Monarch Caterpillers!

For years, my husband and I have nurtured milkweed in the lost corners of our yard. “Remember the Monarchs!” we chant, as we carefully work around the tall milk-sap plants.

While Monarch butterflies eat nectar from a bunch of different plants, the caterpillars eat only milkweed as they grow. The milky sap of Milkweeds is toxic to most animals, but not to Monarchs. In fact, in’s all that Monarch caterpillars eat. What’s more, the Monarch caterpillars incorporate the toxins into their own bodies, and use it as a chemical deterrent against predators.

In spite of this incredibly cool adaptation, Monarch populations have been declining for decades — between 50-90% loss since 1991. Habitat loss has been a major problem in the United States, especially with the introduction of herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans so that herbicides can be sprayed on them to get rid of milkweed growing between the rows. In Mexico, where they overwinter in just a few select spots in upland forests, they are vulnerable to illegal logging operations, cold snaps and hurricanes. Car strikes are also a surprising big killer of Monarchs in Mexico — up to 200,000 killed in just two locations near their over-wintering spots! Monarch Butterfly Migration

There’s not a lot we can do to alleviate these problems. But we can grow milkweed to give as many Monarchs as possible a good start in life. Through the years, we’d been rewarded with a few Monarch butterflies. But no caterpillars.

And lately, we’ve become aware that the decision to grow milkweed is itself a trade-off — native milkweed is attractive to European honeybees, but it can be a deadly trap for them, too. Bees and Butterflies.

Bees are already having a hard time from colony collapse disorder, where the bees just disappear. After years of research, nobody knows why. It’s a major problem with honey bees, one that’s not getting better. I was beginning to feel that if the Monarchs weren’t using the milkweed, we should rip out the it and replace it with something more bee-friendly.

And then, for a real treat …

… my husband found two tiny yellow, white and black caterpillars happily gnawing on our milkweed.

Maybe the milkweed will stay after all.

Butterflies Galore

I’m not really an expert on butterflies. But while hiking recently in the Front Range foothills , I saw so many of such varied species that I had to check into them a bit more. All these different butterflies are from just one hike.

Aphrodite fritillaries mating

Aphrodite fritillaries. Yellow-green eyes clinch that these are aphrodites. (Colorado Front Range Butterflies).

Females lay single eggs near violets. Caterpillars do not feed, but overwinter until spring, when they eat young leaves of violets.

Northwestern fritillary

Northwestern fritillary. The eyes of this butterfly are blue-grey and the wings are darker towards the body. Colorado Front Range Butterflies.

These two photos show two species of fritillary butterflies. They tend to be orange with black squiggles.

female Common Wood Nymph-1

Female Common Wood Nymph. The double eye spots are the key to identifying this butterfly. Females are larger and paler than males.

I haven’t found anything talking about this, but every time I saw this female Common Wood Nymph land, she seemed to lay her wings onto the landing surface. In late summer, females lay eggs singly on host plant leaves. Caterpillars hatch but do not feed, instead hibernating until spring. (Butterflies and Moths of North America)

Native bees on Asclepias-13

Dusted skipper butterfly and native bees on milkweed. Although here all the skipper butterfly wings are compressed, they often hold their upper and lower wings a little apart, creating an “X” effect. I am trying to find out more about these very unusual bees.

Skippers are a type of butterfly I had never noticed before I started taking pictures of everything of interest on my hikes.

Taxiles skipper

Taxiles skipper on thistle. You can see his “X” wing configuration here.

Males may defend their territory. (Butterflies and Moths of North America)

I used two websites to learn about butterflies: Butterflies and Moths of North America and Colorado Front Range Butterflies. Both are very cool, but the first has an interactive map where people can post their sightings and photographs of the moths and butterflies they see.

 

Bees and Butterflies

Our neighbors behind us are turning their backyard into a farm. They have a garden. They have chickens. They have fruit trees. This year, they added honey bees.

We, on the other hand, have always had a hummingbird garden that attracts all sorts of pollinators, including bees. One of the plants that planted itself and we have encouraged is native milkweed.

bees on milkwee (2)

Bees love it. They buzz around the milk weed constantly.

bees on milkwee (1)

But we noticed a problem lately — some of the honey bees are getting caught in the milkweed flowers.

bee caught in mikweed closeup

Honeybees are non-native — they are from Europe and Asia. Milkweed, on the other hand, is native to North America.

Bee caught in milkweed

Close up of honeybee foot (tarsi) caught in milkweed polonium.

The bees’ claw-like feet get caught in a structure called a polonium. This is actually exactly what is supposed to happen with the polonium. The polonium is full of pollen, and the insect is supposed to catch it on its feet, pull it free and take it to the next milkweed. The “Mydas” Touch/Eye on Nature

Unfortunately for the honeybees, they aren’t strong enough to pull free. If they are well and truly caught, they are doomed (we free the ones we find in our garden).

So why don’t we pull up the milkweed? Because it is of critical importance to endangered Monarch butterflies. Milkweeds are the only plant that Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on.Milkweed is slightly toxic to a lot of animals, but not to Monarchs. The Monarch caterpillars hatch out, eat Monarch leaves and become slightly toxic themselves.Monarch Butterfly Habitat/US Forest Service

Bees are in trouble from the baffling Colony collapse disorder, but Monarchs are threatened with extinction, in part due to the loss of milkweeds.

monarch on milkweed (9) -1

Monarch on our backyard milkweed.

Sometimes, you have to make choices on what you help out.

Great Wildflower, Part 2

From our great spring crop of blooms, (https://coloradogeography.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/get-out/) this continues to be an outstanding season for wildflowers.

Every time we begin to dry out, we get a rainstorm that waters the plants. And the flowers just keep comin’.

According to the USDA Plants Profile webpage, http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=MOFI&photoID=mofi_004_ahp.tif you can find pink bergamot all over North America. This is a flower head, made up of many different flowers.

Monarda fistulosa

Pink bergamot, in the mint family. It is sometimes called bee balm.

Monarda fistulosa

Individual pink bergamot flowers.

 

Here’s a close-up of the bergamot flowers.

Many different tribes used the leaves and flowers of this plant as a seasoning, and as a cold and congestion remedy.

 

 

 

 

 

 This is a close-up of a bull thistle and a wild bee. Normally, I have little patience for bull thistle — it is a big, spiny, invasive plant. But this purple-pollen sprinkled bee may change my mind. If bull thistle can provide pollen for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, I will give it some respect. These pollinators need all the help they can get.

Bee in thistle-07_edited-1

Wild bee on a bull thistle head. Each purple fiber comes from a separate flower.

 

The Mariposa lilies are opening in the foothills right now. This is another plant that will continue opening at higher and higher altitudes as the summer progresses.

Mariposa lily-5

Gunnison’s mariposa lily.

 Purple prairie clover has striking orange anthers that catch your eye.

When I sent this to my Project Budburst coordinator, she said that it had never been recorded in the Mount Falcon Open Space before. It is a plains plant; finding becoming established in the foothills may indicate a warmer climate. This is one of the reasons we are monitoring plants in Project Budburst.

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Purple prairie clover.