More on monarchs

Over the last weeks, the tiny little monarch larvae in our garden grew and grew. And they ate a lot! Some of our milkweed plants look pretty sad with few leaves remaining and their tops chewed off. But what do we care? We are happy that our monarchs are thriving. When we checked on one milkweed stand last week, we found half a dozen larvae munching away. The biggest ones are now at the fifth and last larval stage. They usually sit on the underside of a leaf that they clipped slightly at the stem so that it hangs down and conceals the big caterpillar.

The beautiful monarch caterpillars. A second stage larva on the left and two 5th stage larvae. The one in the middle sits under the leaf that is cut so that it hangs down and hides the larva that eats away on the tip of the leaf. The caterpillar on the right has perhaps already started to wander.

These big guys were usually gone the next day. But we didn’t have to worry about them. When these caterpillars are ready to pupate, they enter a wandering phase during which they leave their food plant and look for a secure place to enter the next stage of their life, the pupal stage. Despite searching carefully, we did not find a chrysalis (this is what the pupa is called) in the garden.

To possibly observe the pupating process and to see the chrysalis, I took one of the biggest caterpillars home and then with me to work. I gave him (or her, of course, we can’t tell the sex of a caterpillar) a bouquet of fresh milkweed leaves and waited. The first night and much of the morning, he methodically chewed away on leaf after leaf. Then, while I was attending a series of talks, he decided that it was time to wander. And he somehow wiggled himself out of his cage — oh boy! After searching the entire office twice, my colleague found the caterpillar crawling on the underside of her desk on the other side of the room. These guys can run! Back in a more secure cage, the caterpillar went home with me again.

The caterpillar in his cage (a beaker) has used silk to attach himself to a leaf. He  is getting ready to pupate.

Over night, he settled on a leaf and was now attached with his rear end, hanging head down. He was no longer wandering, but he was still moving, curling and uncurling, and at times he trembled a little as if he was shivering. My butterfly-expert colleague informed me that this monarch was now in the pre-pupa stage. We had no idea how long this stage would take, but it was definitely time to keep an eye on him. Finally, a little after noon, the pre-pupa got a little shorter, uncurled completely and the caterpillar skin split on its back side to reveal the blue-green surface of the pupa underneath. I was so lucky to look at him just this moment. What happened next took all of 2 minutes and 30 seconds and I caught it on my cellphone camera. (A Thank You to all engineers who made this possible.)

Monarch chrysalis are amazingly beautiful with their lovely blue-green color and golden specks. What is going on inside is even more wonderful. Over the course of ten days or so, the larva will completely disintegrate and regrow as a butterfly. It is a privilege to get a chance to observe this metamorphosis, even if only from the outside.
Of course, I hope that I will also catch the moment when the butterfly emerges from the pupa. In any case, I will take a picture before we send him on his way to Mexico. You will see it here.

The chrysalis on the next day

 

Two generations of monarchs

This year, we have been planting a lot of milkweed. We wanted to attract monarch butterflies; not the nectar-hungry fall visitors but mothers who look for suitable food for their babies. Monarchs eat nothing but milkweed, and they are on the decline because less and less milkweed  grows along roads and agricultural fields. Gardens can come to the rescue, and we tried to do our part.

Some of our milkweed plants

All summer long, we were looking out for monarchs. Finally, a few weeks ago, they arrived. Most days, we could see a few butterflies hovering over the garden and sipping nectar from zinnias and buddleia.

Monarch on the butterfly bush (Buddleia).

But were they interested in our milkweed? This week, we discovered telltale holes in the leaves of some milkweed plants. Milkweed is very poisonous. Only few specialists can eat it. Among those specialists, only monarch caterpillars chew holes into the leaves. And indeed: on the underside of leaves with fresh holes sat the tiniest monarch caterpillars, unmistakable with their black, white and yellow warning colors.

The turned-over milkweed leaves reveal tiny monarch caterpillars. A first instar larva on the left, a second instar on the right. These babies need to go through 5 larval stages before they are ready to pupate.

These little caterpillars are likely the 4th generation of Monarchs this year, and if they grow up, pupate and metamorphose into butterflies, they will be very special. Different from their parents and grandparents, these monarchs will not mate and lay eggs right away. Instead, they will go on an long journey all the way to Mexico, where they spend the winter in a tree together with thousands of other monarchs. In spring, these butterflies will fly back north to find newly grown milkweed. Then, they will finally mate and lay eggs. Their children will fly further north and may reach New York and Canada. By late August and September, the great-grandchildren of the overwintering monarchs are adult. We think that these are the adults in our garden right now.

There is plenty of milkweed around, the days are warm and still fairly long. Therefore, this generation of monarchs is still reproducing. Two days ago, w could even observe a mating pair. When looking carefully, we also found their small yellowish green eggs on the underside of many milkweed leaves.

Monarchs remain still when they are mating. This pair stayed on the zinnia for at least 10 minutes. (Photo: Ellen Reznick)

A monarch egg is not much larger than a poppy seed. The larva that hatches from this egg is equally tiny.

If it stays warm, it may take just a bit more than a week for the little larvae to be ready to pupate. And in another 10 days, the adult monarchs could emerge. That is, if everything goes well. Even though monarchs are as toxic as their food plants, they still have many enemies who can tolerate the toxins, including ants, wasps and spiders. We cross fingers that some of our baby monarchs survive, become adult and embark on their amazing  journey to Mexico.

More information about monarchs is found on this wonderful website by the University of Minnesota.

Bees and honey

Did anybody wonder what is going on with our bees?
As a recap: in May, the bees swarmed. We were lucky to capture the swarm and start a new hive with it. The old hive should have made a new queen after its old queen had left with the swarm. This is how bee colonies multiply. However, when we checked a little later, there was no sign of a queen and no brood in the hive. That was bad. A beehive without a queen must soon perish as the unemployed workers get old and die one after another. To remedy this situation, we moved some frames with eggs from the swarm hive into the queen-less hive. We were hoping that the workers would grow some of these eggs into new queens. That was at the end of May.

On August 17, a hot and humid day, the hives looked like this:

Our beehives on a hot day in August. The “swarm hive” is on the left, the old hive on the right. The bees are outside because it is too hot in the hive.

The hive we were concerned about is on the right. There were lots of bees! And these could not have been the old bees from May. During summer, honey bee workers live only for 6 to 7 weeks. All of the worker we saw in August must have been born after mid June. This means that this hive had indeed a new queen! And not only that: she was really productive and her workers were very busy. We suspected that the entire hive was full of bee brood and honey. With lack of space, it got uncomfortably warm inside the hive. That is why so many bees were outside. This phenomenon is called “bearding” and is not unusual on a hot day.

For us humans, it was time to steal some honey and make room in the hive. On a cloudy and cooler day, our beekeeper friend Ray came over to help as we opened both hives to check for honey. The top box of the right hive was heavy with beautiful light-colored early summer honey. We harvested all 10 frames and gave the bees empty frames to work with. The other bigger hive had also a lot of honey, but the bees were not quite done with filling all of their honey comb. Here, we took 4 frames.

Modern beehives are carefully designed so that bees only build honey comb on the frames that can then be easily removed and replaces without destroying the hive. Any extra space, like underneath the frames as seen on the left picture, is filled with extra honey comb. We extracted lovely light yellow honey that tasted like linden nectar. Here, it is drained from the spinner through a mesh sieve (to keep out wax) into a big bucket to be jared later.

Yesterday, we met again to extract the honey. We got about 2.5 gallons of honey with a nice mild floral flavor. Meanwhile, The bees remain busy and we hope that we can take more honey later in the year.

Busy bees bringing nectar and pollen.

 

Catching up

Summer is a busy time for gardeners, even though it has rained so much this July that we hardly needed to water anything aside from the pots, and our plants are thriving almost on their own.

Our garden looks great

Still, this channel has been quiet for a while. A lot has happened and was not recorded. We have a bit of catching up to do.

Already in May, a group of students along with their teacher and student teacher from the CUNY Language Immersion Program visited the garden. These students came from nine different countries (Guinea, Dominican Republic, Panama, Honduras, Bangladesh, Yemen, China and Haiti), and English is their second language. During their classes, the students perfect their English and learn interesting things about the world around them at the same time. A field trip to our garden gave them the opportunity to see what we are up to and to talk with us about it. As a foreigner myself, I know how difficult and a little terrifying this can be.

The students learn what is crawling in our compost bin.

Here is what they saw: red wigglers, earth worms that turn kitchen scraps into organic fertilizer.

Later, one student wrote a small paragraph about his impression of the visit:

Garden of Roses

It was a beautiful sunny day. It was also the last day as a group, so we decided to go to Washington Square Park then to Laguardia Corner Garden to see the garden and Roses. Once we got there we saw a beautiful scenery of flowers. The gardeners were very kind and helpful. They welcomed and showed us around the garden. One gardener demonstrated to us how they feed bees, and they explained why bees are important. Another gardener showed us the bacterium [actually worms] that live inside the compost. After that they inspected many different species of roses that they have. My overall experience of the garden was pleasant. I have learned many useful information about garden and flowers. I highly recommend this place for friends. (Fahim)

These students are going to college this September. We wish them best of luck and great success!

Students from the CUNY Language Immersion Program pose under the rose arbor.

Of birds…

… and bees. In early spring, we placed a number of bird houses into our garden. In a city like ours, these are generally occupied by house sparrows (I wish, we had blue birds!)

Sparrows in the bird house under the crab apple tree

By mid spring, every bird house had tenants. Right now, the birds are raising their second brood of the year. When they feed their babies, even sparrows need more nutritious food than bread crumbs or seeds. They look for insects. Our sparrows have discovered a never ending supply of insects in the garden: the bee hive. The sparrow parents hang out near the hive entrance, snatch a bee, sometimes in mid flight, and carry it off. Sparrows are not the only birds that have learned about this convenient food source: A while ago, we observed a cardinal catching bees, too. Oh well…

A few days ago, the sparrow babies from the blue bird house fledged. We saw see them hop about on the ground. Flying was clearly not yet their favorite way of getting around, although they can fly when they must (like when a photographer gets too close).

Tow young sparrows. Their beak has still the bright yellow edge and their mouth is also yellow. This feature makes the beaks irresistible to parent birds and tells them where to put these bees.

A little earlier, a family of young starlings visited the garden. They are grey-brown instead of shiny black and almost as cute as baby sparrows. Starlings also nest in cavities and could theoretically move into our larger bird houses. So far, we have not seen starling tenants, though. The parents of these starlings must have build their nest in a different hole. Maybe there is a hollow trunk in one of the trees nearby, or they found a man-made nesting place.

A young starling tried to get to some water that had collected in an empty planter.

It is amazing how well starlings, sparrows, robins, pigeons, doves and even cardinals and hawks have adapted to living in a city as big and busy as New York City. All of them seem to thrive among us humans and our buildings, roads and small parks. Good for us who enjoy watching them!