I'm still going to raise monarchs indoors

One of the monarchs that I brought inside as an egg and raised over the last month. The tag is from Monarch Watch.

Hands down, the monarch* is the iconic and greatly loved butterfly of North America. In recent years, monarch enthusiasts have actively worked together to boost the population to counteract its steady decline since the 1990s. To better its odds and protect them from predators (only one or two out of 100 actually make it to adulthood in the wild), many people gather eggs and caterpillars to be raised indoors.

But many in the monarch butterfly community are frustrated with a recent blog post by The Xerces Society, which urges people to stop bringing in monarch caterpillars to raise indoors, and blurs the line between captive rearing and captive breeding. They argue that well-intentioned monarch enthusiasts are interfering with natural selection, contributing to a situation where resources are scarce (e.g., supplies of milkweed) and potentially enabling the spread of diseases such as OE. They also declare that 10 is a magic number for those who wish to rear butterflies at home.

Two caterpillars that I am currently raising
indoors.
First, captive breeders and captive rearers are not one in the same. Captive breeders are organizations (or individuals) who keep monarchs in captivity to create multiple generations of butterflies, possibly from the same parents.

They differ greatly from monarch enthusiasts considered captive rearers, myself included, who bring in eggs and caterpillars because they want to help the species evade predators and boost their survival rates so they can make the journey to Mexico. As soon as it is safe, (e.g., the wings are strong enough, the weather is decent) I release adult butterflies into my organic garden to find shelter and food, and hopefully begin the migration. See the difference? Those who keep the same adult monarchs and force them to breed defeat the purpose of raise and release. It shouldn't be anyone's responsibility to single-handedly raise generations of monarchs from the same parents.

So that brings us to the question of how many is too many? I'm wary of a quota for monarchs per household. The number of monarchs that a person can successfully raise should depend on their resources:
  • How much safe, clean milkweed they have access to.
  • How much space they can devote inside to raising the butterflies.
  • Their willingness to maintain a clean environment for the entire life cycle. 
If you’re going to bring in monarchs to help better their odds for survival, you can’t expect them to grow in poor conditions. Whether you raise 10 or 100, people should not keep monarch caterpillars in unsanitary, overcrowded conditions, which can cause stress and possibly spread disease. Enclosures need to be cleaned daily — sometimes twice a day when they are larger caterpillars. Multiple enclosures are needed so as to not cause overcrowding. (The staff at Petco have gotten to know me pretty well, since I kept buying their small, medium and even large starter aquariums this past August to accommodate my growing population.)

One of the arguments against captive rearing is that bringing eggs and caterpillars indoors increases the risk of infections such as OE, which is deadly in caterpillars. However, many monarch enthusiasts are able to recognize sick butterflies — and some even use a microscope to look for OE – and do not release these butterflies into the population. OE infected butterflies already exist in the wild, so this is not a problem exclusively caused by indoor rearing. 

A monarch that I raised and released came back the next
day to enjoy the zinnias in the garden. The tags are from
Monarch Watch.
Let's not let a blog post divide the community or discourage attempts to help. The Xerces Society blog post is one side of the monarch butterfly conversation, and I hope it doesn't discourage people from continuing to bring caterpillars inside. This year there has been a noticeable bump in population numbers. One has to wonder whether captive rearing contributed to that increase. 

Whether you side with me, or with The Xerces Society, or somewhere in between, we know one tried-and-true method to encourage monarchs: Grow more milkweed in your garden. I know for certain that this is effective, because over the last few years I have continually added milkweed plants to my garden. This year, I had a tenfold increase in caterpillars. Last year, I collected approximately 10 caterpillars. However this year, I have brought in more than 100 monarch eggs and caterpillars! That’s proof enough that growing multiple milkweed plants helps the population.

One thing I know for certain: I enjoy having monarchs in my garden so I plan to continue to responsibly raise them indoors.

*The monarch butterfly has experienced a population decline in recent years, due to pesticides, a decline in milkweed and legal and illegal logging of their overwintering grounds in Mexico. According to The Xerces Society, in the 1990s, nearly 700 million monarchs made the migration from the northern plains of the U.S. and Canada to Mexico, but in recent years researchers and citizen scientists estimate there has been an 80 percent decline in Mexico, and a 97 percent decline for those that migrate through California.

Read more:
Xerces Society says my Monarchs are doomed!!

Comments

  1. I had a student bring me a monarch chrysalis and a monarch caterpillar and both emerged and enjoyed several days in my garden. The chrysalises were protected from anything that could have happened in the garden. Meanwhile, my garden hosted monarch caterpillars that were munching way on all my milkweed. I have to believe that all our of our efforts are contributing to the increase in monarchs!

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    Replies
    1. I agree! I think the boost in population numbers has a link to all the monarch aficionados helping the cause!

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