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.
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.]
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!