A monarch caterpillar on a gnarly milkweed plant.
When I was growing up in Northern Virginia, in the same area I live now, I remember seeing butterflies regularly. But until my employer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, started focusing on the plight of monarchs and other pollinators, I hadn’t realized I had not seen a butterfly around the yard recently, although I had noticed other losses -- bats, bees, birds that aren’t sparrows.
I went right out and bought some seeds for some milkweed, the only plants monarch caterpillars eat. The seeds didn’t grow.
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My mom, who lives next door and is an infinitely better gardener than I, bought me four butterfly weed plants and planted them in a box with good soil. This type of milkweed did great but alas, no butterflies.
This spring, mom and I got six swamp milkweed plants, and each took three.
My milkweed, which is now spreading seeds.
Along with the returning butterfly weed, my milkweed looks awesome. It has grown, produced lots of leaves, even a few flowers. Mom didn’t have such good luck. Two of her milkweed plants died; the other was all dry and scrawny.
Still, we had a butterfly or two, even a monarch. And milkweed helps other pollinators, too.
Take a guess where we saw the first monarch caterpillar (the one in the top photo). That’s right. A female monarch chose to lay one of her eggs on one of my mom’s pathetic plants.
Mom actually removed the stalk from her caterpillar-bearing plant, cut off a few stalks from one of my plants, with its tasty leaves, and brought them onto her porch because it didn’t look like the caterpillar would have enough leaves on her sad-looking plant.
|The caterpillar that got my hopes up.
I figured I’d be a monarch sibling at best. Until a few days later!
I was out playing with my dog when mom came over and looked at my little plot. There was a big caterpillar on my milkweed. And he was big. It looked like he’d already eaten several leaves.
Grow, little guy, grow, then turn yourself into a beautiful butterfly, I thought. But then, a few hours later, he was gone. Vanished, to who knows where? Did he just go somewhere we can’t see? Did he become a late-morning snack for something? Did our efforts to “grow” butterflies actually amount to something for the monarch in the end?
Hard to say, and we’ll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, we’ll keep growing milkweed and hoping he’s OK. Parenthood is stressful.
Matt Trott, External Affairs