Monday, January 6, 2014

All in the Family – Queens in the Winter Desert



Monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus, and their larvae are not the only members of the Danaus family  in desert milkweed gardens this winter. Yesterday I decided to finally cut back the large climbing vining milkweed, Sarcostemma cynanchoides (Funastrum cynanchoides), by my front entry. Usually this is on  my December work list, but this year I’m a bit behind in the yard duties. Now this vine was way past its summer peak of luscious green leaf tendrils and cascading white flowers. Instead it was graced with brittle, dry leaves, a harbinger of its winter rest.  With our warm weather it wouldn’t be too long until a surge of new growth begins to appear.




This year the aphids were especially bothersome on the climbing milkweed and their honeydew was thick. Their oily stains were everywhere on the nearby wall and sidewalk. So I started pruning in snippets here and there since it was so messy. I always try to keep an eye out when cutting anything back – you never know what you’ll find. Sometimes what looks like the worst place anything could live is a secret cove. Even so I was surprised when I took a few snips and spotted the sun dancing off the gold of a chrysalis deep inside.




Now even more cautious, I continued to cut and look carefully. In just a few minutes I found this thin but late stage queen caterpillar, Danaus gilippus. It was amazing to think anything could still be alive in this clump of dead leaves, but there were a few inner ones still in marginal condition that appeared to be its food source. If I was going to cut this plant back I’d need a new game plan, so I moved the larva to one of the evergreen milkweeds in the back yard and watched it excitedly move to a fresh new leaf and munch. 




All in all I found five queen chrysalises and three caterpillars on this single climbing milkweed.  How did I know they were queen chrysalises versus monarchs? It’s all in the gold – you can learn how to tell the two apart in this photo link by Butterfly Fun Facts. This is the latest I’ve seen queen larvae on this vine (although I have seen larvae on evergreen milkweeds in small numbers in warm winter years in my yard.) 2013 was a warm year in Phoenix according to the National Weather Service so we may see other unusual activity as well. 

Queen butterfly, Danaus gilippus

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