Swallowtail and Monarch Report

I just saw a promo for Mr. Neil's movie on tv. I can't believe I know someone who wrote a book that's being promoted as a mainstream summer movie. The "in a world" guy is even narrating the trailer. Ooooooo.

Poor Cinnamon, first she's losing blog time to birds and bees, now she's losing her parsley to the black swallowtail caterpillars.

Well, the black swallowtail caterpillars are proving to be very exciting compared to the monarchs. If you recall from the last entry, I was having trouble initially identifying the cats because they didn't look like the photos of black swallowtail caterpillars in my books. That has changed in the last twenty four hours. Here is one of the caterpillars from yesterday.

Here they are today! Some of the cats are finally looking like they do in my caterpillar field guides. Two still look like bird poop, but they're growing up so fast. Another exciting development is that I thought I only had four, but discovered that I in fact, have five swallowtails to watch grow.

I broke out my Nikon 4500 to get some macro shots of the caterpillars. The bird poop looking ones do have some color when you look at them up close--little dark orange spots with spikes coming out of them. I think since the young caterpillars spend so much time on the top side of the leaf, the bird poop look helps them avoid predators (no one wants to eat that).

Then compare that to the more colorful older ones. They are very garish and look as though they would stick out like a sore thumb. However, I noticed that they tend to stay on the stems of the parsley and if we were looking at parsley bunched together, the yellow, white and black stripes would help them blend with the stems.

Even their little caterpillar toes are cute!

While I was taking macro photos, one of the bird poop looking cats, shed its skin to reveal the older cat coloration--it happened too fast for me to get a photo, but you can see the old skin right behind it. Freaky.

The photos might make the caterpillars look much larger than they are at the moment, so I used a pen as a size comparison. That is one of the older cats munching on some parsley--still quite tiny. I bet next week it will by ginormous.

The monarch caterpillars are still going strong. Almost all of my eggs have hatched. This tiny egg was showing signs of getting ready to hatch yesterday. You can see the dark head showing through the top of the egg.

This morning the egg was empty, the cat was out and about.

It had already fattened up quite a bit by noshing on some milkweed and leaving some frass (caterpillar poop). Monarchs are cool, but it's fun growing caterpillars that change color.

New Caterpillar Madness

I've been monarch ranching for awhile, but I've always wanted to ranch some swallowtails. Some species of swallowtail caterpillars feed on parsley. Earlier this spring, I found out that we had accidentally had a black swallowtail living in our apartment (we guess it came in as a caterpillar on some of Cinnamon's parsley) but I wanted to it right this summer, and find the caterpillar and watch it grow. Mr. Neil has some parsley (above) in his garden, so I decided to see if I could find swallowtail caterpillars on that. I find that locating caterpillars takes a long time the first time you look for them, but once you find them, your eyes become trained and in the future, they are easier to find. I sat down and studied the parsley.

After a good ten minutes of study, I found six small caterpillars. They looked nothing like any of the swallowtail caterpillars in my books. I looked up the general characteristics of the black swallowtail: caterpillars are found on parsley (check), on the top side of the leaf (check), and early stages resembles bird poop (check). But still, if you look at what a large black swallowtail looks like, the books show you this. This tiny thing doesn't look like that at all. Fortunately, with the magic of google, you can narrow your search of images on the internet and I found photos of young black swallowtail caterpillars and they look just like what I found in the above photo--success, we have swallowtails!

I took four of the six swallowtail caterpillars and put them in my butterfly pavilion. You can see a water bottle inside, holding a bunch of curly parsley for them to feed off of, right along side a water bottle full of milkweed and monarch caterpillars. Next to the pavillion is a bunch of milk weed in a different water bottle--those are plants with monarch eggs on them. I keep the eggs separate until the caterpillars hatch so I don't confuse leaves with eggs with the leaves for feeding. Should be an interesting couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, we've had an early sampling of our dangerous honey from the Olga hive. Mr. Neil told us to mix some of our honey and comb with some plain Greek yogurt. YUM!

It's like a decadent dessert, only it's yogurt...and honey... from our own bees--that's got to be healthy, right?

Minor Monarch Release

Yesterday when I was trying to get ready to go to The Raptor Center, I noticed that one of my monarch chrysalises was about ready emerge. Wow, that was fast. Seemed like it was only yesterday this guys made the pretty, green chrysalis. Right before the monarch emerges, the chrysalis turns dark and you can see the butterfly on the inside. I wish I could have gotten a photo of it as soon as it came out--they look deformed. Ah well, another time.

When I came home from TRC, I made some lunch and sat on the couch...I noticed the chrysalis was empty and paused to try and see where the butterfly was hanging out in my apartment. Then I noticed some fluttering and found it at one of the windows. It had emerged, had plenty of time to pump moisture into it's wings and was ready for forage for nectar. I didn't see any dark spots on the lower wings, which means this was a female monarch. I opened the window and tried to get a video of her release from my apartment:

After she landed, I set up my digiscoping equipment and got a few shots of the monarch resting on a tree:

Then she flew off to search for nectar. She will also search for a male for mating and eggs will grow into the monarchs who will migrate south into Mexico this fall.

Unrest In The Kitty Hive

Five days ago we checked the hives to see if they were ready for some expansion. Olga was very ready and we added a third brood box. Kitty was about three frames behind, so we decided to expand Olga and give Kitty a few more days to build up comb.

We took a look at Kitty today, and I noticed all but one of the frames had comb drawn out. We took out a center frame to check the status of the brood and found something most troubling. Can you see it in the above photo? It's down at the bottom, towards the right...kind of looks like a peanut shell...here's a close up:

The bees have formed queen cells. Now, I'm perplexed as to what is going on. There were about six queen cells formed throughout the hive and most were formed on the bottom of the frame--off of a column of drone cells. Now, here is the deal, queen cells are formed for two reasons--swarming (when the bees run out of room, they raise a queen, divide up and swarm) or supercedure (which means the current queen is failing, injured, or dead and the workers are trying to raise a new queen to replace her).

Now, according to bee literature, swarming queen cells are on the bottom of the frames. Supercedure queen cells are formed on the center of a frame...Most of the queen cells in the Kitty hive were on the bottom, but I did find two that were on the frame towards the center. I could find no eggs, but if the hive is about to go into swarm mode, the queen would have stopped laying eggs. However, it's been weeks since I've seen the Kitty queen. Is she dead? did she get injured or killed when we checked the box five days ago? Now, what do I do? Should I buy a new queen to introduce to the hive?

Check out this frame laden with capped over honey and a small patch of brood. From reading about queen cells in books and bee forums, the only thing that is certain with bee keeping appears to be that there are some guidelines, but really nothing is hard and fast. Sure swarming cells are usually at the bottom of a frame, but according to bee literature and bee forums--anything is possible. All of this may just be the Kitty girls feel crowded and are ready for a third brood box. I started thinking back: We checked the hive five days ago, and all seemed normal--eggs in cells and no queen cells. Today--there are about a half dozen queen cells. It takes fertilized eggs three days from when they were laid to be larvae and queen cells get capped at about seven days after being laid--these can't be more than four days old. The queens don't emerge until nine days after they have been capped. I decided to remove all the queen cells I could find and to add the third brood box and check again in a week. If there are no eggs after a week, then I'll order a new queen.

Ack, this is nerve wracking.

I ended up removing quite a few of the drone cells as I removed the queens. I felt terrible about it, but the hive needs workers to build and gather food,not males to eat honey while they bide their time to fly out looking for queens. As I removed wax, cells got exposed and you can see the larvae oozing out. I really felt bad killing the, but it needed to be done. On the upside, none of the larvae and pupae I exposed had any varroa mites--which means the overall health of the colony is good. After I scraped this chunk off, some of the drones started to emerge (above photo). I'm sure it was panic at feeling the cells being moved. As with any type of farming, you will have to kill some of your stock, but I found myself feeling more guilty about it than I had anticipated. If I'm like this with drones, I don't want to even think about my state at the end of summer in 2008 when I have to let my older colonies die off.

If anyone has advice or insights to my queen situation, please feel free to comment.

In other news, I have three new monarch chrysalises around the apartment. Two were formed about three days ago and appear to be parasite free. Whew!

Caterpillar Parasites

This post is going to get kinda gross. You may not want to read it during a meal if you have a sensitive tummy.

"Sigh, will I ever be that big?"

Last week, I did my segment on Showcase Minnesota about the Monarch Ranching Class that I'm doing at Staring Lake Nature Center July 7. Non Birding Bill and I grabbed some milkweed plants at Loring Park and they were loaded with monarch caterpillars of all sizes.

Here is a leaf with small, medium, and large monarch caterpillars. I generally don't like to get a caterpillar as large as the one on the right--too much of a risk of a parasite but I needed cats for all sizes for the tv demo. Wasps and flies (and who knows what else) will lay their eggs in caterpillars. The wasp or fly larvae will feed on the inside of the caterpillar and about the time it forms a chrysalis, it will pop out. Yeah, it's as gross as it sounds.

After I finished the segment, I brought the milkweed home and set it in a glass full of water. I normally don't like to put milkweed in a glass of water, on the off chance that a caterpillar could fall into the water and drown, but this time, I'm glad I did.

The next day, one of the monarch caterpillars went on a "walk about"--a long journey to find the perfect place to form a chrysalis. It stopped at the top of our living room window frame and we thought, not the place we would pick, but safe enough in our apartment to chrysalize.

That night before we went to bed, he assumed the "J Position" and worked to shed his skin. We noticed another monarch caterpillar J-ing out on a monarch leaf. We tucked ourselves into bed, excited to find chrysalis the next morning.

Alas, I found one of our caterpillars shriveled up. It was dead--my fears were confirmed. If you look up at the third set of legs, you will see a bit of film--the left overs of fly larvae that had emerged from the caterpillar.

I looked up to the caterpillar that had been at the top of the window frame and found it had made it as far as forming an actual chrysalis, but the slimy rope hanging from it, showed that fly larvae had emerged--ew. All that milkweed chewing for nothing! The maggots emerge form the caterpillars when they are ready to pupate.

Since the larvae dropped straight down from the caterpillar and chrysalis, they ended up in the bottom of the glass of water and drown! Too late for the caterpillars I had, but at least they won't be getting future monarchs. Take that, you nasty maggot. I know you have to survive, just not on my monarchs.

A Wee Monarch Caterpillar Post--and a bird.

The banding has been on the slow side this spring at Carpenter. I'm not attributing that to an overall problem, after all we only meet on Fridays--maybe I would be posting something different if we were banding five days a week. Maybe it's time to change net location--who can say at this point with just anecdotal evidence from banding once a week.

But the awesome thing about Carpenter is that if the banding is slow we can easily find other nature to occupy out time. This week it was the monarch butterflies that caught our attention:

Since I've been noticing so many monarch butterfly eggs everywhere else I've wandered, I thought I would see what the milkweed around Carpenter would yield--LOADS. The leaf in the above photo shows two eggs--believe it or not, there was a third egg on the top side of the leaf too! That's unusual, monarchs tend to lays eggs on the underside of the leaf. These eggs are about to hatch, you can see (assuming you can see the eggs) that they are dark, when they are first laid, monarch eggs are a cream color (like the ones I found last weekend). In case you're having trouble viewing the eggs, here is a close up:

See the dark spot towards the top of the egg? That's the little caterpillar head. This little cat is chewing its way out of the egg. This is also what gives the about to hatch egg a dark color.

Eventually, one of the eggs did hatch! So Tiny! It's hard to believe that in about two weeks this will be a ginormous caterpillar. And yes, in case you are having trouble seeing it...

Here is an up close shot of the freshly hatched cat. It will eat a small bit more of the egg casing and then begin to chew on the monarch leaf itself. They are so small at this point that it will just chew the top few layers of the leaf and may not make a complete hole to the other side.

It is a dangerous world this tiny creature must face. So many things can eat it at this point. If it doesn't get eaten by some other insect or bird, there is still the danger that a wasp or fly will lay eggs inside the cat which will eat its insides, killing the monarch caterpillar when the larvae emerge through the skin. It truly is a miracle that any monarch caterpillar makes to a butterfly.

I was surprised to find a caterpillar that was about five days old nearby. It was all alone, perhaps all of the others its age were eaten? This cat was on a leaf with no chew marks which meant that it was probably shedding--chew marks draw attention to potential predators and lets them know you are nearby. If you want to shed your skin--a time when you are immobile and incredibly vulnerable, you want to be incognito.

If you look close in this photo, you can see the old head sliding down revealing the new larger head behind it. The new head is not only larger, but very yellow. The skin splits right about where the old head connects to the skin on the back. Once the head is off, the rest of the skin will be pushed towards the butt end of the caterpillar where it will collect in a small heap.

After looking through the milkweed, I noticed a downy woodpecker fly to a tree and disappear--then I saw the hole! When the bird would poke his head out of the hole, the black and white feathers totally blended into the tree. He must still be busy excavating the hole, you could see wood chips on the tip of his bill and the top of his head. Cute.

Random Bird Entry to Post Photos

I have a hunch that it's gonna be a good year for monarch butterflies. I have seen quite a few already and I am seeing eggs everywhere! Way more than I did this time last year. In the above photo you can see two eggs on the young milkweed plants in the front. If you're having trouble seeing them, here is a close up photo:

See the white speck--that's the monarch egg. Normally, I would start collecting these eggs for some monarch ranching (raising monarch caterpillars indoors and then releasing them when they emerge as butterflies) but I'm going to one more bird fest next week. I'll start when I get back from that one.

Hey, anyone want to take a last minute trip to North Dakota for the Potholes and Prairie Festival, let me know. I got a great deal on a cabin. Plus, if you say you're with the Birdchick Posse, I think you can still get the Early Bird Registration festival rate. I would have mentioned it sooner, but the offer was last minute. Don't forget, you get to meet the fabulous Julie Zickefoose and Bill of the Birds.

I found a pair of savanna sparrows singing where I saw the bobolink last week. I just really sat and listened to them for awhile, trying to really work out what they sound like in real life compared to the grasshopper sparrow I saw and heard on Friday. I think I'm going to make this the summer of sparrows for me and just really try to spend enjoying their songs. In depth brown bird enjoyment--it's a sickness, I know.

Most of the goldfinch males have finally made the transition into breeding plumage. Some birders have been lamenting that the warbler waves are done and the excitement for spring is gone, but I think color can still be found for quite some time.

Speaking of color, I think I've stumbled on a new and better name for the red-bellied woodpecker...red-eyed woodpecker! C'mon, it's easier to see the eyes than the red belly.