The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Both of the last two years my wife, Nan, has written in the Hamilton County Master Gardener newsletter ComPOST about the experiences we have had in our little half acre working to attract and preserve the monarch butterfly population. This year it is my turn to reflect a bit on what kind of year 2012 was for our little friends.

Monarch on Tall Verbena

Monarch on Tall Verbena

Let’s start with the BAD. Why not? I don’t need to tell you that the summer was hot and dry – too hot and dry in many areas for good monarch reproduction. Chip Taylor of the Monarch Watch organization says, “It is now clear that fall population will be on the low side. We have received many comments on the poor quality of the milkweed available to monarchs for the last generation. The low number of nectar sources that will be available to monarchs moving through the lower Midwest in September is a concern. Some fall flowers have already bloomed, some have died and many of the others are stunted and just barely alive. There will be nectar but it will be harder for the monarchs to find.”

Actually, our personal experience was that we didn’t just have fewer monarch butterflies, we had virtually no monarchs in our yard this summer. We saw one or two early but word on the street seemed to be that it was so warm so early that they just went on north. Some areas in Canada reported record numbers early in the year. But, whatever the reason, despite growing several kinds of milkweed, we had no butterflies until a handful stopped in our yard on their way south in September. That is a far cry from the 150 or so monarchs we released as they eclosed from their crysalis’s in the summer of 2010. Others in the midwest had similar experiences. One garden blogger that I read recently wrote about the lack of butterflies this summer in his yard. You can find a link to that post here.

So, let’s move on to the GOOD. Even though we are very interested in helping the monarch population survive, we enjoy all kinds of butterflies and have planted the host plants for many of the native butterflies of our region. So, even though we have not had monarchs this summer, we have had a good variety of others and it has given us a new appreciation for the beauty and variety of these little creatures. As all gardeners know, creating diversity is a good thing!

But what about the UGLY?

Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar on Wafer Ash

Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar on Wafer Ash

One day at the end of August I realized that there were Giant Swallowtails laying eggs on our Wafer Ash in our backyard. And soon enough, we spotted first eggs, then tiny caterpillars; barely visible and looking like little smears of bird poop! We brought these little guys inside and fed them both Wafer Ash leaves as well as leaves from a Rue plant we have in our yard (also a host plant for the Giant Swallowtail). These caterpillars as they have grown have had the same effect on Nan and I as the first Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars we ever saw in our yard … you just can’t help but break out into a big grin when you look at them. They are gloriously and wonderfully made! And they become the largest butterfly native to our area.

So, even though the summer seemed to be a bust early on. We have had a lot of GOOD along with a joyful bit of UGLY at the end.