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.]

In the beginning… Part two

After my plants were almost destroyed, I started to rotate them (they were eaten so quickly, most of them never made it out of their pots – the ones I planted out, I dug up again to save them from the hungry hordes). Rotating the plants involved letting the caterpillars have free rein on about half of the plants and keeping the others aside. This method generally worked OK, although, sadly, I did lose some caterpillars to hunger (I couldn’t find any more swan plants and the caterpillars wandered off in search of food and did not return).

I found out late in the season (March 2013) that caterpillars over a certain size (2cm long) can eat slices of raw pumpkin when swan plant leaves are in short supply. So my last few caterpillars ended up inside the house, with a diet of pumpkin and cut leaves, alongside several chrysalises that I’d rescued or simply moved in the hope of seeing the butterflies emerge.

'Rocky' checks out a dehlia
‘Rocky’ checks out a dehlia

I ended the 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 wall. Also, I had spent hours managing caterpillar feed, counting and hunting for lost caterpillars, nurturing plants, and staring through the viewfinder of my camera waiting for something to happen.

But I had laughed at caterpillars munching ferociously, jostling with each other as they fought over a leaf, and wriggling quickly across the hot concrete path. I had been transfixed watching butterflies emerge from their chrysalises, dry and test their wings, and take their first flight. And, to top it all, I had taken some pretty cool photographs.

One of my first movie stars
One of my first movie stars

So, instead of being put off, I was hooked. This season (2013/14), I upped the ante. 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, to provide protection for my swan plants and the caterpillars and butterflies alike.

It’s not 100% finished yet, but my vision is of a garden filled with nectar flowers, lush green swan plants, and, of course, fluttering butterflies…. Wish me luck!

In the beginning… Part one

My first butterfly
My first butterfly

People often ask me why I am so obsessed with Monarch butterflies and caterpillars (their eyes tell me they think I’m bonkers). What got me started on all this? How did I become ‘The Crazy Butterfly Woman’?

My family and I moved to the Kapiti Coast of New Zealand late 2012, and I soon noticed the prevalence of Monarch butterflies here. Where we lived previously, we got very few. Here, I could sit on the deck and watch the Monarchs fluttering around the flower garden, looking for tasty nectar. They added beauty and delight to the garden, and I was struck by how big the butterflies were!

Before long, I was off to the local garden centre to get a couple of swan plants to encourage the butterflies. I had a vision at that time of my little plants growing into large bushes, visited by butterflies, and with cute stripy caterpillars and green and gold chrysalises hidden amongst the mass of leaves. Hmm… I soon learnt how naive I was!

The vision seemed feasible in the beginning – I had two lovely medium-sized caterpillars that seemed to appear from nowhere, but must have already been on the plants when I bought them and grown without my noticing. One of them formed its chrysalis on a nearby shrub (I never found the other one). In the time it took for that first butterfly to develop and emerge, the eggs that visiting butterflies had laid on the plants hatched, my two little plants were overrun with caterpillars, and I had bought four more plants, then another five. My dreams of a butterfly garden with bushy, green swan plants were dashed, and I had to rethink.