remained. And, as each large caterpillar wandered off to pupate (form its chrysalis), more tiny caterpillars took its place. My earlier vision of a butterfly garden with bushy, green swan plants was fast becoming a distant dream!

At that stage, I decided to rotate the swan plants. This involved keeping the plants in their pots, and letting the caterpillars have free rein on some plants, while I kept others aside, away from the hungry caterpillars and the egg-laying butterflies. As each plant was stripped, I would replace it with a fresh plant or one that had regrown some leaves. This generally worked well, but there were some challenges!

At first, I was keeping my reserve plants in my greenhouse, with the door open to allow airflow, but butterflies found their way in. I fashioned a mesh curtain over the doorway, but not before I had a small second population of caterpillars in there. The caterpillars on the plants didn't seem to mind the heat of the greenhouse, but, after a run of hot weather in March, it became too hot for them to successfully pupate. I moved the largest caterpillars out, and brought the remaining chrysalises into the house. This chrysalis was on the edge of the weedmat, so I snipped a piece off to bring the chrysalis inside.

A chrysalis that had formed in my greenhouse

Another challenge arose when the food ran out and, for a time, the local gardening shops ran out of swan plants. I found out that caterpillars over a certain size (2cm long) can eat raw pumpkin when swan plants are in short supply. So I added thin slices of this to their menu.

Rescuing chrysalises and managing the diet of caterpillars were the beginning of my home office doubling as a home for monarchs. Soon, it wasn't uncommon to find me hunting for missing caterpillars under my desk, chasing newly eclosed butterflies around the lounge, or peering into my camera to try to capture a moment in the amazing monarch life cycle.

I ended the 2012/13 butterfly season with 15 stalks that had once been swan plants (and they did not all recover), caterpillar poo on my desk, and empty chrysalises on my office wall. I had spent many hours managing caterpillar feed, counting and hunting for lost caterpillars, nurturing plants, squashing aphids, and staring through the viewfinder of my camera waiting for something to happen.

After a long wait, I captured this butterfly eclosing in a (time-lapse) series of images

But I had also laughed at caterpillars munching ferociously, jostling with each other as they fought over a leaf, and wriggling quickly across the hot concrete path (see video?). I had been transfixed watching butterflies emerge from their chrysalises, dry and test their wings, and take their first flight. I had released them into the garden and watched them fly away. And, to top it all, I had learnt a lot about monarchs through photographing them. (Like the scales on the butterfly's wings at the top of this post.)

So, instead of being put off, I was hooked. This season (2013/14), I upped my game. I raised some swan plants from seed, so I wouldn't run out of plants, and enclosed an area of our courtyard with windbreak mesh as a "butterfly area". The mesh will hopefully protect the caterpillars from predators, and protect the swan plants from both the wind and from laying butterflies when I already have enough eggs and caterpillars. It will also give the caterpillars a sheltered place to make their chrysalises.

It's a long way from perfect, but I feel that my vision of a garden filled with nectar flowers, lush green swan plants, and, of course, fluttering butterflies is just a little bit closer now.

Scroll to top