On my first birthday after arriving back in the states, I gifted myself the beginnings of a Butterfly Garden. After spending weeks researching host plants, we rented a roto-tiller, raided a local plant nursery, hacked up the grass in the sunniest corner of the yard, and got it going.
(I could write a lot about the gardening ups and downs of this project, mostly along the lines of, "Oh right! Everywhere in the world isn't western Oregon, where the dirt grows everything awesomely with no effort and the weather doesn't try to literally steam-cook your plants.")
Of course, the star of the host-plant show was supposed to be Aesclepias tuberosa, or butterfly weed aka a-particularly-great-type-of-milkweed. And as everyone (who...knows much about butterflies) knows, milkweed is the required plant for Monarch eggs and caterpillars. No other substitute.
We couldn't find it anywhere our first growing season here, but diligent pestering of multiple nurseries got us a shipment for 2017. We planted it in March and it did great! We started noticing a monarch egg here and there. Until...
The APHID and WHITE FLY APOCALYPSE! Basically, I had never dealt with them before and didn't realize that a couple cute little yellow bugs were actually Aphis nerii, or invasive Oleander aphids, and they went from five to five hundred thousand (seemed) in a matter of weeks, sucking our four milkweeds dry and attracting parasitic wasps which took evil pleasure in picking off tiny, newly hatched monarch caterpillars as snacks after leisurely laying their eggs inside aphid larvae (which then would hatch, eat that larvae from the inside, and then leave "aphid mummies" behind after they emerged from their victims). They are a horror movie incarnate.
As you can see, we tried to control this all with an army of ladybugs -- get rid of the aphids, get rid of the whiteflies, get rid of the parasitic wasps -- but there were just too many to handle. We finally got them under control with a daily spraying of a water-dishsoap-rubbing alcohol mix and leaves began to slowly regenerate...
But, we thought the great wasp massacre of monarch caterpillars had taken any chance we had of helping any Monarch butterflies reach adulthood this year. By mid-summer, we stopped checking the milkweeds except an occasional spot-spray to stop another aphid explosion, maybe once a week.
Then one day..
!!! Without realizing it, a monarch caterpillar had made it to the fifth instar stage without us even knowing! It's hard to miss them when they're in their final stage before pupating - they're huge and bright and stripey and horned, after all. And we were so excited!
Close inspection found nearly twenty other caterpillar eggs and twenty hatched caterpillars in various stages of development.
It was amazing! But also, we quickly realized, way too many for our four weakened milkweeds to handle! One caterpillar eats about 20 large milkweed leaves...there was no way we would be able to get them all enough.
We kept an eye on things and saw our relatively bushy milkweeds get down to twigs within two days. Some of the later-stage caterpillars had gotten enough in time, but the younger ones were left trying to desperately eat through stems.
Hadrian and I had to do something! So we medivac'd ten one morning to the local Botanical Garden in a tupperware lined with soft lambsear. We found each of them their own large and healthy milkweed plant and wished them well.
But what about the older caterpillars that had been able to eat enough in our own garden? We went searching for some chrysalides and found one nestled between our fence slats. It was that gorgeous green and gold Monarchs are known for:
Look at the wings!
Within a few hours, it had emerged and dried it wings on our fence before flying off.
WE HAD DONE IT! Full life-cycle!
And the process is continuing. The milkweeds are sprouting a new round of leaves after being completely eaten down and we already have ten more eggs waiting to hatch. Here we go!