Outdoors

Another phase of 'Monarch Madness'

Wildside column: 151 butterflies leave biotent over 2 days

A giant swallowtail butterfly extracts nectar from a swamp milkweed blossom on Sunday (July 19) at the Orlan and Corinne
A giant swallowtail butterfly extracts nectar from a swamp milkweed blossom on Sunday (July 19) at the Orlan and Corinne Love residence in Quasqueton. Although the Loves see dozens of monarchs every day, the giant swallowtail is a rare visitor. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
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QUASQUETON — Two weeks ago in this space I wrote about the start of the 2020 monarch butterfly rearing season.

Here is the sequel — Monarch Madness Part II.

At the end of the satisfying but unspectacular Part I, 30 butterflies raised from caterpillars collected from our own milkweed had been released from small finishing tents housed in our garage, and three caterpillars provided by the Marion-based Monarch Research Project had formed chrysalises at the top of a 6-foot by 6-foot biotent positioned over a dense stand of swamp milkweed on the edge of our vegetable garden.

The three were the most precocious of an estimated 75 recently hatched tiny caterpillars that went into the tent on June 29. As events would soon establish, however, 75 proved to be a gross underestimate.

A week later, it looked like the milkweed in the tent would be sufficient to grow all the caterpillars to pupahood. But the caterpillars’ length, weight and appetite increase exponentially as they grow through four skin sheddings.

Within 10 days all the milkweed leaves within the tent had been devoured, well more than 100 chrysalises dangled from the roof of the tent and dozens of fat caterpillars clung to the bare milkweed stems.

We hastily rounded up the hungry caterpillars and transferred them to two finishing tents well stocked with cut milkweed.

Meanwhile, in the much larger biotent, the monarchs’ amazing metamorphosis continued. Within another 10 days the green chrysalises turned transparent, showing the folded orange and black wings of soon to emerge butterflies.

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As a practiced counter who can’t help toting up — for example, geese in a flock or the number of railcars passing a flashing crossing sign — I thought I will soon know the number of monarchs in the biotent. But the tabulation proved harder than I thought.

When the caterpillars went into the tent on June 29, they were too little to count.

When, 10 days later, they formed chrysalises at the top of the tent, I kept losing track as the densely situated green jewels merged one into another.

When they came out as butterflies last Sunday and Monday, their milling about in the tent and their mass departure through the open door precluded an accurate count.

Not until Tuesday, after they had all gone into the world, could I ascertain their number — 151 — determined by counting their spent chrysalises as I peeled them off the roof and walls of the tent.

During those same two days, we released another 30 butterflies from the finishing tents, swelling the swarm unleased on the neighborhood to 181.

Consistent with the Monarch Research Project’s “one and done” release program, many of them have dispersed and will soon help to reproduce the generation of monarchs that will migrate this fall to wintering grounds in Mexico.

Dozens of them apparently like it well enough around here to float and flutter among the milkweed and other blossoms, restoring a late summer level of enchantment that had been missing for too long.

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