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Raising Monarch Butterflies in Northwest Ontario

Started September 2012 -- and Updated to October 2020 -- Banacek

Okay, your first question when stumbling across this page is likely: "What in the world has this got to do with NOSA, a family target shooting club?"

Well, NOSA members usually have lives outside of just shooting. And we are very interested in nature conservation practices. Rearing Monarch butterflies is just one tiny part of what members are privately accomplishing in helping wildlife survive and thrive, towards a brighter tomorrow for us and the planet.

It will come as no surprise to you that I also enjoy gardening and photography and butterflies -- those all fit together nicely as interests. This past winter I became aware of a couple of folks locally that had been promoting the growth of milkweed plants to increase the Monarch butterfly's breeding capability in the Thunder Bay area. This far north, these colourful butterflies apparently can use a bit of help.

Milkweed Varieties

Initially I was not aware that there were various types of milkweed, and did not know their vital role in the Monarch's life cycle. You can read a lot more on those topics elsewhere on the web, but I'll share here what I found out through reading and then personal experience over this past summer.

Milkweed plants come in many varieties and range from the tropics to these northern areas of Canada. The type I was familiar with, during my youth in southern Ontario, had big floppy leaves that bled a milky white sap if broken off from the plant. It had huge fat pods full of seeds with a dandelion-like fluff that enabled it to spread on the wind. That particular variety is kinda unattractive in my recollection, and I learned that it is extremely invasive in spreading aggressively through its root system. Not a good candidate for my garden.

Websites revealed that there was a Tropical Milkweed variety (Asclepias curassavica) that was pretty and non-root-invasive, and would be considered only an annual this far north. I ordered some seeds, and it took several weeks for only a few very tiny seeds to germinate; but their small delicate plants did not survive my northern early planting. I subsequently learned from a friend that has one specimen of this variety (which is actually a perennial in the far southern U.S. or tropics), that in Thunder Bay it needed to be dug up before it died in the fall, get put into a pot, and brought indoors for the winter. No, not going to fit my plans for having about 6 or more plants for the garden locations I had chosen.

In June my friend sold me some healthy young plants from the Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) variety. [Actually she has several varieties in her garden and with cross pollination there is no way to know for sure that any particular seed is not a hybrid. But they did look like Swamp Milkweed when they grew up.] This is a perennial in Northwest Ontario, does not spread invasively through the roots, and becomes a very attractive plant that will fit nicely in any flower garden. It gets to be about 60 to 100 cm tall (call that about 3 feet for us Neanderthals); it has attractive leaves and gets topped with a lovely flower, with very pleasant fragrance, that will attract many varieties of butterflies to feed. My plants all had red flowers but there is a similar white variant. Later in the season it will develop slim seed pods about 75 mm (3 inches) long. Removal of the pods before they fully split open is an easy control to prevent unwanted proliferation elsewhere in the garden. And I would have seeds to share with friends and/or let loose in suitable wild areas.

Successful Planting and Some Monarchs Arrive to Breed in 2012

So June arrived and into the garden went the new plants. As they would become relatively tall, they were put towards the rear of some flower beds or near a fence. I have read that this plant prefers full sun, but part shade is okay. In my garden they thrived in both settings.

It was not long before I saw more Monarch butterfly activity in the garden than usual. Apparently the Monarch can identify a milkweed plant from a distance and home in on it. The female Monarch alights on a leaf and manages to lay a tiny white egg, perhaps 1 mm in diameter (grain of salt size), usually on the underside of the leaf where it is out of sight and out of the rain. About one week later, the caterpillar hatches and eats the shell of its egg before starting to graze on the milkweed leaves. At this point the caterpillar is nearly invisible due its tiny size and my older eyes. But grow it will, fairly quickly, and it is soon big enough to clearly distinguish the narrow vertical black and yellow tiger-like stripes, on a smooth (not hairy) body. It has a long pair of antennas on the head and a shorter pair at the rear.

Happy News For Gardeners and Monarchs

"You turned these Monarch caterpillars loose in your flower garden!" Well, for a gardener there is a very happy bit of news. Monarch caterpillars eat only milkweed plants, nothing else, so the rest of your garden is perfectly safe. And by the time the caterpillar has finished growing, which takes about 2 to 3 weeks, more milkweed leaves will develop on the same plant to feed the next brood of caterpillars.

There is a chemical in the milkweed plant that is vital to the species. First, it must be present in the caterpillar's system or it will never be able to change into a butterfly. Second, in the Monarch butterfly stage, the chemical makes the critter very bad tasting [no I haven't done a taste test]; and most birds will soon learn to leave them alone. One butterfly will likely be killed in that first taste experiment, but afterwards the bird will leave the rest of this species in peace. (Birds can see colour and have excellent memories, so they will remember a Monarch's bright pattern.) Survival of the untastiest.

After the caterpillar reaches nearly full size, it is possible for it to go into the chrysalis transformation stage a bit early if necessary, as in the situation of a shortage of food. At full size, they are strongly driven by instinct to seek shelter and become a chrysalis. The Monarch caterpillar generally leaves its milkweed plant and goes on a bit of a walkabout, sometimes a short distance, sometimes 10 meters or more, to find an ideal spot which is inconspicuous and perhaps sheltered from bad weather. It attaches its hind end under a branch or fence section or solid whatever and hangs straight down, then curls the head end up a bit, like an upside down comma. The black and yellow tiger-striped caterpillar markings disappear as it becomes enveloped in a bright green membrane, with a single gold stripe. The most disturbing part of this process for us newbie observers was when we saw the head antennas fall off. Yikes! What a relief when we found out that this is normal, the butterfly will develop different new ones.

After about a dozen days (plus or minus a few days), the chrysalis outer shell has become translucent and milky, and any colour seen through it now is the orange and black of the butterfly inside. The chrysalis splits open and the butterfly exits, whereupon it hangs from the chrysalis and unfolds its wings, which spread out to dry as they are fanned carefully in the air. At this point a couple of drops of red liquid may fall to the ground. It is not blood, just an excess of the liquid pumped into the wings to inflate them. After a few hours, the wings will be firm enough for the butterfly to take flight.

Males and females mate and the female lays her eggs and the cycle continues. This is true of the early broods of summer, and these butterflies live perhaps 2 months. The very last batch of emerging butterflies does not engage in sexual reproduction here. They will migrate south to an over-wintering location in Mexico, and only then breed. This migrating generation may live as long as 7 months.

If you later search the web, you can get more information on the migration patterns which are far more complex than that of birds; no one brood of Monarch butterfly completes a simple round trip migration to Mexico. It is done by generations.

Garden Predators Here Are Bad News For Monarchs

My summer experience with Monarchs would have been a completely happy one, but for the intrusion of killer predators. While the caterpillar stage must also be untasty, especially after it has been eating milkweed and growing for a while, that fact does not protect it from being wounded, probably fatally, with bites by ants or various spiders. One particular breed of garden spider, the Crab Spider, is especially nasty, and locally numerous. You will recognize them by their ghost-white colour and their habit of hiding out under leaves and flower heads, which is why they are rarely seen except during an attack or feeding. They wait under the flower until it vibrates with the activity of a butterfly or honey bee. The spider whips around to the top and pounces on the prey. Yes butterflies and good sized bees. While I appreciate that all critters have their place in the world, no spiders are tolerated on my milkweed plants now, and this particular spider variety had better vamoose from my entire garden before I deal with them terminally.

A Very Special Monarch Caterpillar Becomes a House Guest in 2012

So towards the end of the summer I was getting tired of finding some dead Monarch caterpillars with chunks missing. I finally had only one last cat. (I'm going to use this abbreviated term instead of writing or saying caterpillar from here on, and "cat" is a handy term among some butterfly breeders.) It had recently hatched and was still under a quarter inch (6 mm) long. I was determined that this one was going to survive to migrate!

I snipped off a milkweed new-growth sprig with several leaves, thoroughly rinsed it off, and inserted the stem through a hole made in the plastic top of a water-filled bottle. The cat was gently transferred to the sprig. (They are very delicate and cannot be picked up with your fingers -- pick off the leaf they are on and gently tease them to walk onto another leaf to make the transfer.) I chose to use a large transparent plastic storage box to house the cat and give the bottle-sprig-cat combination lots of room. The box bottom was lined with paper towels to make daily clean up easy. (They do eat a lot, but the residue is dry and without odour and not a problem to dump out daily. If you are going to use the same container for other caterpillars or whatever later, it should be washed out and then sterilized by wiping down with Lysol or a mild bleach solution, and airing it out thoroughly before further use.)

The plastic storage box had a slightly loose top that would let in fresh air, but keep any potential walkabouts under control. Actually I had observed a number of occasions in the garden when a cat would disappear off a plant for the night and return to it or an adjacent milkweed the next morning. But I did not want any such casual strolling about my house.

The sprig of leaves was replaced as necessary as the cat became bigger and ate larger quantities of milkweed leaves. (Each new sprig had been rinsed off to make sure there were no uninvited critters on or under the leaves.) Once the cat reached full size, this one actually chose to make its chrysalis by hanging under a milkweed leaf. We kept close watch and this butterfly emerged eleven days later. The cover had been left off the storage box during the chrysalis and emergence in order to observe better. Only later when the wings were fully extended could we see the single black spot close to the body on each rear wing that identified him as a Monarch male.

Later that day, when the sun had warmed up the garden, I took the open box outside and put it beside a flower bed (that had been carefully checked for spiders). Unfortunately the wind soon became vicious and gusting to more than 40 km per hour. That day even the birds preferred to walk. This was no environment for a new butterfly about to have a first flight. So the storage box's cover went back on and it was put on a table inside. I placed a small water glass with suitable fresh cut flowers inside the container in case the butterfly was thirsty. The flowers were gently touching the milkweed sprig so he could walk, not have to fly, to get to them. Later that evening I covered the container with a blanket to simulate night so the butterfly would not take flight and perhaps injure itself.

A Fond Farewell

And next morning, there he was on the flowers, and gently fanning his wings. Once the sun had warmed the morning garden a bit, I took the box outside to a sheltered spot on my back patio. After about ten minutes, the butterfly flew off and landed on a shed roof next door. He rested a few minutes while still fanning his wings intermittently. Then he flew to my front garden and landed on an Echinacea (cone flower) where I got a few last pictures. This butterfly by now had become quite used to my presence and I could bring the camera in for a close-up. After a good drink of flower nectar, he took off and was last seen flying high up above the local trees and heading generally south. Good luck little fellow!

How to Grow Milkweeds

Growing a Swamp Milkweed from seed is easy. The only question is whether the seeds need to be prepared for germination by placing them in a bag in a freezer for a few weeks to simulate winter. My friend experimented with freezer/no-freezer and the seeds germinated both ways. (So this winter I'm going to do some test germinations using freezer/no-freezer to see if one way works better for me.) The seeds are spread out on a potting soil or seed starter mix and lightly covered by a sprinkling of the same, and then kept moist -- not drenched. Alternatively, the seed can be put into a shallow hole atop an already expanded and moist Jiffy pellet or equivalent. (Or seeds can be planted directly into larger pots now, if you prefer and have the space.)

The plant media are easily kept moist by being in a container (a clear plastic storage box works) and covering the container with either a plastic cover or sandwich wrap film until the seeds germinate. If you have space there, the top of the kitchen fridge is nicely warm and bright. After the plants get a few cm tall, transplant into a 100 mm (4 inches) or larger diameter pot. Once danger of frost is past (and isn't that a roll of the dice in Thunder Bay?) and the new plants have at least three sets of leaves, plant them outside. The last week of May should normally be fine if no frost is forecast over the next few days; but to be even safer, you could plant half outdoors then, and the others a week or so later. Full sun or part shade has worked for me. Don't forget that they can get up to 100 cm or 3 feet tall so locate them accordingly.

Towards the end of the growing season, leave the plant alone to grow stronger until it finally dies above ground from frost. I then normally cut off the dead foliage of perennial plants about 15 cm (6 inches) or so above ground. The dead stems catch snow and help shelter the roots over the winter. Next spring these short dead stems alert me to where the plants will be, so I do not accidentally step on them. Once new growth starts, I trim off last year's dead stalks.

Gathering seeds for more plants or to give away. Most of my plants developed flowers and then seed pods in the first year. Pods should be left on the plant until they dry and start to turn yellowish. Cut off each pod when a slit in the cover begins, as any further delay will result in seeds escaping and being carried off on the wind. Keep the pods safe and dry in an airy open container or brown paper bag until you have the time later to pop them open fully and stroke the seeds away from their fluff parachutes. (And around here we have a very long winter, so you have plenty of time to do this later during a bad weather day.) Note: that fluff really wants to fly about. Store the seeds dry, and preferably in a paper envelope or equivalent, that is labelled with the year and content.

You have several options for the seeds. You can keep some for yourself to grow additional plants for your garden next year. You can pass some seeds to family and friends and neighbours, or offer them started plants, or even plant them outside for these folks if they do not have a green thumb. You can also plant or spread the rest in suitable wild areas. After all, this is a native plant. Personally I'd rather encounter more milkweeds, and fewer thistles and poison ivy, out in the wild.

2013 Was a Good and Bad Year

The Good. I learned how to greatly increase the germination of milkweed seeds.

The Bad. The Monarch population was severely reduced over the winter and spring of 2012 - 2013. Percentages vary by source, but these numbers are roughly correct. About 7 of 10 who made it to Mexico for the winter in late 2012 were killed by terrible weather there. Another 2 of the remaining 3 perished in storms and from environmental issues while trying to migrate North in the spring of 2013. So only one in ten made it to North American breeding grounds in 2013. Really bad news. All the more reason they need our help.

Some Further Milkweed Growing Lessons in 2013

The seed no-refrigeration methods described above did work fairly well but there were a lot of seeds that did not germinate in 2013. Not a big problem when you have a lot of seeds, but I wanted to do better. So I did some more research on the web and came up with the following procedure.

In late winter I put a quarter cup of dry sand in a ziplock sandwich bag, added the seeds (here I used about 30 seeds but any reasonable number should be fine), sealed the bag, and vigorously shook the bag for a full minute. This was to scarify (scratch) the seed coat so germination would be easier. Then I added a tablespoon of water and resealed the bag and vigorously shook the bag for another minute. Then the sealed bag was placed in my kitchen refrigerator and left for two months. Afterwards, with all danger of frost past, these seeds were spread out on damp potting soil in a container, a thin layer of potting soil sprinkled over them, and kept in a shady but warm spot. Watering after that was only enough to keep the soil moist. Success. Germination was nearly 100%.

This sand scarification and refrigeration method should be useful for other varieties of flower or vegetable seeds that I have had difficulty with before.

Our 2013 Monarch Breeding Results

By 2013 we had more than tripled the number of Milkweed plants in our flower garden so we were hoping for a banner year of attracting Monarchs and raising their caterpillars (cats). But the bad news of the overwinter and migration losses made us apprehensive about our chances.

By early summer we had not seen a single Monarch. We checked with a few other folks around Thunder Bay who had similar extensive plantings for Monarchs. No joy. Then we saw one Monarch. There of course may have been others that we did not see. The entire summer found only 7 cats on our plants. They were immediately brought inside to feast on other milkweed potted plants, grown for this specific purpose. Only 5 of 7 emerged from their chrysalis as adult Monarchs and were released with our fond wishes.

Once the cats had eaten all but a few leaves on a potted plant, it was transplanted into the garden.

Other local breeders reported a sub normal year. We can only do what we can. Hopefully that will be enough. We definitely must make an effort to spread our latest milkweed seeds into the countryside to give next year 2014's Monarch survivors a fighting chance of expanding their population.

2014 Was a Better Year For Monarchs, At Least In Thunder Bay

After the problems they faced in 2013, we were very concerned about whether we would even see any Monarchs this far north in 2014. But we were prepared, having planted even more milkweed plants in the garden last fall. This spring, we started 6 large pots indoors with at least 4 plants each that would serve for indoor feeding if and when we obtained some eggs and cats later in the summer.

And we remained worried until it was late in the summer, actually late July before we saw the first Monarch female come to the garden and lay the first eggs. Several eggs were brought inside on their leaves, with stems then placed in water jars. When they hatched, the miniature cats (only perhaps a couple of mm long) were transferred oh so gently to the indoor potted milkweeds.

From that point on, at least twice a day we made a close examination of all our garden milkweed plants and brought in any cats or eggs until we eventually had 26 cats in our herd. That is not a lot really, but is almost 4 times as many as we saw in all of 2013. The cats were carefully shepherded so there were no territorial disputes and each had its own plant to munch on.

Eventually the first cats turned into the chrysalis stage and those were transferred to a rack I constructed from a couple of short vertical boards with 3 foot long bamboo garden stakes horizontally glued into holes in the boards. The original plant support for each chrysalis, whether a section of stem or leaf they had used, was cut long enough that both ends could be securely masking taped to the bamboo.

Each chrysalis was spaced so that if ever two adjacent butterflies emerged, they would have room to spread their wings. The bamboo horizontals also had to have enough clearance underneath that each emerging butterfly, hanging from the chrysalis, would have space to hang and fully open its wings without touching anything below. There is a picture below of the rack with several chrysalises affixed.

Eventually the remaining cats had eaten most of the leaves on the potted milkweeds, and were transferred to fresh milkweed stems cut from the garden plants and placed in jars of water. Note that we used large water filled peanut butter jars with plastic lids, that had several 1/4 inch holes drilled in the lid to stick the milkweed stalks through. The cuttings could not be placed in open vases or jars because cats wander a fair bit and might drown if they encountered open water at the bottom of the stalk. And the jars themselves were kept in a couple of very large (about 50 litre) clear plastic storage containers with those lids on to keep the cats corraled.

Only one butterfly failed to emerge from the chrysalis stage. But we did have 25 healthy butterflies emerge in total, 10 males and 15 females. As is our practice, after a couple of hours of letting the butterfly fan its wings during the hardening stage, we offer it a finger to climb on and transfer it to fresh cut flowers to continue its fanning and perhaps have its first nectar meal. On that day if the weather is good and there is at least a couple more hours of daylight, the water jar with cut flowers is taken outside and the butterfly is free to leave. But if the weather is bad, rain or really high wind, the butterfly might be kept inside until the next day before release.

We are always glad to see these beautiful creatures leave, but also a bit sad too.

2015 Was Also a Fairly Good Year For Monarchs in Our Yard

I should mention that the procedures I'm describing here are not necessary for raising Monarchs. Most folks just plant a few milkweeds in their garden for the Monarchs to use, and let nature take its course. If I lived in the country and planted dozens or even hundreds of milkweeds, I'd probably just leave most, if not all, the cats outside to survive on their own. A higher percent would never make it to the butterfly stage due to predators, but lots of them would be successful.

Most of our front yard is a flower garden (nicer than a boring lawn) and the majority of our milkweed plants are planted there. Our first Monarch sighted in 2015 arrived over our front yard on 17 July. As is typical of a female Monarch looking to lay eggs, she fluttered above other flowers but only landed on the milkweed plants and carefully placed an egg on each plant. Roughly a week later we started our search to find the baby cats. At this early stage they are really tiny and hard to find. They are also so small that they are at risk from all sorts of predators, even the smaller ones. So it was essential to gather them up soon, and take them out of harm's way.

As usual we had started several milkweed plants from seed earlier in the spring and had transferred the seedlings, five at a time, into each of several pots. These pots were placed on a table in the back yard and thus were isolated from most crawling predators like spiders. But they were still at risk of attack from flies and wasps. As soon as possible, the cats were transferred to a couple of milkweed pots kept inside the house. (Whenever an inside plant was getting a bit bare, another pot from outside was rotated inside and the cats carefully transferred over to it. The old pots and their denuded plants were taken outside to recover, and be planted in the garden to increase the crop for next year.) And as each cat grew and then turned into a chrysalis, it was transferred to the hanging rack made last year.

As each butterfly emerged, it was left in peace to unfold and dry its wings for about two hours before moving it (or earlier if it got very energetic in its flapping or had attempted to fly). It was then offered a finger to climb on and taken to the backyard table and placed on a pot of flowers to continue its fanning preparatory to flight. 10 females and 8 males were raised successfully and the last one flew away on 31 August, a bit earlier than last year and well before cold weather arrived.

2016 Update: An Even Better Year For Monarchs

The new plants from last year that were added to our flower gardens actually had several visits in 2016 from female Monarchs and resulted in more eggs being laid, and cats hatching. Forty cats were rounded up and transferred to some newer 2016 potted plants brought indoors. Of these cats, 39 (25 females and 14 males) successfully developed into the chrysalis stage and emerged to be released outdoors before the end of August. This year had particularly good weather into fall, so they had a very good chance to make their journey south.

We also donated some of our new potted plants to friends to add to their gardens. Every bit helps.

2017 Update: And Then We Raised Way More Monarchs

Actually 2017 slightly more than doubled last year's count to the current 87 Monarch Caterpillers and then Butterflies successfully raised indoors before they were released. Those additional milkweed plants in the garden were the key. More milkweed plants meant a bigger target for passing female Monarchs to find, and then lay their eggs. The breakdown was 39 males and 48 females departing for hopefully warmer southern destinations. But the last few were born later this year, with the very last butterfly leaving on 17 September with the danger of early frost all too real.

2017, after my 32 years in Thunder Bay, was probably the second worst summer for frequent rainstorms and unseasonably cool days. All the more reason to bring those cats indoors to feast and grow without the threat of outdoor predators and foul weather.

Those 87 were the successes. There were three casualties. One cat never made it to the chrysalis stage and died for unknown reasons, perhaps a genetic birth defect. One butterfly emerged from the chrysalis with a deformed wing. A third cat took off from an outside potted plant on the patio table before it could be brought inside and its chrysalis was only found in the garden weeks later. There was a small hole in the dead chrysalis caused by some predator. So our failure rate comes out to about 3 per cent, which is likely way lower than what would happen had the cats been left outdoors to fend for themselves.

The new 2017 outdoor milkweeds that were started in pots have been dug in, still in their pots, in now empty vegetable beds. Next spring after the ground thaws these pots will be brought out of their bed and their plants will develop much quicker, and with more stalks, than those in 2018 that will be newly grown from seeds. Every plant helps.

Even though cats found outdoors and brought inside to grow and develop are safer and more likely to survive to maturity, the numbers are starting to make the accompanying human efforts onerous. The 87 cats this year required fairly frequent attention every single day until the peaceful chrysalis stage was reached. Basically the cats were checked every hour or two during the daylight hours to make sure none had gone walk-about in the house, or had wandered onto another's milkweed stalk. And those stalks had to be frequently replaced from our outdoor plants. (I honestly don't know if they can be aggressively territorial in such instances, but we wanted to take the precaution of keeping them on separate stalks as much as practicable.) Consequently next year we may have to leave more cats outside on the permanent milkweed plants to do their own thing; chances are we will still make a safe environment indoors for a couple of dozen or so.

2018 Update: More Monarchs Than Ever

The plan in the last paragraph to leave more cats outside in 2018 worked for a while until we began to find several kills from a spade (as in playing card) shaped beetle.

The cats on potted plants up on a patio table seemed fairly safe from predators; so the smallest cats found outside on in-garden milkweeds were moved there to grow. When they had grown bigger, or we found in-garden cats of a medium to large size, they were then brought inside the house to potted plants set in large plastic bins.

Now we had more cats than ever going into the chrysalis stage -- too many for the original bamboo rack that held about 30 at a time. The obvious solution was to make an additional rack, which we did.

We had one very positive local finding this year, there were more visits to our garden than ever of female Monarchs laying eggs after their journey north. Which suggests that the Monarch population is getting bigger, and perhaps a bit further from the brink of extinction. While we also had more milkweed plants in the garden this year, they were not enough for this large influx of egg laying females.

Later in the summer the cats had eaten enough to nearly strip many of our milkweed plants, and we had to move about 60 cats to Zsu Zsa's garden. (Thank you!) Of course the plants eventually recovered and grew more leaves.

With the cats retained here at home, we again broke our last record, more than doubling 2017's 87 that were successfully raised to release as butterflies. In 2018 we released 186 Monarch Butterflies -- 106 males and 80 females.

The first butterfly released this year was on 21 July, and the last was on 3 October, barely in time to miss some unseasonable cold weather. (This unusually late last release was due to a lone butterfly that arrived in our garden and laid eggs at the start of September.)

2019 Update: We Moved to the Country

In late June we moved to a country property and sold the house in town. The milkweeds at our house in town already had a fair number of cats but we could not bring them indoors while packing and moving. Many of the milkweed plants were given away to other folks and some were left at the old house's garden, while 45 plants (some with cats) were taken to the new property and planted outdoors. We were pleased to see that, within the first hour after planting one of the milkweeds at our new property, a female Monarch showed up there and lay more eggs.

Over the period of late winter we will be growing a large number of additional milkweed plants for spring and summer planting in 2020. We haven't yet decided whether we will bring any of 2020's cats indoors, or let at least most of them fend for themselves outdoors. We will have way too many more plants outdoors in what will become a much larger Monarch breeding ground.

2020 Update: First Full Summer in the Country

Our first decision about planting additional milkweed plants was whether they should go inside the fenced back yard, safe from numerous deer visiting daily, or outside the fence in new flower beds, or on a surrounding large rocky wildflower hillside. Of course we ended up doing all three. It turned out that our deer were observed to take just one bite from a milkweed plant before promptly spitting it out, and thankfully then going on to tastier greenery and flowers.

From that point we had regular visits from egg laying female Monarchs. Initially we had intended to leave all the caterpillars outside to naturally fend for themselves. But some complications became apparent.

Some cats getting ready to transform to a chrysalis set off on journies of more than 50 feet to find the perfect spot to hang and transform. Sometimes that resulted in a tight location where it would be difficult for the butterfly to emerge and have the room to hang and unfold its wings freely and completely. When we found such a chrysalis it was brought inside and attached to our bamboo rack (mentioned previously and pictured on this page). After emerging and the wings had hardened (about 2 hours), these butterflies were released outside.

Unfortunately we found that there were lots of predators outside preying on the cats. That included various spiders and beetles, and a nasty fly that lays an egg on a cat which hatches and then eats the cat's insides. Yes, nasty! Consequently when we found cats that were nearing the chrysalis stage, we brought more of them indoors to feed on milkweed cuttings in water jars and safely transform into butterflies. But it was impossible to find all the cats on all the now numerous plants throughout our property. So some just had to fend for themselves.

We will never know how many cats on the whole property safely became butterflies, but we do know how many were rescued and raised indoors this year before release: 34 males and 28 females.

This was an unusual summer for weather (as in most parts of North America) and by mid September we had had early frosts which killed most of the local wild flowers. Our last two butterflies would have had a difficult time finding food locally on their flight south. So the last two got a car ride of 70 kilometres further south before release -- to a site on this side of the border where there were still lots of flowers. (No we're not nuts; it was a fine day to observe fall colours and we enjoyed the drive and picnic.)

A Wonderful Experience For You and Youngsters

I trust that you will soon experience the satisfaction derived from helping this colourful butterfly species survive in what can be a very unfriendly world. Letting youngsters observe the life cycle of a butterfly is a wonderful and educational experience for them also. And if you develop an interest in studying these butterflies, you will inevitably want to observe and learn about other varieties, and get more involved with your natural surroundings. You will undoubtedly further develop your skills in photography, which is in itself a wonderful hobby that meshes with almost any interest. Good luck to you.

Click on the individual images here to see a larger view.

Swamp Milkweed
is about
1 meter tall
and has an
One of the
outdoor cats
heading down
My house
guest is
hanging out
Now snug
in his
Crawled out
11 days
a bit
and wings
wider now
The next day
he flew to
an Echinacea
and drank
and paused
to rest
Male has black
spot near body
on rear wing
2014 rack
to hold
which are
taped to
bamboo rods
One of 2014's
crop about
to depart
In 2015 one
is being
taken outside
to perch
on flowers
until ready
In July 2016
wild females
lay eggs on
plants in our
flower garden
August 2016
5 new Monarchs
just released
2017 and this
cat is just
a day old
Left chrysalis
is nearly
ready to open
Sometimes we
have several
emerge closely
Final wing
before flight
takes place
on outdoor
so they can
snack before
First 2018
Butterfly freed
on 21 July

Additional Information

We have gathered a fair number of Swamp Milkweed seeds will give some free to club members while quantities allow. If I run out, you have other possibilities. All the folks growing milkweeds should have lots more seeds and experiences to share.

Note About a Local Source of Milkweed Plants and Information: One of my retired friends here in Thunder Bay goes through a lot of effort each winter to raise hundreds of new milkweed plants. She is a true gardening and butterfly expert. Each spring she starts to sell strong new milkweed plants (and some other plants) at a minimal cost, considering all that work and care. She can be contacted for further information about her main sale in June at:    Her milkweeds are generally available for sale from May throughout the summer. I know any gardener will get a big kick out of visiting her yard. Usual caveat: I am just a paying plant customer and friend.

Journey North is a site with comprehensive information on Monarchs and their migrations, with an opportunity for you to input your observations and monitor migration maps.

Note About the Viceroy Butterfly: its resemblance to the Monarch was always assumed to be a defensive mechanism of evolution -- that the Viceroy survived because it evolved to look like a bad tasting Monarch; recently it has been determined that Viceroys themselves also taste bad. [And no, I didn't personally take part in that taste test ;-]

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