By Michelle Thompson
Be kind to caterpillars, they’re not themselves
Butterflies are a pleasure to see in the garden and attracting them can be as easy as planting clusters of nectar (butterfly food source) and larval (L) host plants with your own plants. Almost all species of butterfly more readily use plants that are native, like cardinal flower, coreopsis, lemon bee balm, black & brown-eyed Susan, gaura, Indian blanket, lantana urticoides, frog fruit, golf coast penstemon, cenizo (L), passionflower (L), tall goldenrod, Gregg’s mist flower, liatris, purple coneflower, Texas coneflower, rock rose, button bush, coral honeysuckle (L), Virginia frostweed and milkweed.
Butterfly habitats will not be perfect looking as hungry caterpillars chow down on host plant leaves. It’s important not to use pesticides, nor purchase pollinator plants treated with neonicotinoids, and even spraying for mosquitos can kill butterflies and caterpillars.
Monarch butterflies have received added attention over the past years because of their plummeting numbers and elimination of milkweed plants, the only host plant females lay eggs on. Many gardeners are adding both native and tropical milkweed plants to their gardens and even caring for the caterpillars in special butterfly enclosures to help populations recover. In nature, a monarch has only a 1 in 100 chance of survival due to predators like assassin bugs, fire ants, birds, anole, praying mantis, and parasitism by flies and wasps.
Whether you’re observing them outside or in a safe enclosure, it’s fun to discover the Monarch’s tiny white eggs under a milkweed leaf and watch the developing caterpillars in each of their growing stages called instars. In the last phase the chubby caterpillar undergoes a complete change inside the skin and eventually sheds the skin to emerge as a jade green chrysalis or pupa.
Eight to ten days later, depending on the temperature, the green exoskeleton becomes more transparent and the colors of the butterfly inside become visible. When ready, the pupal shell splits and the butterfly frees itself. Fluids are pumped into the veins of the crumpled wings until completely expanded and dried. If the wings don’t fully expand properly, they end up being deformed and the butterfly will not be able to fly.
Sometimes this happens because the chrysalis fell from its hanging position, the caterpillar was sick, or possibly has OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) a debilitating parasite that spreads from Monarchs to eggs and milkweed. OE is associated with the non-native, tropical milkweed which makes it important to trim the plant stems back close to the ground in the winter to encourage Monarchs to migrate and reduce the spread of infection.
Friendswood Mayor, Mike Foreman, has proclaimed June 6-12, 2021 as National Garden Week in the City of Friendswood. Celebrate by adding a native plant to your garden habitat.
Heritage Gardeners will be sponsoring a native plant talk in the Friendswood Library on Saturday, June 5 from 11am – 12pm. Hope to see you there!