You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird … So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. ~ physicist Richard Feynman
I often think of that quote as I’m watching insects in my garden. It reminds me of how easy it is to get caught up in the idea of putting names to things so they can be tallied up on a list. It’s always my goal to learn something more than the name of an insect when possible, because it leads to a deeper appreciation of the interconnection of all life forms.
Most people are familiar with the orange and black monarch butterfly, but I wonder how many have spent time just sitting and watching what they actually do in your flower garden. That’s what I did today, and I want to share some photos with you.
My garden has a couple small pockets of milkweeds — Sullivant’s (Asclepias sullivantii ), swamp (A. incarnata), and butterfly (A. tuberosa). I’ve been watching every monarch butterfly that comes through the garden, because they can only lay their eggs on plants in the milkweed family. This is because their caterpillars can’t eat any other plants, and they have to be able to eat whatever plant they hatch on.
Today I was resting on my swing after finishing some garden work, and saw a monarch flitting around. I took a look through my zoom lens to see which gender it was, and when I saw it was female, I paid closer attention to see if she would lay any eggs. She flitted around gracefully, dipping in and out of the main native bed.
First I saw her nectaring on bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) —
Then on purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) —
And then on blazing star (Liatris spicata) —
And she even took sustenance from the flowers of swamp milkweed, one of her larval host plants —
Then she went to the Sullivant’s milkweed (which doesn’t have any flowers right now), and I knew she would lay eggs. While she could get nectar from all the other flowers, the milkweeds are the only ones she’ll use for her eggs. And as soon as she arrived at the milkweed patch, she worked over virtually every leaf on every plant, laying egg after egg after egg, as I took photos of the process.
Because some of the stems were sideways, she also laid lots of eggs on the topsides of the leaves. After she left, I realized that leaving those stems sideways would expose all of the eggs to the elements and make them more obvious to predators, so I staked them upright again. I know this still leaves the topside eggs in a vulnerable position, but I hope it’ll at least give the underside eggs a better chance.
The survival rate of monarch eggs and caterpillars is very low, with fewer than 10% of them making it to healthy butterfly-adulthood. In recent years, many people have begun raising them indoors in an effort to increase the survival rate, but that practice is controversial. I did it a couple times myself and learned a lot from watching the amazing process of metamorphosis. But now I’ve decided not to interfere with nature most of the time, and I think the best thing we can do to help them is to plant as much milkweed as possible. That gives them more places to lay those eggs, hopefully increasing the numbers that can survive predation and disease.
In about four days I hope to see the tiny little caterpillars start to munch their way around those milkweed plants. And two weeks after that, those that survive will make their beautiful green chrysalises and begin that magical transformation into the iconic orange and black butterfly that will migrate to Mexico in the fall. It’s such a rewarding experience to see that my garden is home to so many types of insects. It makes me feel very much connected to the basic life processes on our planet, and that’s one of the joys of my life. I wish every human could have this feeling.