I'm off on my journey. Look closely. Can you see all 4 caterpillars?

I'm off on my journey. Look closely. Can you see all 4 caterpillars?

Catastrophe in the nursery. None of these 4 made it. They just suddenly became motionless but never went into a molt.

Catastrophe in the nursery. None of these 4 made it. They just suddenly became motionless but never went into a molt.

A possible viral or bacterial infection?

A possible viral or bacterial infection?

It breaks my heart just to look at this picture!

It breaks my heart just to look at this picture!

The Joys of Parenting

I’m distressed. I’m anguished.  I’m chagrined.  I confess, I am even a teeny bit envious.

A woman I met at The Conservation Foundation’s Conservation@Home member potluck the end of last month, shared that she had successfully raised over 200 Monarch caterpillars and was about to start tagging this last generation that will migrate to Mexico. And I know others that are equally if not more successful.  Even the Pottawatomie Golf Course staff at the St. Charles Park District where I serve as a Commissioner on the Park Board, are up to 117!  You go guys!  I’m glad to hear of so many folks committed to helping the survival of this beautiful butterfly! 

So why am I distressed?

Well, this summer, once I was taught how to recognize a Monarch egg, I too started my own small nursery. A newly hatched caterpillar is tiny and it is captivating to care for one and watch it grow. I was on my way and doing well!

I had about 12 in various instar stages and then suddenly, the caterpillars weren’t surviving! I realized they were getting too much direct sun and moved them. 

After that bump in the road things seemed to go smoothly again. I was feeling pretty proud of myself. I wouldn’t ever be someone who raised 200, but I was on the road to success.  And then, overnight with the addition of some newly gathered leaves, it happened again. I was horrified. What was I doing wrong????

No one that I talked to with any experience has a clear answer. It turns out there are so many potential pitfalls.  Possibilities include genetics, parasitism by tachinid flies, OE – a protozoan parasite, bacterial or fungal infections, and leaves contaminated by drift of insecticide spray.

St. Charles, where I live, and many other communities have instituted mosquito abatement programs. The decision to conduct aerial spraying is based on detection of adult mosquitos found positive for the West Nile Virus which seems like a sound policy.  They conducted citywide spraying on July 9, Aug. 14-15, and Aug. 29.  Was the problem I observed with my caterpillars coincident with these dates.  I don’t know.  Did one of my neighbors do their own spraying that could have drifted?  I don’t know.  Did I not keep my containers clean enough to avoid an infection?  I don’t know.

All I know is that I’ve tried to raise probably about 30-40 caterpillars; some from eggs, some from an early instar stage found on the leaves. And I know it has broken my heart to see this happen. Several caterpillars although immobile and seemingly dead would flinch if my hand created a shadow over them or when I tried to move them from an old to a fresh leave in the hopes that they would make it through the crisis.  None did. 

Of all I tried to raise, five made it to the chrysalis stage. Of those, one died in the process of opening, two seemed malformed and were not able to hang on to the empty chrysalis and fill their wings, and two matured into their full glory and were released.

There are so many things we don’t know about the natural world. So many ways in which we innocently and unknowingly are destructive of the life we are unaware of around us. We unwittingly plant non-native species that don’t support the life cycle needs of the insects that are at the bottom of the food chain. In the name of being tidy, we clean up our gardens in the fall and throw out all the dead leaves and stalks that provide cover and shelter to myriad species including eggs, caterpillars and chrysalises of moths and butterflies that will never make it to next spring.

I wonder if I could have done something differently. The saying “we don’t know what we don’t know…” sure seems applicable!

I am thankful for those that do know and are helping the rest of us learn and become more aware. Thank you! And I am thankful for those that are experienced and successful with raising Monarchs in the 100’s, 200’s, and even 400’s. Thank you for your efforts! It seems that Monarch populations in Illinois have reached their highest levels in the last 25 years. We are all making a difference!

Fortified with more knowledge, I look forward to increasing my success next year.

Now, I wonder if there is a way to “raise” the Rusty-patched Bumblebee????




Monarch Butterfly Ecology. K. Oberhauser, Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN. and Michelle J. Solensky, Department of Biology, The College of Wooster, Wooster, OH.

OE – Ophryocystis elektroscirrha – Monarch Butterfly

11 Monarch Diseases, Parasites, and Caterpillar Killers

Monarch Joint Venture: Rearing Monarchs Responsibly

Also check out these two Facebook pages:

               The Beautiful Monarch

               Monarchs and Milkweed

Note: Thank you Jamie Viebach and Janie Grillo for your help with my questions and encouragement through my trials and tribulations!