Insect Investation: Monarchs and Swallowtails

Investation (noun) – 1. A harassing helpful or troublesome joyful invasion.

When asked what some of your favorite things in the world are, chances are insects aren’t among them. There are a few of you (who follow this blog) who appreciate my fascination with bugs, spiders, caterpillars, and all things small and weird.

Welcome to my dirt party.

Badges of Honor

Most of you, however, consider insects as a nuisance, particular when they’re eating at your tomatoes or wrecking some other precious edible or expensive flower in your garden. I hate to break it to you, but creepy little guys are here to stay. They are what keeps this plant-world called Earth humming along. They did it without us for billions of years.

It’s time to appreciate them for the beings they are — without them, we’re absolutely nothing.

Fly Snipers
Like ’em or hate ’em, gotta have ’em.

Harmless Tussock Moth
Food For Garden Lizards

Is your garden infested with creepy crawlies? Mine’s not. Or maybe it is. The answer depends upon your perspective.

I like to think of a yard full of different insects and spiders as an inVestation, a positive cross between ‘infestation’ and ‘invested.’ Because when we invest in these creatures, we create a more balanced ecosystem on the properties we inhabit.

The more we invest in these so-called ‘pest infestations,’ the more we encourage diversity in our world.

King of Butterflies – Monarch

Butterflies aren’t typically categorized by humans among the creepy crawlies. But what could be grosser than an insect genetic soup in a sleeping bag that transforms into a completely different creature? That’s the monarch butterfly. And, luckily, ‘Ew Gross’ is what I thrive on.

Milkweed — the monarch caterpillar’s sole diet — used to flourish in the US providing generations of little monarch caterpillars habitat to grow and thrive. The females search high and low for milkweed onto which they will lay their eggs, but with this plant having slowly disappeared from the landscape, the monarch is headed down the path of extinction unless something gives. No milkweed, no next gen; it doesn’t take long for this to have disastrous impact.

As we slowly remove ourselves from nature through technology, social media, and plastics (all thanks to the Petroleum Age), this beautiful yet toxic plant has been relegated to ‘not pretty enough’ for our carefully manicured gardens and yards. Hay fields — an agricultural tax exemption for properties in Texas — have conveniently (for us) replaced the wild fields where milkweed once grew, and are regularly mowed for harvest. Milkweed has quite simply been disallowed by us to grow.

But humans and monarchs are inextricably linked to each other. They are the pollinators of our food.

In the first critical step of re-wilding the 1.5 acre habitat we call home, milkweed was bought and planted in all the open garden spaces. As they all went to seed last year, we dotted the veggie garden with even more and let entire spaces — especially ones where only onions would grow — be taken over by it.

What an investment in joy that grew!

Nom nom nom…

In the Turnip Patch

Tied Down And Turning

A Long Walk to the Second Story Eave

This Soup’s Almost Done
(See the orange-and-black wings?)

J-shape = Time to Pupate
Watching for this one to change overnight…

Last Molt and Chrysalis
(He left his sweater outside!)

Two At A Time
In The Onion Patch

[Email Readers: This is a short video which can only be viewed at the blog.]

Black Swallowtail

Meanwhile, a different caterpillar set up shop in the fennel and dill patches. Known simply as the ‘parsley worm,’ non-toxic blue-green-and-orange caterpillars are slowly making their way to becoming Black Swallowtails.

These caterpillars, lacking the milkweed toxins of their monarch kin, are susceptible to becoming prey to paper wasp and other garden predators. Once a wasp has found a reliable ‘stash’ of food (a plant loaded with caterpillars), he will return faithfully for more — until they’re gone. We’ve learned this from the past; children watch helplessly as the last ones get gobbled up, never getting the chance to develop his stink-weapon.

Once they’re large enough — about 3rd instar — they develop osmeteria and a stench that effectively wards off any predators. We help the younger ones along by laying over the plants some tulle fabric (a lightweight netting Angie had in her sewing box) as protection from aerial invaders.

Pink or black, they didn’t seem to mind the free cover.

Trying To Blend Into Dill
(It’s not working.)

Stinky Orange Osmeteria Protrusion
Doesn’t smell like fennel.

Pretty Face
(Younger instar to the back
looks like bird poop for protection.)

Adult Black Swallowtail
Photo credit: Dori, What’s That Bug?

Related Posts:

Plant caterpillar food in your flower beds today.
Start with milkweed.

10 thoughts on “Insect Investation: Monarchs and Swallowtails

  1. Two days ago, in the field that screams Texas, I photographed a black swallowtail caterpillar. From what you say, people who raise this species rely on dill and fennel. I found my caterpillar on a native Texas parsley plant, which is in the same botanical family as those Eurasian herbs. (I chewed on a leaf once but didn’t find it tasty.)

    That’s a good portmanteau word you’ve created: investation.


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