my life in the land down under


Left over Right…

Many, many years ago 😉 I was a Brownie (junior version of the Girl Guide, also known as Girl Scout). Among other things I learned to tie knots, although the only one I remember well is the reef knot: ‘left over right and under, right over left and under’.

We appear to be running a monarch butterfly nursery here at the moment (see my previous post here for the back story on how this came to be!). This has given me little time to update the blog recently. It has also involved tying lots of knots; I can’t claim they are reef knots, but they do the job anyhow.

We started off with a small stand for rescued chrysalises, last season or maybe the season before. As you can see, it accommodates eight.

First stand

This year we’ve had to upgrade several times.

Second stand – holds 16 chrysalises

Third stand – holds 36 chrysalises

We had a large plastic container that was not being used; John cut a hole in the lid and replaced it with a fine net material to let light and air into the container. We have housed up to 25 caterpillars at one time. The pieces of wooden dowelling were intended as places for them to chrysalis, however the first group seemed to prefer the container lid! The second group have divided themselves about equally between the dowelling and the roof.

Caterpillar container

Caterpillar container from the top

Caterpillar inside container

At last count we had 87 chrysalises and two J’s inside; there are a few more outside that we are letting be. It has been very time-consuming feeding the fat caterpillar babies and keeping the container relatively clean; its a relief when each day a few more successfully change into ‘J’s’ and then chrysalises. A very small minority have not made it for one reason or another – one made its chrysalis on the house wall the other day so has a flat side, another did the same in our big container. We thought there was only a slim chance of a healthy butterfly developing so have euthanised these. One new chrysalis was very close to the edge of the container and sadly got caught in the lid when we were replacing it. 😦 Today we had a caterpillar that started to change into a chrysalis then stopped, and appears to have died. Thankfully, these few are the exception to a large number of apparently perfectly-formed chrysalises.

Our one remaining swan plant outside is now taking a beating – many of the upper leaves have been stripped – but may be able to recover before the next round. We’ve had to release a trapped butterfly on two occasions; it had obviously found it’s way under the net to lay eggs. We’ve also rescued a few fat caterpillars that were at risk of being walked on, as they went marching off at high speed across the concrete to find a place to chrysalis. If they go for the neighboring yucca plant we leave them alone, as it seems a secure place – the leaves are strong and won’t blow around in rough weather. I’m sure there will be a few in other places and some we may never find!

Swan plant – compare foliage with photo in previous post

Rescuing a wandering caterpillar

Caterpillar on yucca plant

Chrysalises on yucca

The good news, that makes it all worth it, is the resulting butterflies. So far we have had two emerge, both males. There are several darkening chrysalises today; it looks as though we will have about four new butterflies tomorrow and more later in the week. It’s warm here at the moment, and they are taking just over two weeks from the time the chrysalis forms.

Chrysalis about to hatch – the rings around the top start to stretch downwards and the shape changes

First butterfly of the season (male)

John releasing first butterfly

First butterfly (male)

Monarch (male) on swan plant

Second butterfly newly emerged, wings still crumpled

Second butterfly (also male) with wings fully pumped up

We have found the nursery chores a bit overwhelming, and John is threatening to pull out the swan plants when the season is over! Meanwhile we feel we’re doing our bit for New Zealand’s monarch population. 🙂


Update (Wednesday morning): We have had two female butterflies emerge so far today. Have to get back to tying chrysalises – only about 30 to do! 🙂




Monarch Update

First we had bees in our bonnet, then we had caterpillars coming out our ears… not literally of course!

Several weeks ago we had some very blustery windy weather, which gave our swan plants a hard time. After staking the largest one, then binding it when the main trunk split, finally we gave up and trimmed a group of them right back. They are just starting to sprout again now. We brought all the cut pieces inside and kept them in buckets of water in the garage, in case there were any monarch eggs. After a few weeks, we had so many caterpillars we had to start transferring the biggest ones back outside to our one remaining swan plant, as well as adopting some out to our friend Cos (the butterfly lady). We’ve seen a few wasps around, so John ‘netted’ our plant to prevent the saved caterpillars from being eaten. One of our neighbors told him the Monarch Butterfly society should give us a medal! 🙂 The net will also discourage butterflies from laying further eggs on the plant, and hopefully keep it from being stripped totally bare.

Netted swan plant

We have cleaned up the dying plants in the garage, and now have just two lidded containers with big caterpillars feeding & growing. It’s good to have the garage space back, as it will be needed for assembling kitchens again soon.

So far we have six chrysalises, and expect to have lots more within the next week, as there are some very fat caterpillars!

Fat caterpillar

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Life Cycle: Beginning

The monarch season has started.

We have had several butterflies laying eggs on our swan plants already, though it is barely spring, and the last monarch only hatched from its chrysalis inside in mid-August. I photographed two butterflies in early September (both faded and untagged) and John saw at least one other about a week before that (late August). So all going well we should have baby caterpillars in another week or two. I guess it depends on the temperatures – if cold they will take longer or maybe not hatch at all. Now we also have to be on the lookout for predators: ants will eat the eggs, and once we have caterpillars, wasps could be a problem again as they were last spring/ summer.

Some of the swan plants have grown very tall. We had intended to prune them back but waited too long (unless as John suggests, we go ahead but keep the cut pieces in a bucket of water inside until any caterpillars have emerged).

It was very windy yesterday, with some heavy showers of rain in between periods of sunshine – pretty typical spring weather I think. Earlier in the day I saw one butterfly clinging to the swan plant out the front: it was being blown every which way. As the rain was blowing directly into the front door at the time I retreated inside and left it. Later I had to rescue another large swan plant: the gusty winds had broken one branch right off and the  remainder was splitting down the middle. I think I did a good job of binding it up – time will tell.

Update: Today the weather is gorgeous with sunshine and blue sky, but we’re going through another cold snap with predicted overnight lows of between 1-4degC over the next few days.

Monarch laying eggs on swan plant

Monarch laying eggs in the spring sunshine – this one appears to have lost part of a wing

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Last of the Season

This was probably the last monarch we will see this season: it emerged from its chrysalis on 15th July and we released it from our back yard a couple of days later.

I say ‘probably’ because we still have one chrysalis inside, and one caterpillar outside on a swan plant. The chrysalis seems to be well-formed but is very small. The caterpillar is only medium-sized and doesn’t appear to be progressing – its not eating and has stayed pretty much in the same place for several days. We will wait to see how they do.

We have had some nice sunny days with low overnight temps recently, followed by some extremely wet weather. We were glad to wake up this morning and find the rain had stopped!

Monarch female

Monarch female, preparing for flight

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Butterfly Release

An update on the monarch situation at our house:

All but one of the eight chrysalises we had inside have now ‘hatched’, most of them successfully. If possible, we have been watching them more carefully now when we know the butterflies are due to emerge, as several have fallen from their chrysalises.  If not rescued quickly their wings don’t form properly and they won’t survive.

On Friday, a chrysalis hatched that had been slightly damaged.  We had noticed a small split low on one side a while ago, and I wasn’t sure what effect it would have on the butterfly developing inside. The butterfly emerged and fell, and thankfully we were there to help it, as we later discovered one of its front legs was deformed and of no use to it. Other than that it seemed fine. When its wings were fully formed and it seemed strong we put it outside in the sunshine. It was gone later when we checked, so we think it did fly away.

Yesterday we had three butterflies emerge, two girls and a boy. The male was considerably larger than the other two. I’m not sure why the size difference; there seems to be a range of chrysalis size too. We have very little in the way of flowering plants at our place (nothing that would serve as butterfly food) and are expecting more wet weather over the next few days, so this morning we took all three of them out to a local butterfly garden to release them. There were masses of monarchs flying around and feeding from a large plant with daisy-like white flowers – I haven’t been able to identify it yet. We did not wait to see ours fly today.

Yesterday afternoon I brought the last seven chrysalises inside and am about to tie them to our little stand. We still have around ten caterpillars feeding on our swan plants outside, so may have more butterflies despite the season.

Male Monarch Feeding

Our Three Monarchs (male at lower left)

Monarchs on White Flowers