Monarch butterflies are genetically the same in both the eastern and western sides of the United States.

Although it was believed for years that Monarch butterflies in the eastern US and the western US were genetically different, DNA studies have proven that they are the same.

Monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico
Monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico

There are two groups simply because they do not naturally fly over the Rocky Mountain Range as they migrate and fly about to mate and lay eggs. The western Monarch butterflies usually stay west and the eastern Monarchs usually stay east. Although Monarch butterflies have been seen in the Rocky Mountains, in high altitudes, it is not their natural flight direction. Unless they are migrating, they seek out milkweed and nectar plants, males searching for female butterflies which are often around milkweed and nectar plants.

Monarchs overwintering at Norma Gibbs Butterfly Park in Huntington, CA
Monarchs overwintering at Norma Gibbs Butterfly Park in Huntington, CA

The practice of tagging and releasing Monarch butterflies has revealed a fact that was not expected. First, some western Monarchs will migrate to Mexico. They are tagged in the west, wild Monarchs, and the tags are found in Mexico.

Second, it was discovered that if a Monarch raised west of the Rocky Mountains is moved to the Eastern US and released, it will migrate to Mexico and vice versa.

Migration destination depends on where it is located when it begins migration, not where it was when it emerged as an adult butterfly. Its DNA signals it what to do depending on its location at the current time and which direction to fly, depending on where it is when it is captured, tagged, and re-released.

This map is a Monarch Watch map, the information based on recovery of tagged Monarch butterflies.

Monarch Watch's Fall Migration Map
Monarch Watch’s Fall Migration Map reveals that some western Monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico.

Dr. Tom Emmel, University of Florida, believed that some Monarchs fly down Florida to Cuba to stay in mountains there. Some, after arriving in Cuba, he believed would fly to the Yucatan Peninsula and over to the overwintering sites in Mexico.

Although the genetics are the same in both eastern and western Monarch butterflies, the USDA does not permit them to be shipped across the continental divide.

Mia Munson provided this link to a Monarch Watch webpage that mentions the DNA study.

IS it eating the plant?

Quite often people will ask why a caterpillar that is known for hosting on one plant is eating a different one. Even today, people are discovering new host plants for species. Some eat it only in captivity and others eat it in the wild. But the question we first must ask is, “IS it eating the plant?” Quite often, it isn’t eating it at all.

Caterpillars move off a host plant for several reasons. Some move off to molt, to pupate, or simply are lost, working their way back to their host plant.

A Gulf Fritillary caterpillar molts on a Bahia grass seed stalk
A Gulf Fritillary caterpillar molts on a Bahia grass seed stalk

We’ve seen many species of caterpillars on plants that weren’t their host plants. Almost every time, they were molting or pupating.

A Zebra Longwing pupates on a marigold bloom
A Zebra Longwing pupates on a marigold bloom

Much to our amazement, we found a Buckeye chrysalis on a snail. You never know where they will choose to pupate.

A Buckeye pupated on a snail
A Buckeye pupated on a snail

We had Buckeye butterflies in a screened garden room. To my surprise, they stripped a butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) of leaves, pupated, and emerged with no problem. Later we found caterpillars on butterfly bush in the wild. Evidently it happens but rarely.

Buckeye caterpillars eating butterfly bush
Buckeye caterpillars eating butterfly bush

Although there was no question whether the Buckeye caterpillars were eating butterfly bush leaves, we did tests, feeding that particular bush to caterpillars in captivity. They ate it with no problem. We tried another butterfly bush, one that bloomed a different color, and they all died. We bought the lavender blooming bush from a nursery without a label. When we returned to the nursery, they had no idea which cultivar it was.

Monarch butterflies often pupate on milkweed. They also often pupate off milkweed.

A Monarch caterpillar pupate on a pipevine leaf (1/3 way down on the right side of the photo)
A Monarch caterpillar pupate on a pipevine leaf (1/3 way down on the right side of the photo)

Why would a caterpillar eat another or a chrysalis?

Sometimes a caterpillar eats eggs, another caterpillar, a pre-pupa, or a chrysalis, even when there is enough food. Why?

A monarch caterpillar eating a pre-pupa

When we stop to think about it, we realize that an caterpillar is simply a mature egg plus host plant. A pre-pupa is addition of time and more host plant. A chrysalis is the addition of … you get the idea.

Because a caterpillar, pre-pupa, and chrysalis are made entirely of the host plant, so to speak, the taste of the insect would be tasty to caterpillars that eat the same host plant, whether they are the same species or not. We know that some caterpillars that eat distasteful plants are distasteful to many predators. The taste of the host plant controls the taste of the insect.

An egg about to hatch was eaten by a caterpillar, leaving the head of the caterpillar. Another egg has been hollowed out.

The instinct of some species of caterpillars, when they hatch, is to eat its egg shell. Once that shell is eaten, if there is another egg nearby, that instinct may cause it to continue eating eggs.

A painted lady caterpillar had eaten half another caterpillar. (At the time it began eating the other caterpillar, there was food in the container. They were moved for the photo.)

Although it happens more often when caterpillars are contained and run out of food, cannibalism happens even when there is plenty of food available.

Cloudless sulphur caterpillars are well known for cannibalism, out in nature. Even on a large host plant, they often attack and eat other caterpillars. They are one species that are often raised separately, one per plant stem.

Pipevine swallowtails and gold rim (polydamas) swallowtails are extremely cannibalistic in captivity. Once they are near pupation, many farmers raise them separately. As young caterpillars, they are gregarious, staying together on a leaf. Once they grow to three or four instars, they naturally separate on the plant.

Pipevine swallowtail caterpillars are gregarious.

To be safe, simply make sure they have plenty of food and learn which species tend to cannibalize in captivity. Separate them at the appropriate age.

Spring has sprung!

In parts of the world, it is now spring and gardens are growing.  Butterflies are flying, laying eggs, caterpillars are eating, and warm weather is the new normal.

We’ve weeded most of our garden and mulch was spread Saturday.  Although there isn’t much bloom yet, there is enough for butterflies to enjoy the garden.  Quite a bit of the garden still needs to be weeded.

(All photos are from previous years.)

Persimmon tree
Persimmon tree for us and for the butterflies that like fruit

We fenced in the garden, 150’x150′, with 7′ tall fencing because of deer.  They eat so many of our plants.  In the garden we grow fruit trees, vegetables, but primarily butterfly host and nectar plants.

Our garden: a photo from a previous year
Our garden: a photo from a previous year

I haven’t seen a hummingbird yet but I did hear one as I worked near the flowering bottlebrush shrubs.  We normally have hummingbirds in the garden every day, enjoying some of the same nectar plants that long-proboscis butterflies enjoy.

Hummingbird with salvia
Hummingbird with salvia

helenhummingbirdtwo6
A hummingbird tries to drink from an ornamental flower

Eggs and/or caterpillars are beginning to appear on our property:

  • Cloudless sulphur on cassia
  • Spicebush swallowtail eggs on camphor tree
  • Gulf fritillary eggs and caterpillars on passion vine, both maypop and Lady Margaret
  • Red admiral eggs and caterpillars on pellitory
  • American lady caterpillars in cudweed, which we specifically leave growing in the garden when it appears
  • Pipevine eggs on the tiny native Virginia snakeroot
  • Giant swallowtail eggs on Hercules’ club

This year we’re planting even more passion vine, more pipevine, more hollyhock (for tropical checkered white butterflies), and of course, more milkweed.  We haven’t had monarch eggs or caterpillars in the garden yet.

The flowering portion of the garden
The flowering portion of the garden

Now that it is spring, what are your plans for this year’s butterfly garden?  Please let us know in the comments below.

One cluster of plants or spread them out?

It’s that time of year that most of us aren’t planting or tending our gardens.  For many of us, we’d have to dig through a foot of snow or more to even find the soil.  What are we to do for our gardens now?  Easy – plan!  Dream!  Shop!

Winter is the time that nature cleans our our yards and gardens.  Many disease pathogens either die or are washed into the soil over the months of winter.  While nature is busy, we can be too.

Planning and dreaming:

You can draw out plans for new gardens or additions to your existing garden.  Remember that a butterfly garden isn’t the goal.  Our goals should be a butterfly and pollinator habitat, across our entire yard.

Drawing out garden plans
Drawing out garden plans

When all host plants are in one place, predators have it easy.  They can stay in the same spot and find all the caterpillars.  Florida predatory stink bugs hatch out in clusters.  They don’t mind staying in one area as long as there is plenty of food.  They can kill all the caterpillars in a host plant cluster quickly.  Adults have wings and can fly.  Watch for predators and either kill them or relocate them to another area, out in the wild in nature.

Florida Predatory Stink Bug nymphs drinking the hemolymph/blood of a Sleepy Orange butterfly caterpillar
Florida Predatory Stink Bug nymphs drinking the hemolymph/blood of a Sleepy Orange butterfly caterpillar

Learn your predators!  Milkweed assassin bugs are so-named because of their resemblance to milkweed bugs, not because they stay on milkweed.  Last year I had hundreds in my passionvine.  They laid many clusters of eggs, hatching over a dozen young assassin bugs from each cluster.

Milkweed assassin bug nymph has killed a caterpillar
Milkweed assassin bug nymph has killed a caterpillar
An adult milkweed assassin bug searches milkweed for caterpillars
An adult milkweed assassin bug searches milkweed for caterpillars
milkweed-assassin-bug-egg-cluster-6
Milkweed assassin bug eggs

Life becomes more difficult for predators and easier for caterpillars when host plants are planted in small clusters rather than all together in one spot.

The same is true for nectar plants.  One praying mantis in a nectar garden will have a feast.  If nectar plants are planted in smaller groups rather than all together, predators are unable to kill as many butterflies.

A praying mantis is eating a Gulf Fritillary butterfly

Again, these predators are a good balance for nature.  I don’t allow them in my garden but don’t mind them out in the fields and woods.  You can make your decision: allow to stay, kill, or relocate.

Our winter butterfly garden
Our butterfly garden – it sometimes looks like this in the winter

Shopping:

From websites like www.shadyoakbutterflyfarm.com to seed and plant catalogs to trading with fellow gardeners, you can buy (or trade for) plants (or seed) from many sources.

When you prefer to order from Shady Oak, you can place your order at any time and designate the date you’d like to receive your plants.  Because we grow only a few of some species of plants, pre-ordering ensures that you will receive them when you want them, even if they are shipped after someone else orders.  The pre-ordered plants are marked with the names of those who pre-ordered and will not be sold to anyone else.

So let’s read butterfly books, be active on butterfly facebook pages, do internet searches (with the full realization that some ‘facts’ on the internet are incorrect), and plan, dream, and shop!

Frog fruit, cape weed, matchstick plant, fog fruit – what is it?

Frog fruit is a native host plant for Phaon Crescent and Buckeye butterflies.

It is also a nectar plant for many small butterflies.

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It is a native ground cover, often found in ditches and yards.  Several species grow in the US and even into Canada.  

Frog fruit, fog fruit, matchstick plant - Botanical name: Lippia or Phyla
Frog fruit, fog fruit, matchstick plant – Botanical name: Lippia or Phyla

When added to a garden, it can become extremely aggressive.   We recommend growing it in ditches and other areas where its aggressive nature becomes an attractive addition.

Frog fruit grows in water as well as on land.
Frog fruit grows in water and on land.

In dry conditions, it lays close to the ground.  In damp conditions, it may grow to over 12″ in height.

A field of frog fruit
A field of frog fruit

A Buckeye butterfly caterpillar eats frog fruit
A Buckeye butterfly caterpillar eats frog fruit

A cluster of Phaon Crescent butterfly eggs on a frog fruit leaf
A cluster of Phaon Crescent butterfly eggs on a frog fruit leaf

This is a great native plant to add to your collection of butterfly host and nectar plants.  If you cannot find it locally, check out Shady Oak Butterfly Farm as a source for this plant.

Disease prevention in caterpillars

It’s time to brush up on disease prevention protocols, how to recognize disease, and other disease related information.  The Disease Prevention in Lepidoptera course begins in February.

Nuclear Polyhedrosis Virus NPV killed a Gulf Fritillary caterpillar
Nuclear Polyhedrosis Virus NPV killed a Gulf Fritillary caterpillar

Information in this course applies to every operation from a table top rearing process (hobby and fun level) to large farms rearing thousands of butterflies each week.

Each week for four weeks, you will receive your course material for that week. A course online mailing list will provide means for classroom discussion. An insect pathologist is on stand-by to answer questions, if needed.

Week One covers:
 Breeding Stock
 Egg Production
 Signs and Symptoms of Disease
 Sanitation
 Disinfecting Eggs
 And More

Week Two covers:
 Disease Transmission
 Disease Triggers
 Breeding Stock
 Rearing Environment
 Sanitizing Eggs & Pupae
 Larvae Food
 Disease Disposal
 And More

Week Three covers:
 Specific Diseases
 Disinfecting recipe and directions
 Stain recipe and directions
 Nosema
 How to determine if your stock has these diseases
 Bacteria
 Fungi
 And more

Week Four covers:
 OE
 Parasitoids

If participants do not wish to take the quizzes and exams, no problem. They are required only for a Certificate of Completion.

Your final exam will be emailed to you. All participants who correctly returns the vocabulary words, passes the weekly quizzes, and passes the final exam will be issued certification for completion of the course. Any answer which is incorrect will be returned for correction. A participant cannot fail unless he/she refuses to make corrections when the answers are returned, marked incorrect. The whole purpose is to learn!

Technical assistance was provided, and the course was edited by Ms. Amanda Lawrence and Leellen Solter PhD, Insect Pathologists.

Ms. Lawrence and Dr. Solter are two of the three insect pathologists who graciously agreed to be Consultants for the Association for Butterflies. These two pathologists offered to answer questions which arise at any time during the year. The AFB’s designated spokesperson gathers questions from course participants during the course, sending the questions to one or more of these two professionals when disease discussion reaches a point where additional information is needed.

Week four, focusing on OE, was edited by Dr. Sonia Altizer and Dr. Karen Oberhauser.

Please join us!