Monday, August 3, 2009

Tiny caterpillars, hanging by an invisible string ...

monarch butterfly caterpillar worm hatchling size"I have a milkweed plant in my garden, and im sure that there arent any pesticides on it or anything. A monarch comes and lays her eggs on the leaves, and i check on them and they look fine. The caterpillars hatch, but they look tinier than i think they're suppose to be. Then a couple of hours later, i look and the baby caterpillar is hanging from an invisible string, and its either dead, or will be in the morning. I'm not sure if its because of wasps, i know there are some lingering around the plant, but i really need some help. How can I save the eggs from the wasps? I cant afford a $30 sock/net thing to put around the plant. PLEASE help! Thank you very much. I would appreciate your suggestions. I am very concerned about the poor little caterpillars."

It's wonderful to hear from someone else who is so concerned about caterpillars. That concern is what turned me into a butterfly farmer. Welcome to the world of worrying about nearly invisible caterpillars and monsterous predators.

On the dime above, two Monarch eggs rest and one hatchling Monarch caterpillar crawls around. If you take a dime out of your pocket and look at it, you can realize how tiny the hatchling really is!

monarch butterfly caterpillar hatching from its eggBUT ... a hatchling caterpillar is so tiny it is nearly invisible. I has to be small to fit inside the egg. It eats its way out and doubles in size nearly every day. In fourteen warm summer days, it gains weight over 2,500 times its original hatchling weight. At first, though, it is tiny.

The invisible thread is webbing from its spinnerets. The spinnerets are located under its head, where we have a neck. It lays a line of silk when it travels. When the plant is bumped or a predator comes by, it can drop from the leaf and suspend by its silk thread. It will slowly crawl back up the thread, an amazing sight to watch.

wasp enemy eats a monarch butterfly caterpillar
Wasps will kill caterpillars and eat them or carry them away. The only ways to protect them is to enclose the plant in a fine net (like sheet curtain material) or move the caterpillars and some leaves indoors. If you move them indoors, you need to either give them a safe milkweed plant to eat (like you are growing) or add leaves to the container every day. Sleeves can be expensive so simply make one with glue and a piece of fine material. Slide it over the plant or a branch with the caterpillars inside and tie it tightly shut on both ends. When the caterpillar(s) eat the leaves, move the net and caterpillars to another branch or plant.

Nature only allows one or two eggs laid to become adult butterflies. We should expect to lose caterpillars in our gardens. We should expect to see wasps, spiders, lizards, praying mantis, and other predators to carry away our caterpillars. But it is not something that many of us can accept. So we fight it!

1 comment:

  1. "It lays a line of silk when it travels. When the plant is bumped or a predator comes by, it can drop from the leaf and suspend by its silk thread."
    I moved a milkweed plant I haven't yet transplanted to the ground. Had a big guy going walk-about and wanted to put it near one of my lanai stanchons. Big guy is nowhere to be seen but I did see a little guy hanging from under the leaf. I got scared and brought it inside to separate it from the rest of the gang. Quarantine -- until I know wether or not the little guy is okay. But from the above, was the little guy just knocked off balance when I move the plant? That would be wonderful! I'll let it go back outside.