Monarch Update: In Hopes of Hawks

It’s been said that an ecologist is someone who puts up birdfeeders in hopes of seeing hawks. The same principle applies to milkweed for monarchs; what you often get is wasps.

A little background here. We’ve had the pots of milkweed out for the butterflies, we’ve seen a few stop by, my roommate even spotted a few eggs. Yet the milkweeds remained unmunched beyond tiny holes, and every possibility of a caterpillar just… disappeared.

Meanwhile, we kept spotting wasps. Whom I suspect are the culprits.

While classic high school biology books present monarch butterflies as poisonous so birds learn not to eat them, and other butterflies mimic the monarchs to go unmolested, said books neglect to mention that monarchs have other predators beyond higher vertebrates. The caterpillars, in particular, while just as toxic as the butterflies, have no shortage of predators that have their ways of getting around said toxin. Most of it’s in the skin, after all, and if you can avoid eating that, you’re good. Wasps are pretty darn good at that.

So what do you do if you want to provide good monarch habitat?

I see three possible courses of action. You can accept the predation, you can kill the wasps, or you can protect the caterpillars.

The first option may be preferred by a lot of people trying to keep critters as wild as possible. After all, if predators weed out the sick and undesirable, maybe you don’t want those caterpillars to survive. It’s a valid argument. On the other hand, if the wasps build a nest right over where you have the milkweeds, they are going to hunt out every last caterpillar, sick or not. They take easy prey – and easy can also mean just “close by enough to find with a little more hunting”.

Which may lead directly to the second option: kill the wasps. Again, valid depending on your situation; nobody wants a wasp nest directly overhead. Some people are as deathly allergic to them as those allergic to bees, in which case I say take what measures you need to defend yourself. Ouch. But again, on the other hand, caterpillars are wasp food; they may keep luring in more wasps from other places, no matter how you spray. And wasps as predators do keep down other insects that are not so desirable.

We, personally, are taking the third option. We have a screened-in porch, we moved the milkweed there, and the current crop of tiny caterpillars are chewing away. When they get to the chrysalis stage and within a few days of hatching out, we’ll move the pots back outside; wasps tend not to bother them then. So the adult monarchs can take their chances just like any other adults. We’re only sheltering them to that point. You know, like they do in a lot of other wildlife rescue programs; get them ready to survive on their own, then it’s on them.

But we can only do that because we have a screened area, and only a couple of pots to worry about. More than that would be too much for us to handle.

…Which is something to remember any time you want to “change the world”. Take on only what you can handle. You’re a lot more likely to follow through, and get good results!


6 thoughts on “Monarch Update: In Hopes of Hawks

  1. Definitely agree there. Not particularly religious, but you don’t need to be to appreciate the thought behind:

    Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    The courage to change the things I can,
    And the wisdom to know the difference.

    It’s not ever on one person to change the entire world, but it is on you to do the best you can to change what you can. And as it says, on the tin, one of the big issues is working out the difference between what you can and cannot do.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. There have been so many inventions that don’t scale well.

    “We’ve done it! We can fix everything! Climate change, poverty, and even bad breath! All we need to do is… run the entire ocean through a filter, cover 5 times the surface of the planet in solar panels and have every single person in the world agree to something.”

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  3. I have a strong philosophical view that ‘change the world’ is a wrong framing, precisely because small scale is what we are better at predicting and controlling.

    It is probably bad to have a bunch of people utterly and only focused on the broadest possible scale. At best they are probably wasting effort, at worst very destructive.

    But, I can’t have any influence on ‘a bunch of people’. I can share my strongest thinking with the few people I have contact with, and allow them to take what they want from it.

    I have no control over what they take, nor over what they do with it. That stuff is on them.

    I would hope that they are discriminate, and choose to filter out the worst of my own insanity.


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  4. If a boy fires off a gun, whether at a fox, a landlord or a reigning sovereign, he will be rebuked according to the relative value of these objects. But if he fires off a gun for the first time it is very likely that he will not expect the recoil, or know what a heavy knock it can give him. He may go blazing away through life at these and similar objects in the landscape; but he will be less and less surprised by the recoil; that is, by the reaction. He may even dissuade his little sister of six from firing off one of the heavy rifles designed for the destruction of elephants; and will thus have the appearance of being himself a reactionary. Very much the same principle applies to firing off the big guns of revolution. It is not a man’s ideals that change; it is not his Utopia that is altered; the cynic who says, “You will forget all that moonshine of idealism when you are older,” says the exact opposite of the truth. The doubts that come with age are not about the ideal, but about the real. And one of the things that are undoubtedly real is reaction: that is, the practical probability of some reversal of direction, and of our partially succeeding in doing the opposite of what we mean to do. What experience does teach us is this: that there is something in the make-up and mechanism of mankind, whereby the result of action upon it is often unexpected, and almost always more complicated than we expect.

    ― G.K. Chesterton

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