Consider The Monarch
On the Cheyenne River Buffalo Ranch, we do some pretty big things to regenerate the prairie grasslands, which includes bringing back the bison.
But this is not the extent of our conservation efforts. We also do smaller things, such as planting flowers and plants for the pollinators. These include Purple Coneflower, Goldenrod, Blazing Star, Butterfly Bush, and several varieties of Milkweed, just to name a few.
Although, all of these species are native to North America, and are abundant on our ranch, they are dwindling throughout the continent. This is due to habitat loss caused by industrialized agriculture, pesticides and herbicides, adverse land use, illegal logging, and climate change.
The loss of these native plants has caused severe stress on the survival of the pollinators, including the now endangered Monarch butterfly.
When considering the Monarch butterfly, one must consider Milkweed, as it is the host plant for Monarchs.
The Monarchs lay their eggs exclusively on the leaves of the milkweed plant, and after only four days, the eggs hatch into a larvae/caterpillar.
The tiny Monarch caterpillar will start eating the Milkweed leaves straight away, pausing only when it molts. It will molt, crawling out of its skin into new skin as it grows, five times during the caterpillar stage.
Although milkweed is toxic (contains cardenolides) to other insects, the leaves are the only food that Monarch caterpillars eat. The toxicity of the milkweed leaves make the Monarch caterpillar an undesirable food source for typical predators, such as birds.
Milkweed patches or gardens are beautiful and are also a micro-ecosystem within a macro-ecosystem, attracting many species of beetles, spiders, grasshoppers, toads and snakes.
Pictured above: Large Milkweed Bug, Tortoise Beetle Larvae, Longhorn Milkweed Beetle.
Many of these species are orange and black too, a defense mechanism called "aposematism", which warns predators of their toxic, bitter taste.
Pictured above: Wolf Spider, eating a grasshopper!
Pictured above: Garter Snake hunting grasshoppers.
Pictured above, the Two Stripe Grasshopper, or perhaps it is the organic matter captured from a UFO? ; )
After eighteen days in the caterpillar stage, the Monarch caterpillar will attach itself to a stem or other surface and will pupate into a pupa/chrysalis. The short time lapse video below is fascinating!
The chrysalis is bright green with gold and black specks when it first forms, but after one day, the chrysalis will harden and turn a muted green shade.
The above images illustrate, a newly formed chrysalis, and another that is a couple of days old infected by a Tachinid fly.
Toward the end of the chrysalis stage, the chrysalis color will become transparent and prior to the butterfly emerging you will be able to see the Monarchs colors within the chrysalis.
Once the Monarch has emerged from the chrysalis, it will stay connected, fluttering its wings while it hangs until they are strong, before it takes flight.
The Monarch migration is one that is beyond extraordinary, traveling over three thousand miles. During the migration, four generations of Monarchs are born, with each of the first three generations going through the stages above. The Monarch butterflies will dine on nectar during their short lives of two to six weeks. The fourth generation reserves its energy and heads south to overwinter in central Mexico. In the spring the whole cycle starts all over again.
All the residents on the ranch get pretty excited about our small acts of conservation and the opportunity to be a part of the Monarch and Milkweed recovery.
But the Monarch remains up against it, with less than a 10% survival rate. This is due to many of the issues listed above, plus parasitic diseases and predation.
There are many things that we can all do, such as planting beautiful milkweed gardens and flowers that provide nectar for pollinators, as well as not using pesticides or herbicides in our lawns and gardens. These are small things, but together they could have a big impact!
If you are interested in learning more about the Monarch, here are a variety of resources:
Photo credit: Jill O'Brien & Emily Spiegelman
Video credit: Emily Spiegelman