Monarch summer a bust this year

Red milkweed beetles prey on monarch eggs and emergent caterpillars.

So, wielding my file-sharpened short machete, I chopped down the remnants of my milkweed patch today and hauled the stalks and pods on a tarp to a brushpile in the creekbottom.

Monarch butterfly migration is over, and no new emergent monarchs can be expected this autumn. Frost threatens soon.

It was an ill-fated season for the patch, and it has left me wondering. While I did not exactly watch the patch this season with a magnifying glass – it is a 40-by-60-foot plot on the back hillside – I never saw a single mature monarch butterfly caterpillar, or transforming chrysalid, all summer.

Oh, plenty of monarch butterflies visited all summer long, males and females in mating spirals, females seemingly laying eggs from plant to plant – all the right stuff. The perfume of the flowering plants was cloying, almost overcoming, at times, and they drew all manner of nectaring insects (including dreaded Japanese beetles). I looked closely for tiny eggs on the milkweed leaves, and I allowed a variety of emerging plants, from mature to emergent milkweed. I even declared war on invading giant ragweed, mid-summer, whacking it down to give milkweed breathing room.

Alas, no big, fat, mature caterpillars, no J-hooks, no chrysalids, no new monarchs. Something is wrong with my patch, though I have maintained it for years now. I was into milkweed and monarchs long before it became sexy, and I  spent scores of hours tagging migrating eastern monarchs years before it was an “item,” like now. So I am a mite flummoxed about what to do for next spring. I think that the migrating eastern monarch population – the one threatened by widespread abuse of Roundup and other agricultural and gardening pesticides, rampant mindless mowing, plus deforestation on mountain Mexico wintering haunts – needs help, especially with habitat.

For starters, I noticed the rampage by potential monarch egg- and caterpillar-predators and parasites on my patch this summer. Especially the red milkweed beetles, which prey on eggs and emergent caterpillars. My patch virtually was crawling alive with these black-dotted red-orange beetles. Ants, wasps, yellowjackets, juvenile stinkbugs, mantises, spiders, emergent caterpillars, tachinid fly larvae and more also take their share of monarch eggs or caterpillars. Even emergent monarch caterpillars are known to eat nearby eggs of their own kind, which is why female monarchs lay so many eggs.

Still, a buddy who golfs and whose spouse is Momma Monarch found a patch of milkweed on his Thursday course. It was crawling with monarch caterpillars. So he took a load of caterpillar-loaded stalks home for her to rear into chrysalids, then tag and release the emerged butterflies. Why not me, who worked so hard?

A monarch-savvy naturalist friend of mine suggested that by cutting down the patch and carrying it off, I might remove some of the predatory insects as well from my area of my patch. Which is what I just did a bit ago. Maybe next year …

Categories: Ohio – Steve Pollick

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