Raising Monarchs

Step 1: A monarch feeds on milkweed and lays her eggs
Step 1: A monarch feeds on milkweed and lays her eggs

This past spring I witnessed the beauty and mystery of monarch butterflies in my garden. At first, I was skeptical any would flutter by. How would they find my two small milkweed plants?

When they did find it, I was concerned about my lack of ability and time to raise them. Now that I’ve come out the other end, I can say for certain that with a little guidance and effort, anyone can do this. And it’s worth the effort!

As autumn approaches, the western monarch butterflies migrate south, from parts of Northwestern US to various forests along the coast in California, where they overwinter, bundling together to stay warm for survival.

This is not the season for raising monarchs, but rather, it’s a time for preparing your milkweed for the spring mating season and migration back north. You may also choose to buy more mature milkweed plants in early spring.

The western migration pattern for the monarchs differ from the more well-documented eastern migration from Canada and northern United States to the oyamel forest in Mexico. Though the butterfly species are the same, the ones on the West Coast overwinter in different areas than their eastern counterparts.

The overwintering sites are at their peak from about October-February. There are hundreds along the California coast, from Mendocino County to San Diego. According to Dr. Francis Villablanca, Professor of Biological Sciences at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, Director and research advisor for Monarch Alert, “Two of the most spectacular sites are Elwood Main in Santa Barbara, and Pismo Beach State Park.” Another popular site is around the Pacific Grove Museum. For more information, visit: xerces.org/where-to-see-monarchs-in-california/

But if you would like to experience monarchs in your own home, begin by growing milkweed in your garden. By spring they should be full and at least 1.5 feet tall (or purchase two or more 5-gallon container plants). This way, the monarch larvae have plenty to eat. Native varieties are best. But an easier plant to maintain is the tropical milkweed. It’s a beautiful water-wise plant, too — though poisonous to ingest, like most milkweed. Just make sure to cut it down during the off season (starting in late July and August) to help minimize passing on disease to future monarchs and allowing for a more natural migration pattern.

Step 2: A very hungry monarch caterpillar (larva)
Step 2: A very hungry monarch caterpillar (larva)

When spring comes, the overwintering monarchs will be ready to mate and head north. Their migration is truly a unique phenomenon that is still a mystery to many scientist. It will take at least 3 generations of monarchs and about 4 months to make it all the way up. And it is during this time when the monarch-raising fun begins!

1) In late spring especially, stay vigilant every day (even just 15 minutes in the afternoon), visiting your milkweed plant, killing aphids with a swab on a stick dipped in alcohol, and watching for drifting monarchs. Chances are, these monarchs will land on your milkweed and leave eggs behind. If you’re patient and watch closely, you may even see the monarch actually lay the egg. When I first encountered this, I was moved by the life that was being formed before my very eyes! When you see a white ellipsoid dot on a green stem, you’ve got an egg.

2) 3-4 days later, a tiny caterpillar (larva) will emerge. Keep searching for them daily under leaves and near flowers. When you find one, cut off a small area of the plant, where the larva is hanging on for dear life and bring it in. Be warned… I wanted the larva to live naturally in the garden; but for me, that meant 100% of them being eaten by predators! I was so sad because I felt like the worst monarch mommy. It was time to bring in new hatchlings. And if your plant is healthy, 100% of your larva could successfully emerge as butterflies!

(Note: You may not have time to take care of caterpillars; don’t panic! Just having the milkweed to feed passing monarchs is good! And if you have eggs, you can try to leave them in the garden. You may not have especially dangerous caterpillar snatchers like I did! But if you bring them in…)

mesh dome
mesh dome

3) I put the cut plant (like a straw) into a water-filled plastic cup with a lid, like the ones you get at coffee shop. This helps keeps the plant fresh.

4) I covered the cup/plant/larva with a mesh picnic dome. Whenever the plant looked munched down to nubs, I replaced the plant and gently allowed the caterpillar to crawl onto the new plant. Note: the larva goes through about 5 instars, shedding it’s skin and emerging bigger each time.

In the last few days the larva eat so much, you need to clean their area (to reduce disease) and replace the demolished plant nearly every 18-24 hours. This took the most time in the monarch raising process. Note: Cleaning requires removing the frass (larva excrement) and wiping the flat surface with a natural disinfectant like an equal parts vinegar and water mixture.

5) After the larva can eat and grow no more, they inch their way to the top of your dome and hang upside down in a “J” shape. Try not to disturb the larva from here on! After about a day or two, they will do a circular dance while hanging upside-down. Within minutes a chrysalis will form around the larva. If you happen to catch this process, you will be amazed by the instant transformation. IMG_1173

6) For the next 10 days or so, a dramatic and amazing transformation is taking place inside the chrysalis. (I even felt like my monarchs were teaching me life lessons…  Like sometimes I need to slow down in order to experience deep change… but that’s another article.)

7) When the butterfly is ready to emerge, the chrysalis turns black and then translucent. The shell cracks open and moist wings unravel while fluid is gradually pumped into them,expanding as they dry. Within 10 minutes to a couple hours, the monarch is ready to take flight. You may want to admire the beautiful creature for a day or so; but whatever you do, release it (preferably in the morning or the cool of the day, not at night).

Step 3: jewel-like monarch chrysalis
Step 3: jewel-like monarch chrysalis

8) Often they land on your hand or clothing, as if to say “thank you”  before their final goodbye. And when they leave, you ‘ll feel proud knowing you’ve saved a life and helped the great monarch migration, a natural phenomenon that is still being studied and understood. (Stay tuned for my next post about the monarch migration as it appears in The Quarterly magazine, Fall issue.)

Please share your monarch adventures or misadventures here. I will do my best to answer your questions; but honestly, I am barely scratching the surface on raising monarchs. For a more detailed look into caring for monarchs, try visiting sites like http://monarchbutterflygarden.net and borrowing related books from your local library.

If you’re not sure whether or not you’re ready to raise monarchs, consider the benefits (invite a lovely display of nature into your home, plant a water-wise garden with milkweed, become a feeding and breeding way station for migrating monarchs, produce much needed pollinators, help save the monarch migration and the monarch itself…) These far outweigh the costs.

Note: Photos are by yours truly. I hope you enjoy them!

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Parents of South Pasadena Students React to Planned Shooting

10602716_10152269377106850_588848138_n For the background story, go to SouthPasadenaNow.com

We hear about school shootings around the US and are angry and sad for the pain it causes. When the threat comes directly into our own community (for me, less than a block away), the concern deepens. As with any small town, people share meals, soccer matches, and school events; we seem, at most, one degree away from each other.

So after tragedy was averted on Monday when two South Pasadena High School students were arrested because of the very real threat of a shooting attack on staff and students, a collective sigh of relief came from parents who realized how bad this could have been. Even the potential of what could have been shakes us up.

A community is left stunned, relieved and thoughtful about what else lurks and how to avoid the worst of it in the future.

Jon Primuth, President of the South Pasadena Educational Foundation (SPEF) said, “My daughter (a senior) and son (a sophomore) would have been on campus at the time, so my emotions are a huge tangled knot of fear and relief. I am deeply grateful to our school administrators and police for their alert response and quick action.”

“I do believe that the culture of ‘community involvement’ in South Pasadena contributed to this being detected early. We are one big family looking out for each other, not afraid to speak out when something doesn’t look right,” says Gina Chang, parent of two elementary-aged children.

A sense of gratitude was certainly felt among people. But many other feelings followed.

“After hearing about the incident, I told myself to drop down on my knees and just pray. If a small community like South Pasadena can have kids that are this troubled then we must pray for those two boys and protection over all the schools. I feel so helpless. Violence is everywhere,” says Josephine Sin, a parent of two (one at the middle school and another at Arroyo Vista Elementary.)

Dayna Cahoon, wonders, “How do I communicate to my young children, all under the age of eight, that things like this happen, without creating fear in them?… Are children so desperate for attention and a feeling of notoriety that they are willing to cause such horrible tragedy?”

A parent of three (two high school students and a newly graduated high school senior,) Hollin Liu says, “We thought we lived in a safe neighborhood. With something like this, even South Pasadena gets to be listed as ‘dangerous.’ It’s scary just thinking about it. And about the fencing-in situation in all our schools, if there were a shooting frenzy, wouldn’t it be harder for kids to run?”

The very thought of extreme violence makes people consider the policies and practices in place, refining safety measures and making them better.

“…It’s not enough to ban guns or ban media that romanticizes violence and vengeance. We need more positive adult role models in kids’ lives,” Primuth adds. “As for SPEF, we have the same disaster planning as SPUSD in all our summer schools.”

As a parent of children at the middle school and elementary school, this situation has caused my own family to talk about what may be considered “suspicious” and what to do in light of it. My kids mentioned that they didn’t want to “tattle,” so that lead to a discussion on what is and isn’t tattling.

And each child responds differently, so parents need to be sensitive about how to discuss such topics. If you or your children have concerns regarding the recent threat, counselors will be available at all SPUSD schools.

Though a stream of questions and thoughts bombard the brain of a parent in cases like this, the thread that unites us in this particular situation is our thankfulness to community members and authorities who kept this situation from turning into a nightmare.

A prayer vigil will be held on Wednesday, August 20th, at 7:00 p.m. on the front lawn of St. James’ Episcopal Church, for students at all five South Pasadena schools.