I have studied insects for many years. Monarchs and their host plants, the many varieties of the milkweed plant, are among my favorite. I notice that the milkweed plants that we have in the Southern Appalachians, (wild and tame) do not look like some of the ones that I have seen in other areas, so there are more varieties than I am accustomed to watching.
There are several varieties of milkweed plants in our area. Some have tiny white flowers and delicate stems and leaves. Other, more common milkweed plants have slender leaves and are more “bushy”. The flowers are dainty and vary from yellow to deep orange. All milkweed plants secrete a milky white substance that makes the insects who feed on them distasteful and therefore, helps reduce predation..
I love to watch the life cycle of the monarch, which begins with the barrel-shaped egg that the female attaches to the bottom of the leaf of the milkweed. I watch as the tiny black caterpillars grown, soon showing their beautiful yellow, white and black stripes, which are visible from the time they have molted only once through several more molts, to adulthood. Fully grown caterpillars, hang upside down in a “comma shape”, suspended by a silky thread secreted from its abdomen. It looks like it is going to “dry up” or shrink, a bit, before it seems to magically turn into a mint green chrysalis with gold spots and a gold spiral.
Even through the Monarch caterpillars devour the plant as it grows, the leaves and stems will grow back on some branches, even those with with pretty severe damage. The milkweed is a perennial and grows back from a deep tap-type root that is not damaged by the monarch caterpillar. Therefore, I don’t have to worry if this season’s monarchs severely damage my plants. Next season, fresh new leave will appear, ready to blossom and then have their leaves and blossoms turn into a monarch feast.
There are several broods of monarchs, spring, mid-summer and late summer. Only the midsummer brood gets to partake of the blossoms, which seem to be the caterpillars’ favorite part of the plant. When the monarch emerges, it secretes an orange fluid as it pumps up its wings with fluid. this is normal and necessary. The wings will not take on their normal shape without it. It is very easy to tell a male monarch butterfly from a female because the male has a black spot in the middle of it’s hind-wing which secretes a hormone scent. The last brood of the season flies to Mexico, or Central America and over-winters as an adult, flying back north in spring to lay its eggs on newly sprouting milkweed plants. As with all butterflies and moths, the monarch is a four-cycle metamorphic insect, meaning it has 4 life stages-egg, larva, pupae and adult. Ironically, the Lady Bug,(as well as other beetles and ants) also has 4 phases in its metamorphosis.
The Praying Mantis and the Lady Bug (sometimes known as Lady Bird Beetle)are carnivorous insects. They are often known as a “good” insects, or insects which eat insect pests that destroy many flowers and cultivated plants. Both insects start out with their favorite foods being aphids and gnats. As they grow, Praying Mantises catch and eat larger insects with their claw-shaped front legs. Lady Bugs stay with the smaller insects, mainly aphids. Praying Mantises are three-cycle metamorphic insects, as are all grasshoppers, crickets and cicadas – meaning they have 3 stages, egg-nymph and adult.
The Praying mantis molts from its’ exoskeleton four times. By the time they reach their third in-star, you can tell a male from a female because a female is larger and has a wider abdomen. As they grow, so does the size of the prey they feed on. Bees and small butterflies remain favorite foods throughout a Praying mantises life. A third in-star mantis has what might be called ‘proto-wings’ or wing bugs beginning to protrude from the top of its abdomen. A fourth in-star has larger wings which reach further down its abdomen, but are not yet usable. Only a full grown Praying Mantis can use it’s wings to fly.
Males , lighter-weight and looking for mates are more likely to fly. Females that are ready to make egg sacks can do little more than glide from the top of a plant. Therefore, males are more likely to end up prey themselves, likely to bats who use echo-location or a form of radar to detect where the mantis is.
Most of us have seen nature films where the prey, say a gazelle, gets away from a lion. This is true with carnivorous insects as well. I have seen a large butterfly or cicada struggle so hard with a Praying Mantis, that the Praying Mantis lost its claw! Fortunately, a young mantis starts to re-grow its claw, so if a third in-star mantis loses the end of its claw, it may have a usable claw again if it reaches adulthood.
It is also a myth that the female mantis always eats the male after mating. Ordinarily, the Praying Mantis chews off the wings of a flying insect and discards them right away , so that the victim has nothing to fight with, Using craft paint to mark them, I have marked mantises from third in-star on into adulthood with craft paint dots and have seen many male mantises mate more than once. The trick, (like that of a black widow) is to pick a mate that isn’t real hungry and “know” how to dismount. I have actually seen three male Praying Mantises trying to mate with one female at one time! Safety in number? Who knows!
Nature has so many variations of life that it would be impossible to run out of creatures to study. Some, of course, make studying them a bit easier and safer than others. I enjoyed teaching my little ones about insects and flowers and it brings a smile to me as I see them teaching these things to their own children. Observation is the best way to learn about creatures, and often, choosing whichever creature presents its self is the best way to “choose” what to study.
My suggestions: Keep a dated journal of both words and photographs. Include yourself and children in your pictures. Try to make some memorable photographs, keep your journals safe and share them with friends, family, classrooms and neighbors. Most of all, enjoy the world around you, protect and respect it so that the next generation can carry on your tradition!