Archive for the 'Butterfly' Category

Day 6

Friday, August 26th, 2016

The Monarch caterpillar did not seem to change much on days 4 and 5. It certainly did today on Day 6 as it shed its skin and is now in its third instar. The shed skin is behind it in this image. It has eaten its skin and is now chewing a channel in the leaf.

It is more than five times the length it was when it was hatched and is wider with longer front tentacles. The yellow bands are getting brighter.

Soon we will not need as much lens magnification to photograph it fairly large on the frame.  Also should be able to get some side views soon.

Day 2 & Day 3

Thursday, August 25th, 2016

The tiny Monarch caterpillar changes very quickly over hours and days.  Its stripes were still quite pale and shiny on Monday. He chewed tiny holes in between the veins of the Common Milkweed leaves. Sometimes it would connect one hole to the nest. It also began to venture out among the leaves.

On Tuesday, the black bands were darker and the yellow and white bands more apparent. It had shed its first skin and was now in its second instar. The front antenna protruded a bit more though the back ones are still little knobs. It was no longer shiny. While shedding its skin from one instar to another, caterpillars stay very quiet once they have picked a place to do that.  After shedding they may consume the skin so as to not waste good nourishment.

New Foster Child

Sunday, August 21st, 2016

For the last several years Monarch Butterflies have been scarce in our yard and along roadsides where we sometimes encounter females laying eggs. On Thursday we saw a Monarch fluttering around some Common Milkweed and investigated to see if any eggs had been laid. We found one and brought it home in hopes of raising one to release in our yard.

Late last night the tiny caterpillar’s head was visible through the translucent egg.

This morning the egg was empty. Usually the egg shell is eaten by the newly hatched caterpillar. Since the leaf was very dry we paperclipped it at the top of a fresh milkweed stalk last night. When it hatched we hoped it could have a more tender leaf to munch. It must have figured that out for this morning we found it at the tip of one of the small leaves near where we had put the dry leaf.

Since making this photo early this morning, the tiny caterpillar has made a pinhead size hole in the leaf so it is starting to eat. We still are looking at it using a magnifying glass. Its bands are starting to color.

The camera used has a 1.6 magnification factor. Along with a 180mm macro lens and a 2x tele-converter, that makes the combination function like a 576mm lens. The tripod head has a macro slider attached so by using the camera’s Live View,  fine close-up adjustments could be made. The files were cropped slightly to show the tiny subjects in blog format.

If it survives, there will more installments.

Summer in the Woods

Sunday, August 14th, 2016

This morning The Writer’s Almanac featured a poem by Emily Dickinson; the first verse of which is:

The bee is not afraid of me,
 I know the butterfly;
The pretty people in the woods
 Receive me cordially

We were at a state preserve and park in Southeast Iowa yesterday. The poison ivy deterred us from doing much off the beaten path. So we contented ourselves with photographing spiders and insects, another favorite subject.

This Hackberry Emperor butterfly, a very pretty person of the woods, cordially received us. Or perhaps we received it. It spent about 5 minutes lapping up the salts from Linda’s sweaty hand. Bob made several images of its proboscis licking and tickling her hand. She carried over to others to admire while it continued to lap up minerals.

It stayed around afterwards and landed on our clothing several times. There were other “pretty people” in that spot – an Eastern Comma, a Silver-spotted Skipper, several Pearl Crescents. Most of the butterflies had nicks out of their wings, as has this one.

There are many cordial small creatures in a woods. Standing quietly seems to invite them over as Miss Dickinson did.

Monarch Watch

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

Last evening we went to a presentation by Dr. Orley R. “Chip” Taylor. The large meeting room was full of people with an interest is all pollinators but especially Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterflies.

Dr. Taylor co-founded Monarch Watch in 1992. Among the first group of people that responded to the press release seeking volunteers were about 500 from Des Moines, Iowa. Over the years more butterflies have been tagged in Iowa than any other state. Later research showed that Iowa was the largest breeding ground for butterflies roosting in the Oyamel fir forests in southern Mexico before milkweed was eradicated from agricultural fields and along roadways. Dr. Taylor is soliciting everyone’s help to increase milkweed production so that the wintering population in Mexico will rise again.

We visited the small preserves with another Monarch researcher in 2010. Dr. William “Bill” Calvert was among the first scientists to locate the wintering grounds high in the mountains between Morelia and Mexico City. The Oyamel (Abies religiosa) or sacred fir trees are where most of the Monarchs roost from November to early March before making the several generation flights to the Upper Midwest and points east.

The Oyamel is not only essential to the only insect known to migrate long distances annually to a particular location and habitat, but is also important to the local population. The boughs are used in religious celebrations, hence its second part of its name -religiosa.

We saw trees encased in butterflies and the ground littered with those puddling for moisture and minerals and sometimes those that had not survived the long winter. We were there in early March as the butterflies were getting ready to head north to Texas and Oklahoma to parent the next generation. We saw mating and even an egg on a Tropical Milkweed leaf.

These were probing the soil for much needed water. Dr. Taylor discussed the narrow balance between enough moisture so that the butterflies could utilize their stored fat reserves to survive the 4 to 5 months in Mexico and the danger of heavy rains followed by freezing temperatures that sometimes occur in these 10-11,000 foot mountains.

Here a group was clinging to stems at a seep or little spring. Many looked like their fat stores were much reduced from the plump adults we see here in the Midwest during July and August.

In thinking about ways that Iowans could demonstrate their commitment to the preservation of Monarch butterflies and all pollinators besides planting native forbs, we learned that Iowa is one of only 5 states that does not have a state insect symbol.

In 29 states there is a state butterfly and sometimes there is a state insect and a state butterfly. The Monarch is the state insect or butterfly for these states: Texas, Alabama, West Virginia, Illinois, Minnesota, Vermont, Idaho. Idaho’s Monarchs most likely are from the West Coast population that winters along the California coast. Though several states are not large caterpillar nurseries, they felt it was important to honor this iconic and important representative of the biodiversity that supports us all.

Perhaps Iowa should do the same.


Thursday, July 30th, 2015

Yesterday afternoon the Monarch caterpillar attached itself to a heavy vein on the underside of one of the larger milkweed leaves. This was instead of using the supply of sticks we placed around the milkweed stem. The silken pad is dense and strong.

After several hours had passed it released  its three pair of front legs and seemed to still be making chewing movements with its mouth parts. The head capsule moved about. Next came the releasing of the rear pair of prolegs.

Then about every passing half hour, another pair of prolegs would release until one pair still held the caterpillar in a horizontal plane.

Finally the last set released as the video function of the camera was recording.

It was still swinging and had not yet converted to the J position when the camera was switched back to still images.

Because the underside of a Monarch caterpillar is rarely photographed, we though we should include this image. The colors were fading from the underside while the top side was still more vivid.

Here it is in the “J” position in which it can hang for as much as a day. This caterpillar stayed as a “J” from about 9 last night until a bit after noon today. The tentacles are starting to droop which is a sign that it will soon pupate. The “J” position also straightens a bit when that is close.

Since it was not yet straightened there seemed to be time to do a couple of needed tasks before making more images. When Linda got back downstairs to the tabletop setup, its skin was lying on the table and it was gyrating and compacting itself into a classic chrysalis. The skin was intact except for the split on the back. The tentacles and skin covering the feet are still discernible.

The yellow and green of the newly pupated monarch was being pushed about and shaped as it twisted itself into shape. The shiny black cremaster that will hold the chrysalis to the silken pad attached while its skin was being shed.

The chrysalis continued to become more interesting as it hardened. It is very shiny and the gold dots are still developing.  For this image, cross polarization of the flash and the lens was done to tame some of the sheen.  This image was made with a single flash rather than two which is customary.  There is more modeling with the shadow. The chrysalis is shown duller than a typical very shiny chrysalis but more of what is happening inside can be seen.

Cross polarization involves placing polarizing film in front of the flashes and using a circular polarizer on the lens. It is a way to minimize specular highlights on shiny objects.

Now we have to wait about 10-13 days to see whether the butterfly is male or female.

Monarch Caterpillar Progress

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

This morning the Monarch caterpillar that we have been following since we found an egg on July 15th is continuing to grow. It hatched overnight on the 18th/19th. It is now 10 days old and in its 5th instar. It grew 10mm since yesterday and is 45mm long. At this rate it is likely to be a larger than typical caterpillar when it pupates.

We have joked that if we were raising a group of caterpillars we should be calculating its growth rate and EBV (estimated breeding value). Bob was an animal scientist.

The white spots on the prolegs are distinct and its colors are more vibrant.

As it is getting longer, it is able to be more acrobatic while moving around the Common Milkweed stem on which it now resides. There are also several sticks with slanting stems in the vase where we hope it will choose to pupate. In our experience they seem to like stems that slant enough to allow them to establish the J position in preparation to becoming a chrysalis.

Instar 5

Monday, July 27th, 2015

The Monarch caterpillar shed its skin one more time to become an instar 5. It was a long process. It had become lethargic on Saturday afternoon and stopped eating. Its tentacles were very drooped and limp appearing. During the night it shed its skin to become an instar 5. The shed is right behind it in the top photo in a crumpled accordion.

It was about 28 mm long at this point. Over the next several hours its head capsule darkened from yellow to stripes. Its posterior also changed from greenish yellow to striped.  In lay still most of the day. The only movement we saw was occasional twitches of its tentacles. They seemed to be inflating very slowly. We wondered if it was going to perish.

Then last evening it ate about 1/6 of a milkweed leaf and was 30 mm long. It was just lying quietly after that. During the night it chewed upon several leaves and this morning (lower photo) is 35 mm long. Its tentacles are still a bit floppy but are more filled out. The black bands are wider than earlier instars.

One of the characteristics of a 5th instar is that the front set of legs are smaller than the 2 pairs just behind them. That is apparent in the top photo.

The caterpillar may grow to 45 mm in the next several days before pupating. We hope to be present to photograph that event.

Instar 4

Saturday, July 25th, 2015

Our Monarch caterpillar was 23 mm long this morning and an Instar 4. Its front tentacles are about 5 mm long. The first pair of legs are closer to its head than in earlier instars. The lens is closer to the caterpillar in the headshot than for the entire caterpillar below. Neither file was cropped.

These two images were made from opposite sides of the leaf with the caterpillar in the same position. It remained quiet for several minutes which was helpful to the process. Adequate depth of field was difficult to maintain at this magnification and because it is getting larger and rounder.

It has been in a box with leaves. It should stay at instar 4 for several more days. When it gets to instar 5 it will be placed on a stalk of milkweed in a vase that will be surrounded by a mesh cage. The mesh cage is so it cannot wander when it is ready to pupate. One year we found a chrysalis hanging under a window sill when a caterpillar went missing before we put the cage over the vase.


Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

We just checked on the Monarch caterpillar. It is definitely showing the characteristics of the third instar. It is 13 mm long and its tentacles are growing. The black, white and yellow sections are darker and more distinct. It is velvety and much less reflective than in earlier instars.

It is interesting to note that it sometimes eats in between the larger veins like the one above it. That must be a way it controls the amount of latex it consumes.

This image was made with a 100 mm macro lens with a high quality close-up lens attached. A ring flash was used with different powers on the left and right sides so there is a soft shadow on the lower side of the caterpillar. As we said in an earlier caterpillar post we are trying a variety of lens, tele-extender and extension tube combinations. The close-up lens is another tool to consider when photographing small subjects.

We have a variety of step-up and step-down rings so the close-up lens and ring flash can be used together and/or with our lenses, other than the long telephotos.

As it gets larger we will try other combinations.