One of the fondest memories from my childhood is finding and raising Monarch caterpillars into butterflies with my mother. Now, I enjoy continuing this tradition every summer with my daughter.
Raising Monarchs isn't only fun, it has a wide range of benefits!:
"Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar."
- Bradley Miller
Monarchs, like other butterflies and moths, undergo metamorphosis and have an egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult stage (butterfly).
Because Monarchs only lay their eggs on milkweed plants, you need to find milkweed to find Monarch eggs or caterpillars. You will also need a good supply of milkweed leaves for Monarch caterpillars to eat - and they eat a LOT of leaves! Make sure that you do not get leaves from areas sprayed with herbicides or pesticides, which can kill Monarchs or prevent them from growing into a healthy butterfly.
Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the bottom of milkweed leaves. Both eggs and young caterpillars are very fragile, so be careful when looking for them. If you collect a leaf with an egg, be sure to put the leaf stem in water so that it stays alive long enough for the baby caterpillar to hatch and have a food source (don't submerge the egg in water). The easiest way to do this is to place the leaf in a glass with a small amount of water.
Don't place too many caterpillars in one enclosure in order to prevent the spread of diseases. We use a few small plastic terrariums, but you can also use plastic boxes with air holes. Also, DO NOT RAISE YOUR BUTTERFLY INDOORS: Place your Monarch enclosure in a safe location outside and make sure it has good ventilation. Growing research indicates that Monarchs raised indoors have trouble migrating!
When the caterpillars hatch they will begin to grow quickly. The Monarch caterpillar will live on milkweed for approximately two weeks (depending on temperature), eating almost constantly, pausing only to shed its skin. The period between each shedding of the skin, or molt, is called an instar. Monarchs have five larval instars and grow to almost 2,000 times their original mass!
Make sure you have access to fresh milkweed every day or so (you can plant your own milkweed patch for future years to create a Monarch way station). You will also want to clean your Monarch enclosure frequently (caterpillars poop a lot) to prevent disease. We like to place a paper town on the bottom of our enclosure, which can be changed our every day or two. Its best to NOT touch the caterpillars because they are very delicate.
After about two weeks, the caterpillars will climb to the top of their enclosure, hang upside down in a "J" shape, and transform into a green chrysalis (make sure they have a few inches clear to hang their chrysalis). In another two weeks or so a butterfly will emerge from the chrysalis and you can release it into the wild once its wings stiffen!
For more information on Monarchs, check out Monarch Watch!
For a fun kids book on Monarchs check out "Hello, Little One: a Monarch Butterfly Story" on the Panama Rocks Bookshop! Purchases made on the Panama Rocks Bookshop help support our little park!
Moths are cool! They come in so many amazing shapes and sizes - some of the largest and most impressive in our area include the Luna Moth and the Polyphemus Moth.
Moths are very important to the ecosystem. They are an essential source of food for bats, birds, frogs, toads, fish, and other animals. Like birds and butterflies, moths also help tell us whether our the ecosystem is healthy or not. Moths are very sensitive to changes in the environment and monitoring their numbers and ranges can help provide early indications of the effects of pollution, pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change.
You can see really cool moths and start your own moth count to monitor the environment at home by going mothing and keeping track of what moths you see!
There are two ways to attract moths: using a sugar syrup to attract moths or projecting a light onto a white sheet at night. Moths can be observed year-round in above freezing temperatures. Both methods work best on a dry night that's not too windy (between 10:00pm and 1:00am is optimal).
Sugaring is the traditional way to attract moths. There are many recipes for moth syrup, but an easy one is to lightly combine molasses, beer or dark soda, brown sugar, and overripe mashed bananas. You will want a mix that is thick enough to keep from dripping but thin enough to spread with a paint brush. To make the sugar mix extra attractive to moths let it set and ferment on your counter for a few days (some people add yeast to help with fermentation). To attract moths, just paint your moth sugar solution on tree trunks and wait to see what comes!
Another way to attract moths is to hang a white sheet vertically outdoors (you can use clothes hangers and a rope between two trees to hang the sheet). Next, just shine a bright light on the sheet! Any bright light will work, but a UV light or black light will attract the widest variety of moths. We recommending finding a spot away from artificial light so moths aren't attracted to lights other than yours.
Once you set up your sugar and/or light trap, just be patient! Different moths are active at different times of night. You can use a camera and notebook to take pictures of different moths you see and the numbers of each type of moth. Moth ID guides or a smartphone app such as Seek can help you identify the moths you see.
If you keep track of moths throughout the summer you can see which moths are active at different times of the year. If you go mothing each year, you can see if the numbers of moths increase or decrease year-to-year, which can help tell you about the health of your local environment (why are moth populations are increasing or decreasing?).
For a wonderful children's story on moths and evolution, visit the Panama Rocks Bookshop and check out Moth - a story about how the Peppered Moth has evolved to survive in a landscape changed by human activity.
Additional nature books are available at https://bookshop.org/shop/PanamaRocks - all sales help benefit Panama Rocks!
In The Wind in the Willows, Mr. Toad loved his home, Toad Hall. At one point Toad Hall is taken over by stoats and weasels, Mr. Toad and his friends undertake an adventure to drive our the intruders! In your backyard, toads love their homes almost as much as the fictional Mr. Toad loves Toad Hall!
Making a toad house is a great activity to learn more about toads and help improve your garden or backyard! Toads eat many common garden pests such as bugs, beetles, caterpillars, cutworms, grasshoppers, grubs, and slugs. Did you know that a single toad can eat over 100 insects in one night?!
Making a toad house is very easy! We recommend using a small clay pot. You can either lay the pot horizontally on the ground and bury the lower half in the soil )making a toad cave) or set the pot upside down on a circle of rocks and make an entryway by removing a couple of rocks.
You should put your new toad house in a shady spot (such as under a shrub or plant with low-hanging leaves) and make sure a source of water is nearby. An easy way to provide water is to sink a small dish or shallow bowl in the soil and fill it with water when you water your plants (make sure that small animals can climb out by putting a small stone in the bowl).
Reading is important for young minds. Reading about nature and animals is important if we want young minds to care about the natural world. For some excellent books such as The Wind in the Willows, Mr. Frog and Mr. Toad, and others, please visit the Panama Rocks Bookshop (sales from the Panama Rocks Bookshop help support Panama Rocks!).
NATURE Activities for kids and Adults
One of the things I enjoy most about warm weather is birdsong. In my opinion, there are few things more relaxing than enjoying a nice cool drink on a Summer day and listening to the birds. The Wood Thrush, pictured above, is my absolute favorite singer. Listen here!
Birds are a great way to introduce children to nature and they have, in fact, inspired some of the most influential conservationists in history, including Roger Tory Peterson and John James Audubon.
Birds sing for many reasons. To attract mates, to warn of predators, to maintain their territory, and to reassure their mates or flocks. Some ornithologists (people who study birds) theorize that birds sing for the pleasure of it because they enjoy their own songs and singing with others nearby. Bird emotions are still not well understood and there is much more to learn about this topic.
One of the most complex animal languages is actually believed to belong to the Carolina Chickadee. Different notes in Chickadee calls are believed to indicate complex information such as locations of food sources and types of predators, their location, and more. Chickadees even appear to have grammar rules and regional dialects!
Many bird watchers are taught that usually only male birds sing (to defend territory or attract mates); however, 64% of the 1,000+ songbird species contain females that sing! FemaleBirdSong.org was created to help spread awareness of the importance of female birdsong (female singing is more common in tropical areas where mating birds hold territory for long periods of time - two singing birds might help protect territory better). In our area, Song Sparrows, Cardinals, and the Rose Breasted Grosbeak are well known for female birdsong.
Here's an activity that both adults and kids can enjoy (optional but helpful things to bring include: a nature journal, a field guide (or bird ID app - some help ID birdsong that you record), binoculars).
There are no right answers (well, there might be, but that's not the point!) - this exercise will get participants thinking about the natural world around you and help open your mind to questions that conservationists and ornithologists are researching right now!
You can find some of our favorite field guides for birds (and books on birds) in our Bookshop store! Each purchase from the Panama Rocks Bookshop store helps support Panama Rocks (and Jeff Bezos doesn't get a dime!). Thank you for your support!
You may also want to learn more at the Cornell Lab or Ornithology's website, All About Birds.