A little help can go a long way towards monarch caterpillar health. Supporting the caterpillar stage of life is a big part of monarch gardening. To help, we’ve expanded caterpillar segment of the mini-series to break out more detail on hosting caterpillars, including housekeeping for messy caterpillar guests.
Monarch Caterpillars are Messy Garden Guests
Monarchs are milkweed eating machines. They’re also pooping machines! This poop, also called frass, is expelled as little dark green blobs. The exception (for healthy caterpillars) is right before a mature caterpillar pupates, when the frass may have a slight reddish tint as the caterpillar empties it’s body for the final time. Colours and any colour changes may be more noticeable for container raised caterpillars who are observed more closely. In our garden, I haven’t noticed anything other than the usual green frass, but we have a lot of active outdoor caterpillars and a lot of poop.
Yes, that’s an action shot of one of our caterpillars pooping above. All part of the magic and wonder of monarch gardening! The bigger the caterpillar, the bigger the poop. You may see frass on your milkweed that looks like tiny speck of dirt from baby caterpillars through to large frass blobs from late stage caterpillars. If you have a large growing group of caterpillars, there will be a whole lot of pooping going on. That makes for a very messy living area.
Frass and Monarch Caterpillar Health
Cleaning Up After Messy Monarchs
Frass can catch in the foliage of plants and build up on the surfaces below. This increases the risk of bacteria and disease affecting exposed caterpillars’ health. If you are raising caterpillars inside, you will need to ensure that their enclosure is kept clean and provide a safe fresh food supply, as you would with any other contained creature or critter. This can be a little trickier in the garden.
Caterpillars in the Wild vs. Caterpillar Guests
If caterpillars were munching and pooping in the wild, housekeeping with be limited to wind, rain, and the natural decomposition of frass back into the surrounding soil. If you’re fortunate, your monarch garden may be hosting and helping a higher concentration of caterpillars than in a wild scenario.
Giving nature a helping hand to maintain balance can help support a healthier caterpillar population, especially if you have successive guests taking up residence on your milkweed plants over the season. Fortunately, we’ve not yet had any known issues with disease; however, we still try to foster a safe and healthy environment, where we can. Here are some of the housekeeping measures we take to try and reduce risks. See the note at the end of this post for health-related resources.
Maintaining a Healthy Environment for Caterpillars
A safe and stable food supply of healthy swan plants (milkweed) is essential. In addition to providing food, there are a other considerations when inviting groups of eating, pooping, and crawling guests to the garden.
Spreading Out Swan Plant (Milkweed) Plants
Our milkweed plants are grouped for ease of management, but these groups are dispersed (plus our potted milkweed). This spread reduces the likelihood that all our milkweed plants would be hard hit with the same issue at once. I also have the luxury of being able to redistribute caterpillars and/or rotate my tented caterpillar feeding ares between different plantings, if needed.
Environmental Conditions and Weather
Moist environments allow fungal diseases to set in on your plants and bacteria to thrive. Some of these can harm your caterpillars or disrupt their food supply, so maintaining healthy growing conditions is a must. Our garden gets great airflow (sometimes a little too much!) and the netting used to tent the caterpillars for predator protection still allows for good air movement and moisture transfer.
I usually avoid overhead watering, but I make a special exception for our milkweed in prolonged periods of dry weather. If there is no dew or rain, caterpillars and chrysalids get a light morning misting to maintain hydration. In these conditions, there are no issues with moisture lingering around to foster health issues for the plants or our monarch guests. I also do periodic plant washes, when needed.
Keeping Caterpillar Areas (Somewhat) Clean
On occasional fine mornings, after a careful check for caterpillars, our milkweed plants are rinsed with water. Special attention goes to flushing joints and junctions where frass tends to catch and collect.
For further protection, soil on potted plants can be covered to reduce contact or periodically rinsed. In ground plants can be covered at the base or buffered with a safe mulching material. Water for any cuttings needs regular changing, but all the moreso if caterpillars are munching and pooping above.
Deep Cleaning and Pruning
Deep cleaning can be helpful if you detect illness. It’s also good practice to deep clean and/or sterilise things like containers and enclosures between use. Our protective netting enclosure is periodically removed and cleaned. This is a great opportunity to do a thorough clean-up and pruning (when needed) of the covered milkweed.
Pruning milkweed helps to reduce the risk of disease buildup. It also helps to keep the plants healthy, bushy, and control their overall size so as not to overcrowd the enclosure.
Our caterpillars are usually on one of the milkweed patches or in the dome, but they do tend to wander sometimes. Anything else (to our knowledge) used to support a chrysalis is tidied up after the butterfly departs, including removing any remnants of the chrysalis casing and cleaning the area.
Need help with a specific issue or concern? Monarch Butterfly Garden and Save Our Monarchs have helpful articles, including photos, for identifying and trying to prevent common monarch diseases and parasites. If you have a monarch caterpillar (or caterpillars) that you are concerned may be unwell, you may wish to temporarily relocate them to a caterpillar quarantine using cuttings or potted milkweed that can be isolated from the rest of your caterpillars while you investigate potential issues and/or allow some time to monitor.