Monarch caterpillars, also called instars, start from an egg the size of a grain of salt. These two measured 1/8 and 1/4 inches long. (All photos this page by Mike Corradino)
Butterfly Project of the Sebring Village Garden Club has impact on saving Monarch butterflies
It all started with wilted parsley in a home garden in Sebring Village. When Mike and Patty Corradino saw what appeared to be a dying plant, they went out to buy a new one, only to discover it was covered in caterpillars.
Knowing that meant Black Swallowtail butterflies, they harvested as many caterpillars as they could and alerted members of the Sebring Village Garden Club.
That started a frenzy of plant buying and search for more caterpillars. The Garden Club, with over 20 regular members, got so involved they started a second group called The Butterfly Project.
Tami Mesenbourg, Chuck Baker and Pat Meyers were among the first to get bitten by the bug. More members quickly followed. From Swallowtails it was a short leap to Monarchs, the most recognizable butterfly in the world.
Members began buying habitats, small folding mesh cages, to raise their butterflies.
Then came milkweed plants, the Monarch’s host plant. The group soon discovered that while Florida has a native population that doesn't’t migrate, the migratory butterflies had dropped by 90 percent.
Habitat loss, pesticides and a major freeze in the Monarch’s winter home in Mexico killed off millions of the pollinating insects.
The next step was helping to save the population along with citizen scientists around the country. The group began to collect eggs, hatch caterpillars, also know as instars, and host them until they became butterflies.
In the normal sequence of events, only five percent survive. For every additional butterfly hatched by the group the odds have improved giving the population a chance to recover.
The butterflies are more than just a pretty insect. They are pollinators critical to healthy plant growth. Along with bees and other insects, they keep our farms healthy and gardens thriving.
As of this writing, the Project has hatched over 250 Monarchs in Sebring Village. Numerous residents have commented on the increase in butterfly sightings. Everyone benefits.
In October the Project will begin tagging the migratory Monarchs in cooperation with the University of Kentucky. The migratory Monarchs begin their journey in Canada reproducing several times before finally arriving in Mexico.
The group has been seeding milkweed plants around the perimeter of the park. “Milkweed is not a weed,” explained Mesenbourg. “It’s a wildflower.” The Butterfly project has also been gathering milkweed seeds and growing them to distribute free to any resident of the park that wants to help save the Monarchs.
“The plants are free, but anyone who would like to make a donation to help us buy planting supplies is welcome to do so,” added Garden Club moderator Mike Corradino. For more information about the program or to request milkweed, contact him at email@example.com or call 352-536-4732.
Monarch caterpillars grow rapidly over the next 10-15 days. They devour
their food source non-stop, pausing only to shed their skins while their bodies expand.
Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Once hatched the instars eat the host plant which contains toxins that prevent predators from eating them. But even with the aid of toxins, immune predators will kill almost 95 percent.
Surviving caterpillars find a sheltered space to form their chrysalis. They attach a silk pad to the underside on a leaf or object, then form a "J" prior to shedding their skin a final time.
The chrysalis. shown here actually forms on the inside the caterpillar. It will slowly darken over the next 10-14 days when it will emerge.
As the chrysalis. matures the outside becomes transparent showing the Monarchs signature wings folded inside. This photo was taken moments before it emerged.
The hatchling Monarch crawls out of the chrysalis. with its wings wet and folded. It has a large, liquid filled abdomen. The fluid is pumped into the wings giving them shape. The wings dry out over the next few hours before the Monarch can take flight.
Monarchs wings are covered with scales. Because they have built in defenses against birds and other predators, they don't mind being handled. Monarchs from Sebring Village will be tagged in October to track their migratory patterns. The ones hatched over the last few months are part of Florida's year round population.