Of love and late-summer flowers

Painted Lady butterfly on stonecrop sedum. Painted Lady butterflies are abundant this year.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about love and late-summer flowers. I’m not sure what brought on these musings, but I think it may have something to do with turning the big double nickel last week.

I’m a late-summer flower myself.

I’m also helping my mother sell her home and move into independent living, letting my children grow up and turning my mothering to Monarch caterpillars. I’ve watched the devastation of two hurricanes in the news with alarm, resignation and then love and admiration for those who helped. Plus, I finished listening to the S-Town podcast and read Y is for Yesterday (A Kinsey Millhone Novel), by Sue Grafton, on my birthday.

Whew! I have a lot going on. Please bear with me as I sort out my thoughts. It’s good this blog is called Red Dirt Ramblings, especially today. Grab a cup of coffee or tea and wander with me, okay?

Monarch caterpillar on butterfly weed
Monarch caterpillar on butterfly weed.

Honestly, I was feeling kind of dismal about the state of the world last week until I steeped myself in prayer and cut more milkweed for my baby Monarchs.

The hurricane coverage and overall media misery were starting to get to me, and S-Town and Y is for Yesterday didn’t help either. As I listened to S-Town, I began to feel like a voyeur. The series took an especially dark turn in the last chapter which made me want to cry for John B. McElmore. I think this opinion piece by Jessica Goudeau in The Atlantic sums my dilemma up pretty well. It does contain spoilers so keep that in mind if you read it. One sentence from the poetry and letters she discussed stood out for me “Probe your own life and past if you must, but you cannot use another person’s trauma without permission for your aesthetic gain.” At the end of the podcast, only ashes remained, along with an icky feeling of crawling through one man’s private angst.

Y is for Yesterday cover.

As for Y is for Yesterday, I bought and saved it for my birthday. For me, it’s a kind of ritual because I’ve read all of her books from the beginning. I met Grafton, and I admire her greatly. After all, I’ve only written one book that’s been published. I don’t want to give anything away in the 25th installment of my favorite detective series, but the ending wasn’t the least bit redemptive. Grafton wrote another book in the series with a similar ending, and it wasn’t my favorite either. While life is messy, novels, especially detective novels, are all about setting the universe back to rights after something throws it into chaos. It’s why people read detective novels. Some of you might argue that things in fictional Santa Teresa, CA, were set right, but I didn’t think so. I did enjoy much of the novel and laughed out loud at Kinsey Millhone, who I’ve grown to love as an old friend.

With dismay, I began to wonder if we’d forgotten how to tell redemptive stories. In our society’s effort to become ever more secular, we have forgotten how to read anything that challenges us, including the Bible. Whether you believe in God or not, the Bible is a great piece of literature with extremely good advice. I would also argue we’ve forgotten how to immerse ourselves in Nature, another great teacher.

Not a Monarch, but instead, a mimic, the Viceroy butterfly, Limenitis archippus, has a smile on its lower wings that the Monarch doesn't have.
Not a Monarch, but instead, a mimic, the Viceroy butterfly, Limenitis archippus. The Viceroy has a smile on its lower wings that the Monarch doesn’t have. I think this is the first year I’ve seen a Viceroy in my garden.

After much prayer, I began to see my care for my Monarch caterpillars as a metaphor for God’s love for us. The caterpillars have no idea I’m watching over them. They just eat and poop and do their thing. They’re rather helpless. They can also be quite hard on each other so I sometimes separate them when they crawl too close. When I pick them up–after making sure my hands are clean–immediately, they curl into a C of defensiveness. It’s all they know. I gently place them near some milkweed, leave them alone, and soon they’re back doing their thing. I watch over these creatures as if each one is precious cargo because it is. Monarchs are basically endangered even if it isn’t official yet.

I’m not saying people are like caterpillars. Obviously, not, but being a woman of faith, I see God’s unconditional love to be similar to my care for these small insects that will eventually change into something much more glorious than when they first began. (Click on pictures in the galleries to make them larger.)

There’s a good reason why caterpillars and butterflies are symbolic of metamorphosis and rebirth.

My children, by the way, are completely grossed out that I have cages all over the dining room with caterpillars in various stages and sizes. I keep telling them caterpillars are not gross. In fact, if you run your finger gently across one’s back, it is silky to the touch. Plus, their camouflage coloring is quite beautiful. They blend in with the milkweed. Not so for adult butterflies who live for such a short and glorious time.

As for God’s love, I think butterflies and late-summer flowers are good points of reference. There are many more efficient pollinators out there than butterflies. I’m not sure Nature needs butterflies, but humans do.

When the news, the podcast and my reading became too much for me, I wandered outside into my messy late-summer garden. My favorite flower of the moment is Autumn sneezeweed, Helenium autumnale. I planted smallish plants last fall, and they are glorious this summer. They, along with the still-blooming Phlox paniculata ‘Bright Eyes,’ are much favored by pollinators, and the late-summer bloom is all about feeding the pollinators before winter sets in. I’m still waiting for the asters to bloom in a blue haze, but this year, I’m actually enjoying wild ageratum, Eupatorium coelestinum, a/k/a mistflower, for the first time. I used to hate it because it is so prolific, but it’s a favorite nectar plant of adult Monarchs so I’ve learned to pull as much as I can in spring and enjoy the rest. The same is true for garlic chives, Allium tuberosum, and obedient plant, Physostegia virginiana, which I can’t seem to eradicate. Don’t plant them if you don’t want them until the end of your days. Since I didn’t deadhead much in July, these plants are carrying the garden through early September.

Pretty soon, asters and garden mums will join the other flowers, and the garden will have a kind of rebirth before it dies in late autumn after a killing freeze.

We had a party last weekend, and several of my friends wanted to see the gardens. We walked and talked, and I pointed out butterflies and moths flitting amongst the blooms. My friends were amazed at the beauty of these small creatures like the Hemaris thysbe, hummingbird clearwing moth. These moths dart in and out of the phlox like hummingbirds hence the name. They are one of the best reasons to grow phlox. Need more good reasons? How about the Painted Lady butterflies, Vanessa cardui, which are so abundant this year. Painted Lady butterflies also adore stonecrop sedum, Sedum spectabile, so plant it too.

Hemaris thysbe, Hummingbird Clearwing moth on P. paniculata 'Bright Eyes' phlox.
Hemaris thysbe, Hummingbird Clearwing moth on P. paniculata ‘Bright Eyes’ phlox.

Speaking of hummingbirds, I have a couple of males that check me out every time I go out to get more milkweed. They love the zinnia patch this year and protect it fiercely. They are so cute but so naughty keeping all of the other creatures except wasps on the wing. Bill caught sight of them of them the other day and was charmed by their antics.

Butterflies and late-summer flowers both speak to me of God’s love and also the quick passage of time. Much was made of horology, the study of time, in S-town. It was the best part of the podcast. John B. was a genius who built and repaired beautiful timepieces throughout much of his life. Check out this sundial he built for his friend, teacher, and mentor, Tom Moore. I think McLemore loved people fiercely, but couldn’t accept their love in return.

Like the caterpillars and the late-summer flowers, we bloom and eventually fade away. I just hope we all experience metamorphosis and winged flight before our time is done. The late-summer garden beckons like a lover in the cool evening. Don’t forget to go outside and enjoy it before it too is gone.

Raising Monarch caterpillars

Sunflower with Monarch butterfly.

I can’t remember when I started raising Monarch caterpillars. I’m thinking maybe five years ago, and I’m no expert, but I’ve learned a few things.

First, raising Monarch caterpillars from egg to butterfly is a huge commitment of time, energy and milkweed.

Second, If you want to save the Monarch butterfly, plant milkweed. And, don’t just plant one plant in one area. Plant at least three or four plants in several areas throughout your landscape.

Learn about the different types of milkweed available in your area, including natives. Plant natives, but also, if you live in Oklahoma or further north, plant some Asclepias curassavica, tropical milkweed, too. Further south where tropical milkweed overwinters, you’ll need to cut it back to keep the Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) infestation down. If you live further south, here’s more information about tropical milkweed. I’m not wading into the tropical milkweed controversy because I live in Oklahoma where tropical milkweed simply dies at the first freeze. I’ve also grown A. incarnata, swamp milkweed, and A. tuberosa, butterfly weed. Of the three types of milkweed I’ve grown, Monarchs seem to like butterfly weed the least. In order to get them to feed upon it, it’s good to cut it back several times in a season for new growth. Otherwise, the leaves are tough. However, it is a wonderful pollinator plant, and I have it all over the garden.

One more thing about milkweed, if you don’t grow it from seed, you must make sure the nursery you buy it from has not sprayed it with anything, including organic pesticides. Organic or inorganic pesticides will kill your caterpillars, and sometimes, you can ask all the right questions and still get accidentally-sprayed milkweed. It happened to me last year. The safest thing to do is to grow your own from seed, and never spray pesticides in your own garden.

Monarch caterpillar condo. Raising Monarch caterpillars
Monarch caterpillar condo. I don’t poke holes in my lids because I take off the lids several times each day to check on the caterpillars. That’s enough oxygen. Other people do poke holes. It’s up to you.

There are many things which can befall Monarchs, but I don’t want to discourage you. You win some. You lose some. In the wild, it’s estimated that the Monarch caterpillar survival rate is less 10% according to the butterfly experts at Journey North. If you raise Monarchs and have enough milkweed, the survival rate can go up to 85 or 90%, so occasional failures, while sad, are still the minority.

Monarch egg on milkweed leaf. This is very enlarged so you can see it easier, but they are about the size of a pinprick.
Monarch egg on milkweed leaf. This is very enlarged so you can see it easier, but they are about the size of a pinprick. I don’t have a macro lens, or I could get even more detail.

For the best survival rate, bring in only eggs and first instar-sized caterpillars. Some people will tell you to only bring in eggs, but I’ve had good luck with 1st and 2nd instars. Now, I should probably always follow my own advice, but occasionally, I go ahead and bring in a larger caterpillar. It’s hard to leave them out there in the wild. That makes me too much of a softie, and I lose some to tachnid fly, but it’s worth taking the chance as far as I am concerned. However, if you want the best success stick to the official party line: only eggs and 1st instars.

I start my eggs and first instars out in small plastic containers like these Sure Fresh Mini Storage Containers, 10-ct. Packs – Square. I use a plain paper towel and place the pieces of leaves with the eggs on them in the containers. I then wait for the small caterpillar to emerge. It usually takes two to three days. Once the tiny caterpillars emerge, I put a fresh leaf beneath them. You can get Water Pick florist tubes to keep leaves fresh. I bought some last week. Those tiny cats don’t eat much, and a leaf will last awhile in a florist tube.

Probably 3rd instar Monarch caterpillar in one of the plastic bins.
Probably 3rd instar Monarch caterpillar in one of the plastic bins. Nearly time to move them to larger quarters so they don’t have to crawl through their frass (poop.)

I change out the paper towel once a day, and sometimes twice when cats get larger. They need a clean place to eat, and the photo, above, shows how quickly frass can build up.

Once they get to 3rd instar or 4th, I put them on milkweed that is pushed down into a cup. I like soda cups because I can push the stems into the straw slots, and there isn’t danger of a curious cat drowning itself. I’ve never had that happen, but there’s always a first time. I watch milkweed consumption closely making sure I don’t run out of fresh leaves. The caterpillars are very hungry as they grow, and I don’t want them eating each other. Yes, that can happen. Gross, I know.

Monarch caterpillars 4th and 5th instars.
Monarch caterpillars 4th and 5th instars. I have caterpillars in all of the five stages right now. Nearly all were raised from eggs. Here, I used a bottle with a small neck. I needed a lot of milkweed this morning.

Then, I wait for the 5th instars to make their chrysalides. I place the cats in butterfly habitats like Insect and Butterfly Habitat – 24 Inches Tall and this shorter one, Miraclekoo Insect and Butterfly Habitat Terrarium Pop-up (12 x 12 x 12),  but I’ve seen people use other types of enclosures too. I try to keep all of my instar sizes separate so that I don’t have chrysalides and enclosing butterflies over still-eating caterpillars. That’s a no-no. There are lots of ways to do this, and I suggest, if you’re serious about raising Monarch caterpillars, you join one of the several groups on Facebook. I’m grateful for all of these Facebook groups because the members are so supportive and helpful. If the Monarch ever returns with the numbers and vigor it once had, these groups helped make that possible.

I wash the cages and bleach them with a weakened bleach solution at the end of the season. Then, I put them away until the Monarchs and other butterflies return. I’ve only raised Monarch and Swallowtails so far.

The Beautiful Monarch is the largest group I know of. They give good, consistent info about the general raising and enjoyment of Monarchs.
Raising Monarch Butterflies is another large group that I’ve learned so much from.

For more Oklahoma-targeted information, I’m a member of these two groups:

Oklahoma Friends of Monarchs and
Monarch Initiative of Tulsa

Also, I want to once again recommend Kylee Baumle’s book, The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. It’s a good resource and has beautiful pictures too. Below is a photo of one group of caterpillars that are almost ready to pupate. The sound quality isn’t that great, but I was just doing it off the cuff.

To learn even more about Monarchs and the rush to save them, check out Monarch Watch. To learn more about migration patterns and such, try Journey North, a website that logs information from watchers throughout the U.S. They follow and show on maps the great migration now happening. On Thursday, for my birthday, I’m attending the Oklahoma Native Plant Society’s meeting where Matt Fullerton with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) will present information about the Oklahoma Monarch and Pollinator Collaborative. Did you know I-35 in Oklahoma is a major pollinator highway? We’re right at the center of Monarch migration, and I can’t wait to hear how Oklahoma is going to help save more butterflies. I think it’s exciting stuff. I hope you do too.

The meeting is on September 7, 2017, at 7:00 p.m. (6:30 for snacks and chatting) at 400 North Portland Ave, OSU-OKC campus, Room 196. Hope to see you there.

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