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The Tenerife butterfly and moth rescue team for the Canary Islands

Updated on September 10, 2015

Monarch butterfly rescue team runs into a feeding crisis

In past issues of the Tenerife Sun I have written about my ongoing project to help increase the numbers of the beautiful Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on the island, and I am very happy to say that I am getting a growing number of people willing to help by cultivating the Scarlet Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) food plant in their gardens or terraces. In the Amarilla Bay housing complex in Costa del Silencio there are the most members so far of my Canary islands butterfly rescue team.

Photos for this hub

Monarch on the Bard of Ely's head
Monarch on the Bard of Ely's head | Source
Death's Head Hawk moth caterpillar
Death's Head Hawk moth caterpillar | Source
Death's Head Hawk Moth (Acherontia atropos)
Death's Head Hawk Moth (Acherontia atropos) | Source
Monarch caterpillar
Monarch caterpillar | Source
Monarch chrysalises
Monarch chrysalises | Source
Tropical or Scarlet Milkweed
Tropical or Scarlet Milkweed | Source
Cornical | Source

The Lepidopterist

There is Mike Slater, who is a lepidopterist, which is a person who studies butterflies and moths, in case you didn’t know, and Mike was naturally only too keen to help. Then there is Jan Bullivant who works in Flicks Bar, who is going to be growing some milkweed from seed, and Jenny Brignell, whose five-year-old little boy Xoaquin is very excited about it all and was happy to see the seeds I gave them come up and grow.

Unfortunately, all these people only have tiny seeds and seedlings so far. The same goes for Rob Carless in San Eugenio and Fernando Lorenzo and Emily Weston in Las Lajas in the north. Graham Ingle in Chirche and Kirsty Jay in Chio were other people I had given seeds to but also couldn’t help at this stage.

Sadly, despite all my efforts, a crisis point had been reached when all the greedy caterpillars I had on some plants out on my balcony had eaten nearly all the leaves. I knew I would have to journey on the bus down to Costa del Silencio, which is the only place where I know several plants of milkweed are growing in a flower border. I have done this before, and have been able to feed the starving caterpillars I have had here.

This time it all went badly wrong though because I got caught red-handed by a man who worked on the complex that the border is part of and he wouldn’t listen to my plea when I explained I desperately needed the plant (or rather some caterpillars did!) It was clearly more than his job’s worth to allow me to take a few stems and he said I had to empty my bag and throw the bits I had back on the border.

It all seemed so petty and such a tragic waste, but what could I do when technically I was nicking flowers from a border of a housing complex I am not even a resident of?

Beaten and desperate I thought I would try another border in another complex where I used to live and where one plant of milkweed used to grow. Unfortunately the community gardeners there had been doing obvious garden ‘tidying’ work and this process usually involves hacking everything back and pulling out smaller plants – in this case they had pulled out the milkweed I needed.

I thought there is only one other thing I can try to that is to get some Cornical (Periploca laevigata), which is a climbing vine in the milkweed family that grows wild on Tenerife and can be found on the waste ground near where I was. I didn’t think the Monarch caterpillars would eat it but faced with a life or death situation for them I hoped they would.

When I got home my worst fears were realised because my starving brood of caterpillars wouldn’t touch the Cornical even though they only had bare stalks left. Fortunately, Robbie Ehrentreich and Stefania Vello, who are two friends I have in Cueva del Viento had a few plants already growing on their finca and they said I could bring the hungry caterpillars there.

Not only that, but they already were doing their bit to help butterflies and moths because they had a huge caterpillar of the Death’s Head Hawk Moth (Acherontia atropos) demolishing a bush of Yellow Sage (Lantana crocea).

I was excited to see that they had a specimen of the brown variation of this caterpillar because I have only seen the more common green type before. It is a very odd looking creature with a spiky little horn on its tail and bizarre markings on its head.

The adult moth is equally strange with a marking like a human skull on its thorax and with its ability to squeak has given rise to many superstitions about it as an insect of evil omen. This is the moth that became a film star and was featured starring alongside Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs.

I released the hungry Monarch caterpillars onto the milkweed in their new home, and then Stefania and I spotted an adult Monarch butterfly in their garden. Stefania told me she had never seen one there before so it seemed like a good omen, as if the butterfly was checking out where I was putting the young ones and approved.

Footnote: Originally published in the Tenerife Sun newspaper.

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