Saturday, August 13, 2011

Tutorial: Searching For Black and Yellow Gold

  Every year we venture forth to search for the elusive, but beautiful Black and Yellow gold.
  It took us many years to discover that our backyard is the perfect spot to find such a treasure, and now that we know we look forward to the prime time of year to go in search.
  An expedition like this takes Nerves of Steel (or, at least taught rubber bands) to enter the unknown of harsh grasses and indigenous plants that snag at our elbows and legs.  We shan't look too closely at that rustling grass, (especially when one of our number casually mentions that she saw a snake on an outing sometime previous to this) our rubber band Nerves of Steel might exert themselves in acts of heroism. Or begin to rust. One of the two.
  On this particular day we decided to travel light, nothing but our bare hands and bare feet - oh, and a camera because we didn't think stick figures would be as impressive.
  Shall we move onto our instructions?

  First - The prime time to hunt for Black and Yellow gold comes twice a year, early to mid July or mid August.  If the day you choose happens to be a scorching hot day and you will be venturing far from the home front remember to take water. . . and a hat. . . and a package of sandwiches. . . and maybe a signaling beacon (just in case).

 This is the perfect spot to begin your search for Black and Yellow gold. See all those plants with the large, oval leaves? Perfect, let's take a closer look.

Now, because we went searching later this year than usual the plants have started their seed pods. In July these milkweed plants have large balls of whitish/cream flowers.

This is what you are looking for. Plants that have been eaten around the edges.
Let's take an even closer look.
 This leaf isn't what you want. Holes that have been eaten in the middle of a leaf are caused by types of things we aren't interested in.

(Hmm, I'm not sure why the pictures are sideways. . .oh well.) This is what you are looking for, leaves that have been eaten from the edge in.  This leaf hasn't been eaten on recently, you can see how the edges are dry. If you see one like this you are getting close - if you see one with fresh edges you are probably right on top of Black and Yellow gold.

Success!!! Do you see it? The Black and Yellow gold?
This one is a pretty good size - you can find anything from teeny-tiny to really big. 

The arrow indicates where a lot of droppings usually are on an occupied plant.
Another tale tell sign of occupancy are, well, to put it delicately; droppings. You can be pretty sure that if you see a lot of caterpillar pellets, on a well eaten plant that they are still there or pretty close.

Our first discovery of the day. Isn't he lovely? 
This pretty caterpillar will burst out of its delicate, jade green cocoon as a beautiful black and orange Monarch butterfly.

Chickadee squealed, really excitedly, and pointed these two out - just look at the size of them and you can understand why 3/4 of that leaf is already eaten. They are HUGE and will probably be forming their cocoon's in the next several days - that is if they will decide they're done munching.

Showing off the lovely detail of the stripes, and exclaiming at the size of them!
They usually hang out on the under side of the leaves, so you will need to carefully bend over and lift leaves to find them.
While on your excursion you might just find other small treasures you weren't looking for. This beauty was lying among the wispy grasses, just waiting for someone to discover it.

Irish Rose made a discovery that we have NEVER made before. She spotted an empty cocoon shell.  They hatch on, eat, and apparently cocoon on the same plant.
At first we thought a butterfly had hatched, leaving the empty vessel. But on closer look we decided that, perhaps, something got into it and ate the forming butterfly.  There is a hole at the top and when they split out of the cocoon they come out of the bottom. Also, notice the dark brown color? When a butterfly hatches the cocoon shell is a very thin, translucent gray. 

Okay! Once you are tired, hot, itchy, and freaking out getting a little concerned at the number of yellow spiders you keep seeing it is time to head home with your loot. 

This is the bounty of our hunt - seven voracious Monarch caterpillars and one Unidentified fuzzy, creamy colored fellow.  
They were quite entertaining on the walk home. If you get a couple really close together they have a really interesting way of defending their piece of leaf.

Now comes the next part of your expedition. Finding a home for your recently acquired treasure to rest, relax, and eat, and eat, and eat, and EAT until they decide they are good and ready to form their jade palace.
Jars work perfectly well - anything from an old gallon jug to a pickle jar. Make sure to poke sufficient air holes in the lid so they don't suffocate.
You can also use a bucket with a piece of screen taped over the top. (This mode is a little harder as they have a tendency to like to find little loose bits of the screen and escape. It is also harder to lift the screen off to add fresh leaves.)
We had an old fish tank one year that we really liked because you could see through the sides and the screen top really well. Making it easy to spy on what they were up to.

Once you have your home make sure you keep your caterpillars provided with lots of fresh leaves, because they are going to eat a LOT - which means they are also going to poop a lot.  (You know you have a happy caterpillar if it doesn't stop eating and poops an amazing amount for such a small worm.)
We used to put sticks and twigs in with them to provide a place for them to hang and form their cocoons - but they seem to prefer climbing up and attaching themselves to the top of their home instead.
Every couple of days sprinkle just a little bit of water in their home to provide a bit of moisture.
(Word of the wise: If you're using a glass container try keep it away from direct sunlight or you might just find broiled caterpillars on your hands.)

Over the next several days/weeks, kind of depends on how big the caterpillars are or where they are in their cycle. We will be sharing about what comes next and what to expect when your caterpillars finally decide to being their cocoons.
Have fun and hope to hear from you!

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