Tag Archives: Monarch Butterfly

An Unexpected Nature Show


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Grandchildren at the Old Capitol at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. We thought they would all prefer the Natural History Museum, but several said this historic building was their favorite thing to visit during our day out.

We were hosting four grandchildren this week on an overnight stay, and had most of a day until late afternoon that we would spend with them.

So we planned to make a day of it—french toast for breakfast, a trip to the Natural History Museum and Old Capitol at the University of Iowa, lunch out, some park play, finishing it off with afternoon ice cream.

As it turned out, the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes work at as well as you could possibly expect. These four young grandchildren are old enough to enjoy the museums, liked playing in a city park in Coralville, and appreciated the ice cream. It was a good day, according to plan.

And it was also unexpectedly much better. I was glad the museums don’t open until 10, because packing up four young children takes a bit of time. And as we were slowly accumulating all the stuff we needed, encouraging children to take restroom breaks and don shoes, something wonderful that was not on the agenda took place.

As I was carrying a bag with sunscreen and bug repellent out to our minivan, I noticed a Monarch butterfly nervously flitting about. I have tried to grow Milkweed in my gardens for years, with little results, but for some reason things are different this year—“Butterfly Flower” purchased from a local nursery came back strong this year, and Common Milkweed seeds chose this spring of all springs to finally germinate and strongly grow.

And it did not take much time this year for butterflies to find this new habitat. I have not been able to locate pupae, and so I’m not sure if any butterflies have resulted from my efforts, but clearly butterflies have been laying eggs on my plants, based on the caterpillars.

It is funny, I think, that most of the time gardeners are not thrilled to have caterpillars consuming their work, except when Milkweed is planted. Then, the larval stage of this pretty insect is most welcome.

Anyway, back to our museum day adventure. Monarchs are not particularly skittish, as butterflies go. They live their lives knowing that their caterpillar diet has made them nasty to eat, so they are fairly bold. What was wrong with this skittish, spastic specimen of a usually serene insect species?

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Butterfly in front garden.

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Pausing on Milkweed (with the same caterpillar I made images of before).

I paused and watched. And then I figure out what she was doing. She would land quickly on a leaf, hanging on to the edge, and loop her body under the leaf, then flit to another leaf and repeat.

This female insect was bursting with eggs and was depositing said eggs in my garden.

I called out to the grandchildren. They responded to my urgent calls as grandchildren usually do—slowly, one at a time. The mother butterfly flitted off and I was worried they had missed the show.

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Laying egg.

But no—as I encouraged grandchildren to exit the house and get settled in the van for the trip to Iowa City, she kept coming back. She laid eggs on the Common Milkweed while one granddaughter watched. Another saw her as she focused on nearby Butterfly Flower.

And once all the kids were in the van, she provided her best show. There is a tall, spiky flower in my side garden that showed up for the first time this year and bloomed in small pink flowers in a broccoli shape. Common Milkweed blooms pink in pom-pom shapes—and none of my young plants of that sort have bloomed yet, anyway. But, I suspected that this tall plant was Swamp Milkweed, which is just a another variety of the butterfly –friendly family of plants.

Confirmation came this morning. For the first time, we spotted caterpillars munching on that side garden plant—Monarchs don’t make many mistakes. Milkweed is what this plant is.

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What is this tall plant that mama butterfly is pausing for a snack at? It is Milkweed, too, as was proven by caterpillar presence.

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Strong evidence–this is the same plant with the pink flowers. Young monarch doing it’s best to eat it.

And, as if she thought it was her duty to teach young children one last nature lesson, as the doors of the van were still hanging open but the children seated within, the butterfly came back again, landing on the side of the swamp plant that was just feet away from the nearest grandchild sitting in a van.

She hung at the end of the leaf, curled her bottom side over, which seemed like she was posing for the best egg laying photo I managed to get, and then took off.

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Egg that was placed there while children watched.

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Monarch on mystery plant that we can now call Milkweed with confidence. In this egg laying festival, she hit all three varieties of Milkweed I have planted.

There, on the bottom side of leaf, was the egg.

That was cool.

We adopted a caterpillar at the recent Monarch Fest held at the Indian Creek Nature Center, and it formed its cocoon last week. I am still hoping it will emerge before I leave for a week of riding a bicycle across Iowa, but there is no sign of change from it yet.

Still, it felt like we were exposed to the full range of Monarch life cycle Wednesday—several caterpillars, a busy laying adult, a clear view of an egg and the cocoon in my kitchen.

Thank you, butterflies, for making a good day a great day. The day seemed like it had potential to be a good one anyway—and it was. Luckily, the thousand things that could have gone wrong (sick child, serious meltdown, big fight) did not take place. The children enjoyed themselves, which meant the grandparents enjoyed themselves.

And beyond the museums, there was the impromptu lesson provided by a skittish insect. So often in life, spontaneous pleasures are the best.

If you haven’t, find some Butterfly Flowers and plant them in your garden. And Monarchs aren’t the only pollinator in trouble, but plants that help them, including native flowers like cone flowers, aren’t hard to plant, either. Recall that fall is the time to sew Common Milkweed seeds. It may take a few years, the plants grow when they want to and not on your time schedule, but there are rewards for the effort.

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Hoping Monticello & MMU Learn to Love Milkweed


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Swallow-tail butterfly on shore of Cedar Lake.

When they sell a variety of Milkweed at a flower shop, they rename it “Butterfly Flower.” It’s a better name for PR than a plant name that has “weed” in it.

But Milkweed is not really a weed, in that a weed is an unattractive, unwanted plant. Milkweed is a very tall, robust native flower, pretty when it’s blooming, and very much wanted because it’s the only kind of plant the Monarch butterfly will lay eggs on.

I read in The Gazette this morning, in an article by our excellent local environmental writer Orlan Love, that the city of Monticello is sending warning letters to a resident due to the Milkweed plants on his property.

I made me think again of a project I would like to get started at Mount Mercy University where I teach. The U planted a community vegetable patch this summer. Why not an MMU butterfly garden? It would feature Milkweed, but also other plants that benefit pollinators.

MMU already has plenty of Coneflowers, which Monarchs love, but no place for baby Monarchs. Maybe the planters near Basile Hall would be a good spot?

Anyway, I need to find a group at MMU that’s interested in such an idea—possibly the Bike Club or Science Club or an alliance of the Bike and Science clubs? What do you think, MMUers?

Anyway, the Gazette story made me a bit sad. My heart is with you Michael Felton. May Monticello wake up and smell the nectar. Cities need to encourage Milkweed planting, not demand its removal. Just say “Butterfly Flower.” It sounds nicer, and is pretty accurate.

This afternoon, on my way home, I bicycled down to Cedar Lake. I was in the mood to see a Monarch butterfly, and knew from previous rides that the lake is a local hot spot for the orange flyer. There is a fair amount of Milkweed on the lake shore, and all I can say is, hooray for Milkweed.

I didn’t find what I was looking for. A pretty Goldfinch darted ahead of me on the trail, way too fast for me to unlimber my point-and-shoot camera. On the lake, a large white egret was looking quite fetching. And I did take some pictures of a pretty butterfly by the lake–a Swallowtail.

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Egret or heron on Cedar Lake.

I didn’t feel too bad about my failure. Despite the muggy heat, it felt good just to waste some time by the pretty waters. So I turned my bike north to pedal home, but just after I had crossed the bridge at the north end of the lake, I noticed flashes of orange in some white flowers west of the trail.

Yup. Monarchs. Not one, but several were flitting about—and not just Monarchs, either, as some pictures I took are clearly of Viceroy butterflies.

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A Monarch, above, and Viceroy, below, on same clump of flowers on trail north of Cedar Lake. Viceroys are smaller (despite the appearance, the insect below is only about 2/3 size of one above) and feature a dividing line on hind wing that Monarchs lack. Species didn’t seem to mind hanging together this afternoon.

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Well, cool. Monarchs are not as common as they once were, which is why Monticello’s war on Milkweed is misguided. I was glad to see some near Cedar Lake. More of my photos are on this Facebook gallery.

So this fall, I am going to try again to sew some native Milkweed seeds in my gardens. You don’t plant Milkweed in spring like many other flowers, because the seeds have to experience winter cold before they will sprout.

I doubt the city of Cedar Rapids will object if I succeed and get some plants going next year. And maybe I can be part of getting some Milkweed planted at MMU, too?

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The Summer I Planted Milkweed


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Milkweed “bombs” on my bike during RAGBRAI–each contains about 3 seeds of various Milkweed varieties in clay for bikers to toss in Iowa ditches. Yes, I thought of saving a few, but they were meant to be distributed along our RAGBRAI route, so that is what I did.

Well, that title is a little deceiving—I’ve planted milkweed for several summers in a row, but with no success.

First, I saved some seeds from wild plants at a daughter’s house, and sewed those in the spring. Then, I read more about milkweed, and realized the seed have to overwinter in order to germinate, so last fall, I planted the seeds I gathered right away to let them experience the Iowa winter as they ought to experience it.

But, no—I have seen some evidence that a seed I spread maybe sprouted in the woods behind my house, although, to be fair, one may have just blown there, too. In my gardens, there are lots of weeds that take root, but none of them tasty to Monarch butterflies.

This year, a professor at Mount Mercy gave me a plant from her garden, which I put in my garden and watered for weeks. After a month or so, it had not grown but also not faded, and I was starting to think “success,” when one morning, it was dead.

Milkweed is like that, gardeners.

Noelridge Park greenhouses have a Mother’s Day open house, and they gave out free Milkweed plants. I got one, as did numerous grandchildren, and I planted those. They are doing fine, but are also only annual plants—the greenhouse did not give out perennial Milkweed.

I transplanted some Milkweed from my daughter’s yard—four plants. Two did the “I will hold on for weeks and suddenly die” trick, but two have actually not just stayed alive, but have also grown. I don’t want to jinx it, but of the five native Milkweed plants I put in the ground this year, it’s possible two might survive.

And I bought “butterfly flower” plants, a type of Milkweed, both at HyVee Drug Store and a local flower shop. I went a little overboard, I suppose. There are at least four plants in back and four more in front—so eight store-purchased plants. None of those have died, but some have not yet grown and may yet be in the “failure to thrive” category.

But about half have grown—one has even bloomed.

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Perennial Milkweed in front of house, above, in bloom. Annual Milkweed (below) getting ready to bloom.

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I won’t know the results until spring, when I see what comes back, but I do finally seem to have Milkweed in my garden. Even with all of the other plants I purchased and put in and failed to hear from—where are you, other colors of Coneflower or any Toad Lilies at all?—that would make 2016 a good year in my gardens.

In past years, I have seen Monarchs in my garden enjoying the Coneflowers. None so far this year—but if the Monarchs ever return, I am hoping they also have plants to lay eggs on.

Now, if I can just persuade the Mount Mercy University Bike Club and the powers-that-be on the facilities staff—maybe I can get a Milkweed-butterfly garden going at MMU …

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Bee on a Coneflower in my garden a few days ago. Sadly, I have not seen any Monarch butterflies visiting them this summer, but this kind of flower is one that they like. They can’t lay their eggs on it, though–for baby Monarch butterflies, you need Milkweed.

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What I Planted for Moms and Dads


We biked over to our daughter's house. And I've just loaded my front basket for the ride back.

We biked over to our daughter’s house. And I’ve just loaded my front basket for the ride back.

One of those seismic transitions in life—when the world seems suddenly to be a different place—is when your daughters become mothers.

It’s a happier transition then when your parents and their generation pass along, and suddenly, despite still feeling inside like a barely adult person, you realize you’re among the “elders.” But, I have found the role of “grandpa” to be very satisfying—most of the rewards of loving contact with young kids, less of the stress.

Or, as I like to say, “sugar them up and send them home.” You can quote me on that.

Anyway, so today is another Mother’s Day. To my daughters and beautiful wife, to mothers who are and are to be, to my mother in the great beyond—it’s a day to celebrate you, to celebrate the gift of life and love that you have passed on to the world.

So is seems like a great weekend to plant things.

Due to the harsh winter of 2014, we had three trees that died in our yard. Two of them struggled for life last year, so we waited until this spring to use Dr. McCoy’s Star Trek language on these trees, to paraphrase: “They’re dead, Jim.”

So the day before Mother’s Day, we went tree shopping. Given the cost of what we ended up finding, I suggested the trees were also for Father’s Day. Anyway, I was lobbying for one crab apple, because one crab apple died in a garden in a perfect “crab apple” spot. We’re not shy on this kind of tree—we have seven other crab apple trees—but Audrey agreed. Our other rule is that we wanted “something different.” A cherry tree and a red bud had died—but we have a weeping cherry and three living red buds, so our main shopping was for “other.”

We went to a local greenhouse and a local home supply chain store. We ended up with a bush and a tree from the greenhouse and two other trees from the chain store.

All in all, on this weekend of life celebration, this is what I dug holes for in my yard and gardens:

  • A pretty pink-purple Asian lily, a gift from two of our mom daughters to their mother.
  • Butterfly bush.

    Butterfly bush.

    A butterfly bush. In our climate, sometimes butterfly bush roots make it through winter, sometimes not. Since the butterfly bush blooms in its first year, it’s worth planting again when one dies out, and one in our garden had died.

  • Four milkweed plants. We went to a daughter’s house in Marion for a day-before-Mother’s Day party, and I noted the plants growing in her back garden and backyard. She has active young kids, and although you do want to plant as much milkweed as you can (save the Monarch Butterfly), you don’t want to plant this pretty native flower where young kids roam. The butterflies lay their eggs on it because its volatile sap makes them bad food—while the sticky white sap doesn’t usually do much to human skin, if a kid gets said sap on his or her finger and touches his or her face, apparently the results can be dramatically bad (some potential for great pain and possible temporary blindness). So I dug out the plants and planted them in out-of-the-play-path areas of my garden. There, they will probably die—milkweed notoriously do not transplant well due to their deep roots. But we’ll see if I was lucky enough to get enough root fragments on any of these plants.
  • And the three trees: A ginkgo, a magnolia and a crab apple. Ginkgo is clearly new to our yard, and should give us pretty foliage in the fall. We do already have a magnolia bush, but the new magnolia we planted is a species that should grow in a more tree-like pattern and is also a different color (lemon yellow) than our existing pink bush. The crab apple, while seriously redundant, is a pretty pink color we don’t have, and is a weeping tree, which again makes it a bit different.

Right now in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, crab apples are well past their prime. Our two shy apple trees are again not blooming—maybe next year. Lilacs are still going strong—the first wave has bloomed and passed, but the smaller, dwarf pink varieties are just budding out. Early peonies are in full flower, traditional varieties are just starting to bloom.

And bluebells! Many new ones planted last year bloomed this spring in my gardens.

And bluebells! Many new ones planted last year bloomed this spring in my gardens.

It’s going to rain today, but nonetheless has been a pretty late spring day, with nice flowers to recognize moms with.

On this Mother’s Day, best wishes to all you moms out there, in my family and in anybody else’s. May our shared scary experience of procreation bring us more joy than pain, may we pass on a love of God’s earth and its flowers, trees and butterflies to a new generation, and may all of you enjoy this day and every day.

But most especially, to my wife and daughters: Audrey and I know that, although children grow and become their own people, you never stop being a worried parent. And it’s a lesson that now the next generation is getting engaged in.

And so life goes on. It’s messy, but it’s also beautiful thing.

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Getting Ready For Winter on Day of First Snow


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I can’t say that I’m ready for snow to fall today, but clearly the weather isn’t going to wait for me. Among other things, neither of my “winter bikes,” the two mountain bikes that I’ve been left with by a son and son-in-law—are rideable right now. One has a broken spoke, and the other has a back wheel that acts like it has a broken spoke—it’s too wobbly—although I have not found said spoke.

I should get them fixed. I’m delaying taking them to my bike shop only because I didn’t buy the bikes there and I’ve seen them react to alien bikes before—but I still need the bikes fixed.

It’s also true that I have not made any serious attempt to have my slow blowers fixed, and that would be a handy device to have.

Still, today was a day partly devoted to yard and garden winter preparations. The way they weekend started, I was worried that my wife might be pregnant, but then I recalled our ages and decided her instinct to clean out the refrigerator and pantry weren’t “nesting” for a new baby, but merely some cleanup before many of the old babies return for holidays—retroactive nesting, as it were.

Among other weekend plans, the boss wanted to get the lawn furniture put away today, and I must concede it’s probably a good thing to do before the ground is covered in snow. So my Saturday morning began with sleeping until near 9, which had the sad result that I missed “Law and Order” at the gym this morning, but after exercise and breakfast, by late morning I found myself searching for Chinese plastic objects in American sand. I was picking up toys—I think there were about 10,000—before raking the leaves out of the sandbox and dumping them (leaves, not toys) behind the fence.

I took apart the hammock and carried it to the garage. Both my wife and I carted lawn chairs, ride-on toys, a big bag of balls and the pieces of a playhouse into an increasingly huge pile that fills the garage. My wife suggest me might rent a garage to put all of our garage stuff in so we can actually park a car in our garage, which would probably be a good thing.

Besides picking up all the toys, I did some minor garden winter prep. I trimmed back a volunteer bush that is getting out of hand, and scattered some seeds—milkweed seeds I had gathered from my daughter’s house, and coneflower seeds from my garden. In both cases, I put some seeds in gardens and some in the woods behind the fence.

I don’t know if there is a lot of hope for these seeds. I’m not sure all of the milkweed seeds were “ripe,” and I’ve never tried to plant this particular plant before. Sources on the internet explained how to start milkweed indoors, but it requires special handling of the seeds and refrigerating them for a certain length of time on a damp towel—this native flower needs a winter season in order to germinate. I figured the winter outside is easier and free, and I also have a poor track record with starting plants inside anyway, so I opted for more casual “planting,” in that I scattered the seeds and covered them a bit.

I’ve collected and planted my coneflower seeds for several years with no noticeable impact, so I suppose the milkweed isn’t a good life insurance candidate. But we’ll see. Maybe I’ll get lucky.

After scattering the doomed seeds, I put some plastic tubes on young trees in an attempt to foil hungry bunnies this winter, and put wire plant frames on rose bushes and a butterfly bush, and covered them in leaves.

I hope the snow cover from our expected storm this afternoon doesn’t persist too long—I do have more winter yard and garden prep to do, such as some tree trimming, but mostly a final leaf raking. However, it does feel like the yard and gardens have their winter faces on. Now comes the long wait to see if bulbs become flowers (here I have a decent track record) and seeds sprout for plants that will support young monarch butterflies (don’t hold your breath).

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All Creatures Rare and Small


Monarch

Monarch on my Butterfly Bush.

I felt lucky today, just before 1 p.m., when I happened to glance out my front door and saw a Monarch Butterfly visiting my older and larger Butterfly Bush.

Granted, a visit by a Monarch on a summer day in Iowa is not exactly rare–‒indeed, the banner image of my blog is a Monarch I shot several years ago with a little point-and-shoot camera in my garden.

But, this has been a very odd summer, and I have not seen usual things and have seen things that are unusual. Although I have noticed several Monarchs around Cedar Rapids, for some reason they have not been visiting my garden as often as in the past.

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Side view of lady as she drinks.

So, I was pleased to see this little lady, the first of her kind to grace my yard this year that I know of, and to take her picture. I also shot the butt of a bumblebee as it flew away from me, and a nearby common visitor, a Red Admiral butterfly. For the record, I don’t try to take bee butt pictures, it just flew away as I was clicking the shutter.

As I shot these visitors, common and uncommon, I saw on the nearby, smaller Butterfly Bush something that really sent shivers up my spine.

It was a Honey Bee.

Yes, some family members are allergic and I react badly to Honey Bee stings, but that wasn’t why I was all agog at the sight of this little lady. (Of course, all worker bees are girls. As some readers of my blog might conjecture, that rule that the productive work is done by females seems to hold true for humans, too). It’s just that it seems like years since I’ve seen a dainty lady of this type in my own yard. Honey Bees were a common feature of my childhood in both Iowa and California, but these European imports have become scarcer in recent years, due to general hive collapse.

And, here she was, drinking nectar from my flowers like she does it every day. Well, you’re welcome to it, little bee, and may you tell your coworkers where these sweet flowers are found.

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Tiny, brown, sweet sacks on rear legs visible–Honey Bee!

I don’t know why certain insects have positive personalities, while others are mostly creepy. We like most butterflies, but can be disturbed by moths. A bee is a friendly flower visitor, but a wasp puts us on edge. I am a little intimidated by bumblebees, which looks very menacing and make lots of noise—but, honestly, I don’t think a bumblebee has ever harmed me, and I’ve suffered several painful Honey Bee stings. Yet the Honey Bee just makes me happy to see, compared to its native counterpart.

Saturday was even National Honey Bee Day, so maybe this was just a late pretty party bee.

Well, whatever. I enjoyed seeing these garden visitors, both the Monarch and the Honey Bee, and even as the summer season comes to an end, and the Monarch gets ready for a long trip south and the Honey Bee gets ready to hole up in a hive, I’ll be hoping to catch a few more glimpses of them while I can.

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