About 5 years ago, our family planted a pollinator garden and although we started with an assortment of plants, the milkweed quickly took over. For the next 3 years, we enjoyed watching the seasonal onslaught of monarch caterpillars and we even got lucky enough to catch one right as it was forming its chrysalis (a very cool thing to watch live).

In the fall of 2016, we began to notice that our caterpillars seemed to be disappearing. One day we would see the leaves covered with them, the next we would only be able to find a handful. It was pretty obvious that something was eating our monarch caterpillars. I started bringing a few caterpillars indoors to grow in one of those pop-up butterfly cages and I would harvest leaves to feed them. Even though their numbers were down, we could pretty much find a continuous supply of caterpillars to stock our cage.

Unfortunately, that changed this spring. We began looking for caterpillars in early April like usual and finally about mid-April, I was able to find one lonely little caterpillar. I could tell that there had been more because I could see small little holes where it looked like they had started chewing, but even after an extensive search, we only found one.

monarch monitoring
A monarch emerging from its chrysalis

My youngest son is in kindergarten and as part of their science curriculum, they learn about butterflies, so I took the cage in to school so that his class could watch the caterpillar grow. That little guy put on a quite a show of mowing down leaves and pooping (the amount of poop they make is truly amazing). Finally one morning, they came in and he was hanging in his “J” formation getting ready to form his chrysalis. Of course that little stinker waited until the 30 minutes they were at PE to transform. To top it off, he also emerged from his chrysalis on a Sunday so they missed that too. Perhaps it is a survival mechanism to be able to sense a peaceful time to make these changes? Since it takes time for them to dry out their wings and get ready to fly any way, I left him in his cage until Monday morning, so the kids did get the opportunity to watch him fly away into the world.

monarch monitoring
A monarch egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf

The kids enjoyed the process so much, I told them I would bring them more. No problem, I thought, our milkweed always has some caterpillars at this time of the year. I began checking our milkweed every day. I did not find another crop of eggs until mid-May. This time I picked the leaves with the eggs on them rather than waiting for them to hatch. We ended up with 5 caterpillars with 4 of them making it to the chrysalis stage (not sure what was wrong with the last one, he just stopped eating and eventually died). Unfortunately, they once again transformed into their chrysalis form over the Memorial Day holiday and did not emerge until after school was over. Thank goodness for YouTube where you can find great videos of the transformations they missed.

While it was a successful learning experience for my son’s kindergarten class, it was also was an engaging lesson for me. I can’t help but ponder the very obvious signs that the monarch population has taken a significant dive in the last 2 years. I believe I have narrowed down the predator eating my caterpillars to wasps, but we have always had wasps, so are there more wasps now? Are there fewer monarchs? Did the caterpillar population use to be high enough to provide food for the wasps and still leave some to grow to maturity? Are the wasps emerging earlier so that the monarchs do not have time to get a foothold? This spring at our school garden we also saw a significant increase in the wasp population and a decrease in bees and butterflies. Wasps are pollinators too, and they can help control caterpillars we consider pests (like cabbage loopers and tomato hornworms). Is it wrong for me to dislike them because they are not as cute, are more aggressive, and they sting?

So many questions…so many learning opportunities. I hope this post will help convince you that you need a pollinator garden too. Pollinators are a fascinating group of animals to study for any age and are an important part of ecosystem and our food system. These are all facts I have known since, well as long as I can remember. But even for me, actually growing a pollinator garden and specifically observing the life cycle of one of its inhabitants has increased my interest in pollinators to a whole new level.

I am reminded of the quote by Baba Dioum: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” We can preach words of doom and gloom about decreasing pollinators populations all we want, but youth need personal experiences with pollinators to be able to truly understand and respect them. This June, to celebrate National Pollinator Month, if you don’t already have one, start planning your pollinator garden today!

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