Caterpillar rescue

Swallowtail caterpillars say thank you for saving them.

Late summer is butterfly season at Little Cedar. It’s also caterpillar rescue season.

As you probably already know, Monarch butterflies are in trouble, and I believe it’s backyard and community gardeners who will eventually save the day. At least that’s what I tell myself as I bring Monarch eggs and tiny caterpillars indoors every day. It takes commitment, a whole lot of milkweed and trust in the process to bring these tiny creatures to flight. If you’re interested, I can write another post about bringing Monarch caterpillars/eggs indoors and raising them. Just let me know.

But, in the meantime, why don’t you read my friend, Kylee Baumle’s, new book, The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. I know she worked hard on it, and I think you’d like it especially if you want to save Monarchs. And, really, who doesn’t want to save Monarchs?

Cover of The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. by Kylee Baumle.
Cover of The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. by Kylee Baumle.

Today, though, I want to tell you about a caterpillar rescue of another kind–my epic battle to save some Swallowtail caterpillars from a very hungry red wasp–Polistes rubiginosusI think. I don’t claim to be a wasp expert.

I do try to love all of God’s creatures–I really do–but red/paper wasps really irritate me. Maybe, because they’re just so damn mean the hotter the weather gets. I know that’s my excuse.

Monarchs are not the only butterflies laying eggs on various plants in the garden. In my vegetable garden, especially the raised potager, a Swallowtail mother laid about a billion–okay, I’m exaggerating–eggs on three parsley plants. This year, I planted six or seven parsley, many dill and a pot of rue in my garden just for Swallowtail butterflies. If I got a little parsley and dill for my supper, that was good too. I’ve been watching these little munchers for several days now. I could bring them inside, but they seem to have an easier time of it outdoors than Monarchs. Plus, they aren’t as predictable–once they reach chrysalis stage–as Monarch butterflies are. Sometimes, Swallowtails take all winter to become butterflies.

I don’t know which type of Swallowtail laid her eggs. I have many different ones bouncing about the garden. If I had to guess, I would say it’s a Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenesis), Oklahoma’s state butterfly, because of the markings, but that part doesn’t matter. I kept an eye on these little critters because I knew they were going to quickly run out of parsley, and my dill was finished for the year. So, I pulled a few weeds around the bronze fennel in a completely different part of the garden and waited for them to grow too large for their habitat.

Parsley consumed by Swallowtail caterpillars. I'm not going to show you the partially consumed caterpillar. Gross.
Parsley consumed by Swallowtail caterpillars. I’m not going to show you the partially consumed caterpillar. Gross.

Today, I realized was caterpillar moving day. I came outside to find one caterpillar half eaten, so I knew they needed a new leafy residence.

Soon, it instead turned into a full-scale caterpillar rescue.

One of the large swallowtail caterpillars I moved to the bronze fennel.
One of the large swallowtail caterpillars I moved to the bronze fennel.

I was moving them in fives because that’s about all I can handle. I gently pulled them from parsley stalks and took them over to the three, large bronze fennel plants working feverishly to convince them it was their idea to get on the new plant. It works better if I don’t handle them too much. When I made my third or fourth trip, I saw a very large, red wasp circling the area. She buzzed me a couple of times, and I ignored her as I grabbed five more. Usually, I don’t get stung if I’m not near the wasp nest. I knew what she wanted, and she was waiting very impatiently for me to move out of the way.

Then, disaster struck. I came back to find her munching on a large caterpillar. I kept moving more caterpillars hoping she was too engrossed in her meal to come after me. Of course, I didn’t have my camera the entire time. I was too busy to take pictures.

Bronze fennel with finished Phlox paniculata behind. The caterpillars being green yellow and black really blend in with fennel foliage.
Bronze fennel with finished Phlox paniculata behind. The caterpillars being green yellow and black really blend in with fennel foliage. They are much harder to see on here than on the parsley.

After four or five more trips, she was quite irritated with me. She left her meal and buzzed me, but I was really determined she would not win today. She went back to her meal, and I picked up my berry-colored Dramm Touch‘N Flow Revolver Spray Gun, turned it to jet and doused her. You can sure slow down a wasp, especially one not paying attention with a steady and hard spray of water. She crawled out of the bed and stumbled around. Again, I took her out, and I daresay I enjoyed it.

“Take that for all the times I’ve been stung,” I said, “Here’s another spray for all the caterpillars you’ve munched today.”

Red wasp/paper wasp after I sprayed her with water.
Red wasp/paper wasp after I sprayed her with water. See the Swallowtail caterpillar in the upper right corner? I saved it.

I sprayed her long enough to grab three more cats with my right hand in a whole new definition of multitasking.

No, wasp lovers, I didn’t kill the wasp with water. She was soon back searching through the empty parsley stalks looking for more prey, but in the meantime, I’d relocated everyone.

Swallowtail caterpillars relocated on rue.
Swallowtail caterpillars relocated on rue.

A lot of bug-eat-bug happens here but sometimes, it’s about sticking up for the little guys. Today was caterpillar rescue day, and this little caterpillar raised his/her thoracic legs in a fond thank you–at least I like to think so.

Swallowtail caterpillars say thank you for saving them.
Swallowtail caterpillars say thank you for saving them. Caterpillar rescue.

Attracting butteflies to the garden

Gulf Fritillary on pentas

This summer, although of late hotter than the Sahara, has still been a good one for butterflies.

I’ve been planting for these winged acrobats for most of my garden life, but I think this might be the best year ever. I attribute that to several things.

Butterflies don’t just appear with the tap of a magic wand. They require a few simple accommodations. They like a big, packed garden full of diversity. They also like their home to be a messy one. Nectar plants are important, but like most creatures, they want good schools for their children.

No, wait, I’m kidding. No schools, but they do require good food and shelter for their offspring. So, larval plants are as important as nectar sources.

A little skipper on Echinacea purpurea, common coneflower, maybe a Brown Duskywing. I think they are cute because they have such large eyes.

This year, trying to attract the swallowtail group, I worked very hard to have plenty of herbs like parsley, dill and fennel. I bought plants of each early in spring (after danger of frost) and also planted seeds in the garden’s empty spaces. All of these compound umbels of the parsley family are as beautiful as they are tasty, so they make nice transition plants between the perennials.

I staggered plantings of these caterpillar loving plants so that once they gnawed their way through the first planting, I had more for the next nursery set.

I also planted several stands of butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, for the baby Monarchs, and hardy blue passion flower, Passiflora caerulea, for the Fritillaries. Butterfly weed can take awhile to get established, and it also sometimes moves around the garden on its own. In the future, I’m going to order some other native milkweeds for the garden.

Monarch butterfly munching on butterfly weed.

While their parents floated throughout the garden sipping nectar, their little darlings ate their favorite plants, and then went to chrysalis land for their naps. A short time later they woke as adults and began the cycle all over again.

As a result, I have a quite varied group of butterflies this year including:

Gulf Fritillary. Larval plants include most of the passion-vine family including maypops, Passiflora incarnata, native to the southern U.S. and running pop, P. foetida, common to Texas and Arizona along with Central and South America. Nectar plants include: lantana, tall verbena, Verbena bonariensis, and drummond’s phlox, Phlox drummondii . I’ve seen them frequenting both the pentas and the garden phlox, Phlox paniculata. They seem especially fond of the cultivar ‘Bright Eyes’.

Black Swallowtail. The state butterfly of Oklahoma, Black Swallowtails are a common site along the edges of the deciduous forest. Larval foods come from the carrot or parsley family. Since I have tons of Queen Anne’s Lace, Daucus carota, surrounding my garden (not purposely), Black Swallowtails should have a field day in my lower pasture (pun intended). Also, fennel (I grow the bronze because it’s pretty) and dill are popular caterpillar food. I’ve never noticed them on my carrots probably because they like the above plants better. Adult nectar sources include milkweeds (natives are best), common garden phlox, P. paniculata, thistles, which grow wild throughout Oklahoma (some are invasive) and purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea.

Painted Lady on black-eyed Susans

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Larval food: the leaves of common trees like ash, Fraxinus spp., birch, Betula spp., cottonwood, Populus spp., hornbeam, Carpinus spp., paw paw, Asimina spp., and many others, including wild cherry and plum and deciduous magnolia. Adults feed upon the nectar of butterfly bush like Buddleia davidii ‘Black Knight’, native honeysuckle, Lonicera spp.; common lilacs, milkweeds, and thistles. In my garden, they also seem to like the pink common garden phlox and the black-eyed Susans.

Giant Swallowtail. The caterpillars of this butterfly are pests to the orange growers of Florida. Here, with no orange leaves to eat, they satisfy themselves with prickly ash, Zanthoxylum americanum, hop trees, Ptelea trifoliata, and common rue, Ruta graveolens. Adults are especially fond of lantanas, bougainvilla, dame’s rocket, Hesperis matronalis, which is invasive throughout much of the U.S., goldenrod, Solidago spp., Japanese honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica (also extremely invasive) , and swamp milkweed.

What I think is an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail coming in for a landing. Let me know if it's identified incorrectly. I've been told it may be a Giant Swallowtail.

Pipevine Swallowtail. larval food: the leaves of pipevines, Aristolochia spp. (I don’t know where they’re finding these nearby.) Adult food:  honeysuckles, milkweeds and thistles

Spicebush Swallowtail: Like other swallowtails, caterpillars love the leaves of various trees and shrubs including prickly ash, Zanthoxylum; sweetbay, Magnolia; tulip tree, Liriodendron; adults enjoy the nectar from azaleas, rhododendrons, dogbane, jewelweed, Impatiens capensis, milkweeds and other native plants.

Monarch on wild Ageratum, Eupatorium coelestinum

Monarch. Ah, the lovely Monarch, the star of so many children’s books, is in danger. Over the years, much of its habitat has been destroyed; and after an especially cold winter in Mexico, this queen of the butterflies needs our help. The best thing we can do is search out native milkweeds, Asclepias spp., and grow them in our gardens as caterpillar food. One of the best places to order these in Oklahoma is Wild Things Nursery which offers seven different types of milkweed. According to the Butterflies and Moths of North America website, “Monarchs visit a variety of flowers including dogbane, lilac, red clover, lantana, and thistles. In the fall adults visit composites including goldenrods, blazing stars, ironweed, and tickseed sunflower.” Many of these plants have a starring role in my garden.

Red Spotted Purple. Larval food: the leaves of apple trees, aspens, cottonwoods and poplars, along with many other trees. Adults like rotting meat, dung, rotting fruit, sap flows in trees, occasionally nectar of small white flowers.

Silvery Checkerspot. In my garden, the Silvery Checkerspot loves the Susans and hangs out and about them the entire day probably because its caterpillars love them too. Caterpillars also love members of the sunflower family, Helianthus spp.

Red Admiral. I think the Red Admiral is one of the most beautiful butterflies, but it is especially difficult to catch with my camera because of its erratic and quick flight. It’s like trying to capture the yellow sulphurs, nearly impossible. Still, whenever I’m in the garden, I make a mental picture of this beauty. Larval food is the nettle family. I don’t have any nettles growing in the garden, but I suspect they grow at the edge of my wood. Adults enjoy bird droppings (think of the chickens) and rotting fruit. They also will visit asters, milkweeds and alfalfa.

Phaon Crescent. Both adults and caterpillars enjoy nectar and leaves from the frogfruit and mat grass, which are part of the Verbena family. Where they are finding these nearby, I don’t know, but the butterflies have visited me this summer.

Painted Lady. I remember hatching these wonderful butterflies with the kids when we bought a butterfly kit one spring. Larval food includes members of the sunflower family, ironweed, Vernonia spp., and wormwood,  Artemisia spp. Adults enjoy asters, dogbane, goldenrod, and milkweeds among other flowers.

Black Swallowtail female? She is missing the tail of one wing. May possibly be a Spicebush Swallowtail.

Other butterflies, including the small skippers and sulphurs, are visiting too, but these are the most common ones in my garden.

To recap, if you want more butterflies to enjoy, remember:

  • Plant what they like to eat. Keep some of the garden wild. Many native plants are either larval or nectar sources.
  • Let the garden be full and natural. It gives them places to rest and hide and protects them from the wind. Caterpillars can also hide better in more crowded surroundings. Plus, the closer you plant things together, the less weeding you have to do.
  • Grow more plants native to Oklahoma and the prairie. Much of the Great American tall and short grass prairie is gone, and butterflies need food for their journey. Monarchs are especially affected by the loss of native milkweeds, their only food source. Oklahoma is a prime migrating channel for Monarchs and other butterflies so I feel like it’s an obligation to help them along their way.
  • Once the garden freezes, leave it in situ so that any pupating creatures still have homes. Some species of butterflies winter over and emerge in spring. Leaving seed heads also provides food and cover for many birds and other small creatures.
  • Give butterflies shallow places to stop and drink. A small birdbath filled with flat stones is ideal. Also, a small muddy spot is good because many adult male butterflies “puddle” a process which aids in reproduction.
  • Don’t spray pesticides and herbicides. It stands to reason if something kills the bad bugs, it won’t spare the “good” ones. Chemicals create a sterile environment which is anti-nature.
  • Set out rotting fruit in a corner of the garden near nectar plants. Remember when the butterflies enjoyed my fallen peaches?

I know this was a long post, so if you read this far, thanks. I hope it helps those who are trying to attract more winged creatures to their gardens.

Now, I’m interested to hear which butterflies grace your garden and what you do to encourage them. Please let me know in a comment below. Also, if I mis-identified a butterfly, please let me know. Some of them are difficult to i.d.