A Butterfly Gardening Adventure with Beffymaroo!

Hello Habiticans! Today we’re going to take a journey into the exciting world of butterfly gardening with Habitica’s resident amateur lepidopterist, Beffymaroo!

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How Beffymaroo sees herself!

You may have heard, particularly if you’re in the U.S., that one of the world’s most iconic insects is in trouble. Monarch butterfly populations have dropped a lot in recent years. There are many reasons, but one of the biggest is habitat loss in areas where the butterflies lay their eggs and where the caterpillars feed.

If you’d like to help the Monarch, as well as other pollinators like bees, plus have a lot of fun watching nature unfold at your own home, read on for a basic guide to starting your own butterfly garden.

This will mostly be geared toward Monarch butterflies, which are best known from North America. They make their famous migration across the continent to overwintering grounds in Mexico, the U.S. Gulf coast, and the coast of California. Monarchs and their cousins are also found throughout Central and South America, and significant numbers of Monarchs also overwinter and breed in Puerto Rico, Cuba, New Zealand, Indonesia, Australia, Hawaii, and other Caribbean and Pacific islands where suitable food plants grow (in many places these plants are introduced rather than native- more on that later). The basic concepts of cultivating safe food plants for caterpillars as well as nectar flowers for the adult butterflies should be applicable to many species!

https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/portals/0/Images/Nongame/monarch%20butterfly/monarch-butterfly-population%20Ryan%20Hagerty%20usfws_376.jpg
Overwintering butterflies in California- they huddle together to stay warm! Photo from wildlife.ca.gov

First, you need to find a good spot for your plants. If you have a yard or garden space, perfect! If not, many types of milkweed (the monarchs’ food plant) and flowers will also thrive in containers. My garden is a collection of potted plants on a concrete patio- a little urban nature oasis!

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Before you purchase any plants or seeds, research what types of milkweed and flowers are native to your area. The most commonly sold milkweed plants in U.S. nurseries and garden stores is Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica. Some folks will tell you it’s straight-up bad for Monarchs because in warm regions it artificially extends their breeding season, and it can harbor disease since it doesn’t die back in winter. Tropical milkweed grows fast, does well in containers, and has beautiful flowers that butterflies love. If you choose to grow it, especially if you live in a region where it doesn’t dip below freezing, cut it back to a few inches above the ground twice a year. This helps prevent it from spreading invasively, keeps it from causing out-of-season breeding, and will stop it from accumulating pathogens that can hurt the caterpillars and butterflies. It will grow new fresh foliage with a little time!

Native plants will generally grow better in your climate and be easier to care for. While my garden has a lot of tropical milkweed because of availability (and because it seeds like crazy) I also have some natives and they tend to handle the weather and resist pests better than my tropical (I’m trying to clone this type from cuttings so I can eventually replace my tropical). Not sure what type of milkweed or wildflowers are native to your area? The Xerces Society (an organization dedicated to the preservation of invertebrates) has really helpful lists of pollinator garden plants for every region of the United States as well as some other countries- these lists also include native milkweeds. They also have a guide for sourcing seeds, if you’re unable to obtain plants at local nurseries or by getting natives and their seeds from the wild.

A big word of caution: if you choose to buy full-grown plants you should do some research and talk to the nursery or store’s plant buyer to ensure that the plants have not been treated with any kind of pesticide. Even organic or “pollinator safe” pesticides that are supposedly safe for bees and butterflies will kill caterpillars that eat the leaves. I learned this the hard way after buying milkweed from a local organic nursery and watching twenty of my caterpillars pass away as it had been treated with organic pesticide. Not fun, do not recommend.

The best time to start a butterfly garden is before the butterflies arrive! In regions where it freezes, sow native milkweed seed before winter as it requires some time in frozen ground to germinate. If it’s warmer where you live, start your plants in winter or early spring so they’ll be ready for earlier butterfly arrivals. Monarchbutterflygarden.net has a great guide to planting and caring for many commonly grown varieties of milkweed and nectar flowers. There are also some very helpful groups available on social networks for Monarch enthusiasts and pollinator gardeners, especially on Facebook. They’re great places to ask questions and get answers quickly!

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When will the butterflies find you? This depends on where you live on the migration route. To make sure they spot your garden, have lots of flowers to feed the hungry adults and a group of six or more milkweed plants for females to lay their eggs.

The monarch life cycle is fascinating to watch- and lots of fun! I bring a few eggs inside to watch the caterpillars grow and make their chrysalides while safe from the many predators of the milkweed jungle. In the wild, 95-99% of caterpillars don’t survive to the adult stage. That’s not an issue of human intervention or an especially dangerous garden- that’s just how it is! The survival strategy for most insects is “have as many babies as possible so a handful make it”- hence Monarch females lay up to 300 eggs each!

Most researchers say that raising Monarchs indoors like this is something you should do for fun rather than as a conservation effort- it’s possible butterflies raised indoors, once released, may have disadvantages in survival compared to their counterparts that grew up in the wild outdoors. Keep in mind that providing outdoor habitat (along with generally trying to live sustainably) is the most important thing you can do to help their populations.

Recommendations I’ve seen on how many butterflies per household per year scientists say it’s OK to raise indoors without potentially weakening the wild population range from ten to one hundred. As you will read later on, they eat A LOT so definitely start small, especially if your garden is new and you don’t have large stocks of wild milkweed you can get food from.

Every step of the Monarch life cycle is dependent on temperature- the numbers I give here are for warm summer conditions (65 F and up). In the winter, their life cycle can take much longer!

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Can I offer you a nice egg in this trying time?

Monarch eggs are very very tiny! They’re about the size of the head of a pin. You’ll often find them on the undersides of leaves (especially new leaves) and on flowers and flower buds.

In 3 to 5 days, the eggs will hatch into tiny caterpillars. At first, the holes they’re chewing in the leaves will be easier to see than the little guys themselves.

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Monarch caterpillars, like all invertebrates, have an exoskeleton. It doesn’t grow with them- to get bigger they have to shed their skin. Monarch caterpillars shed their skin five times before they make a chrysalis, and the growth period in between molts is called an “instar.”

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On the left, a fourth-instar caterpillar beginning to molt. On the right, his big fifth-instar brother who can’t let him just molt in peace. They are one day apart in age and look at the size difference!

While they shed their skin, the caterpillars will stay still for 12-48 hours. Don’t panic that they’re not moving or eating during this time! Also they definitely look weird while this is happening.

After they shed their skin (which they usually eat later), their old “faceplate” will also pop off.

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A macro shot of a discarded face!

By the end of their final instar they’ve increased in size 2000 times! This is why it’s good to try to keep smaller newer caterpillars in a separate raising area from the large ones. Eggs and hatchlings can be accidentally eaten by the big guys.

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Image of Monarch instars from monarchconservation.org
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They also produce a lot of… waste to clean up.

This is what I like to refer to as the “they’re eating me out of house and home” stage. You’d really be amazed how much food they can put away. One caterpillar can eat an entire average-sized tropical milkweed plant all by itself! So do keep that in mind when considering taking them inside, where they are more likely to survive to adulthood and need all that food.

Once they’ve gotten to their maximum size, the caterpillars wander around for 24 hours or so, then find a spot to make a button of silk for their chrysalis. After they make the button, they’ll anchor their rear end to it and then hang upside down in a “J” shape for 24-48 hours.

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As opposed to a cocoon, which is spun from silk and other materials (and more of a moth thing), Monarchs become a chrysalis- it’s really just another molt! But a really weird one where they turn into a strange green wiggling blob that then hardens into a more recognizable chrysalis. Here’s a YouTube video showing this process in time-lapse (maybe not something to watch if you’re particularly squeamish about bugs).

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Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar has essentially turned into a weird magic soup that’s going to re-assemble into an adult butterfly over the next 8-12 days.

As the time comes for them to emerge, the chrysalis will start to darken – soon you’re be able to see the familiar orange and black pattern of the wings through it!

Within 12-48 hours of the chrysalis darkening, the butterfly will break through the chrysalis (in essence, this is their final molt!). It will spend a few minutes pumping fluid from its abdomen into its wings to inflate them to the proper shape.

It takes a minimum of two hours for the butterfly to be properly “dry” and ready to go. I recommend releasing them as soon as possible after that as they tend to get unhappy pretty quickly when they’re confined. If it’s cold or raining hard, it’s OK to wait a day or so.

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The complete life cycle of one of my b-flies.

It’s always a little sad to say goodbye, but it’s an amazing feeling to send a beautiful and beneficial creature out into the world. Especially if you watched their whole journey from tiny egg to hungry caterpillar to weird chrysalis to gorgeous butterfly!

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I hope you had fun learning more about one of my favorite hobbies since my childhood! I’m linking a few more favorite resources below. Have fun learning about and helping pollinators. If you’d like to chat in Habitica about your butterfly gardening experience, please check out the Lovers of Lepidopterans Guild!


Further Reading:

Monarch Butterflies on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monarch_butterfly

Other butterflies in the Milkweed butterfly family- a lot of them are based in Asia and Africa and their host plants there include popular ornamental plants such as Crown Flower (Calotropis gigantea): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danaus_(genus)

A good startup guide for indoor butterfly raising: https://monarchbutterflygarden.net/how-to-raise-monarch-butterflies-inside/

(Note though you don’t have to to buy all the things this person recommends. Most florists will give you a few bud tubes for free if you explain what you’re doing with them. Egg cartons make great stands for the tubes and an aquarium or converted pop-up hamper is a fine cage. There’s tons of informative guides that can be found on the internet!)

If you are looking for a dedicated cage for Monarch caterpillars, I do like these mesh popup cages as they fold flat and are easy to clean: https://www.amazon.com/Insect-Butterfly-Habitat-Terrarium-Pop-up/dp/B07CWRYTLH/ The mesh is also a great place to make a chrysalis.

A very well-established Monarch garden in the U.S. can be certified by Monarch Watch as an official Monarch Waystation! You can even get a nifty sign. https://monarchwatch.org/waystations/index.html

You may have heard about tagging butterflies to help scientists learn more about Monarch populations and migration habits. Different U.S. regions have different tagging programs:

Monarch Watch encourages tagging east of the Rocky Mountains: https://monarchwatch.org/tagging/
Monarch Alert has a program for citizen scientists to tag Monarchs in California: https://monarchalert.calpoly.edu/citizen-science-0
Southwest Monarch Study has a tagging program for the U.S. desert Southwest: https://www.swmonarchs.org/tagging.php

The Monarch Butterfly Trust of New Zealand also has a tagging program: https://www.monarch.org.nz/introduction-to-research/taggingtransects/

Some information on raising other types of butterflies: https://www.joyfulbutterfly.com/what-do-caterpillars-eat/

I post regular updates on my Monarchs on my Instagram account! Here in southern California, I see them nearly all year round, but mainly in March through October.

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Use Case Spotlight: Reviewing and Evaluating Your Tasks

Illustration by Vampitch

It’s all very well to have a meticulously laid out set of Dailies, but that’s no good if you find they’re getting out of date! It’s important to take a step back sometimes and figure out if your tasks are really pointing at your goals, or whether they’ve got a bit stale or even pointless. This Use Case Spotlight is all about how people keep their task lists fresh, evaluating whether Habits are still working and whether that To Do still really needs to be done!

Dagger-13 started us off with some advice from the College Info Geek Podcast, and how they apply it to Habitica:

Martin from the College Info Geek Podcast has spoken a few times about how he only sets daily ‘to dos’ for two weeks at a time. At the end of the two weeks he evaluates his tasks and decides which ones to continue, which to drop and any new ones to introduce. I think this is a good way of keeping the daily task list fresh and relevant while also allowing for a certain level of ‘routine’ to kick in (reducing the brain power required to carry out all of the daily tasks and freeing it up for other things).

Lawmancer has some thoughts on the importance of adapting what you’re doing:

I also have to adapt to what is currently happening in my life. Once something becomes a solid habit that I don’t think about, I can switch it out for something new. I have different things I want to learn (various reasons), which can be either dailies or habits. My exercise goals can change as I work on different things (muscle groups or more cardio and less strength training, that sort of thing.) And I have temporary tasks. For example, being spring, yard work is a focus, but that comes to a dead halt in summer. (I’m from Alaska. I don’t do heat. So yard work will go from daily, to weekly, to none during the winter.)

Kate the Great has a whole system:

I have a different theme (I’m not sure that’s the best word) for each day. Monday is my planning day, so that’s when I evaluate tasks in Habitica (along with other stuff). I started out trying to have a habit for everything because I wanted points for everything. I think, “It counts, so I should get points for it.”

Then, all of the habits and tasks started to overwhelm me, so I decided to get rid of a lot of them and just add a “bonus points” habit so that I still get points for everything.

Now I just try to have one habit that I’m trying to add at a time. When I get good enough, I can add another one.

My dailies are just anything That I can schedule reliably every week/day. They are also a lot more forceful in my mind. I think, “I have to do it because it’s a daily.”

And Dan O’Dea boiled it down to three super simple points:

[T]he bottom line for me in reviewing and evaluating my tasks pretty much boils down to three things.

  1. Combine similar tasks using checklists within a single task.
  2. Eliminate tasks that are no longer relevant.
  3. Challenges add tasks to your own.

That doesn’t cover the whole discussion, so if you’re looking for ideas, do check out the Use Case Spotlights Guild! You could be featured in next month’s Use Case Spotlight if you join the Guild and post something relevant to the current theme, so keep an eye out for the next prompt so you can add your own tips and tricks.

New and Notable: Guild Spotlight

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Habitica has a vibrant community, and new Guilds arise all the time. This year, we’re highlighting some of the newer or smaller Guilds which may not get as much traffic as Guilds that are higher up in the list. All of these Guilds have had recent activity and have a minimum number of members; they’re probably a bit quieter than more established Guilds, but they have the potential to grow. Spot something that sounds right up your alley? You know what to do!

PodcastersLove listening to podcasts? Have one of your own? This Guild is for both listeners and creators, and there’s opportunities to join in with challenges, chat about your favorites, get new recommendations… There’s something for all podcast enthusiasts here!

CynophilesIf you can’t resist petting every puppy you see, this Guild is a good place to find like-minded people. It’s also a good place to get practical advice and share your frustrations if your pup just won’t learn to sit.

Death and Taxes: If you’re worried about the only sure things in life, this Guild is a good place to hang out and talk about ridiculous official paperwork and getting your taxes filed on time. Everyone has to do it, so why not share tips and support one another!

If any of these Guilds appeals to you, then you can jump straight in, join and post. If not, check out previous Guild Spotlights, or wait for next month’s post with a whole new selection!

Burnout

Illustration by draayder

It’s Wiki Wednesday! Once a month we highlight a helpful post from the Wiki with tips about productivity, wellness, and optimizing your use of Habitica!

Burnout is a serious problem when it comes to productivity. That feeling that you just don’t care whether you’ve done everything on your to do list — in fact, everything is just way too exhausting. It can be a problem for Habiticans too, whether it’s because your dailies have become overwhelming or because you can’t seem to use it to motivate yourself anymore. This month’s highlighted Wiki article has some tips about how to deal with burnout in a healthy way, with tips for all kinds of burnout. Here’s an excerpt:

Setting high goals can encourage users to push themselves, but they still need to be attainable. If you frequently miss Dailies, the game can become more punishing than rewarding. For example, players may start with a requirement that they exercise for half an hour a day. If this turns out to be too much, there’s a risk that they will avoid it and get no exercise at all.

Check out the full article here! There’s a lot more discussion and advice on that page which could help you battle the dreaded burnout.

Don’t forget that the social side of Habitica is packed with people just waiting to share their tips and tricks with you, as well!

Guac This Way: Fruit and Veggie Pet Pics from Habitica’s April Fool’s Celebration

Habiticans enjoyed yet another April 1st marked by goofy pixel antics this year! This time, the April Fool lulled us into a false sense of security by claiming he’d refocused his life on health and nutrition. We should all know better by now, shouldn’t we? It turns out he went and turned all our pets into cute little fruits and vegetables!

As part of a special Challenge to mark the occasion, many Habiticans shared their  avatars with their produce pets on social media! Here are just a few of the many awesome pics you all posted as part of the Challenge!

First, here are the entries from our Challenge Winners! They’re kind of a big dill.

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issaleonardo knows when to turnip the volume.
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“Just hanging out with my peach of a pet for April Fool’s…” says Bee_
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“My lion turned into a banana! Perfect for the banana cake I’m about to bake lol” says alittlebitofeverything.
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We hope Zelah_Meyer likes frozen fruit!
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kitt-haven isn’t sure where their regular pet went, but it should turnip soon.

Here are some from the Habitica mods and staff! Olive them are looking quite excellent, if we do say so ourselves.

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“That banana has seen some things.” says Beffymaroo
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Oh no! shanaqui‘s bunny pet, a proxy of one of their real life bunnies, has turned into something a bunny might snack on!
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Although she is normally a bustling town of foxes, Fox_Town took a moment to experience being a tranquil Farm Fox.

For those who may not have known, this April Fool’s prank was inspired by Socialite and Artisan QuartzFox‘s Art Trello request for fruit and veggie Magic Hatching Potions, hence her guest appearance in the Bailey (er, Carroty) that day !

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“Here I am being a sushi chef! Sorta. 😉 I love my pet avocado *so much* and I wanna keep him!” says QuartzFox.

And here are some more of our favorite entries! All your pics were so rad-ish it was hard to choose just a few to feature here.

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kakudennu‘s party found themselves a buffet of cuteness!
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makura747 and company enjoy a bountiful harvest.
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Citrusella gives us three looks! Left to Right: The main avatar look for the day, some fun with CSS in commemoration of the original 2014 April Fool’s prank that inspired this year, and then a variation with a blooming onion on the side!
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louvelune has a really interesting breakfast in the library.
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imjustarogue is off to travel the world on her royal purple wolf mount with a befriended dragonfruit.
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ProbablyASeaBass says, “I’ve heard of sea cucumbers, but not sea peaches!”

Overall it seems like everyone had a lot of fun! We’re glad you had enjoyed it as much as we did. Lettuce wait and see what the April Fool is up to next April 1 – this prank is going to be hard to beet!

Want to see the April Fool’s past antics? Check out our posts from the social media challenges in 2017 and 2018!