Because I do not have typical sources of joy in my life (children building an interesting life, grandchildren to dote on, family living in interesting places to visit, freedom to take off and go wherever I want whenever I want), I search for joy wherever I can find it. My journey with Monarch butterflies is one place where I find joy.
Why I love Monarch butterflies
Monarchs are my favorite symbol of resurrection and transformation. Love the metaphor of emerging from an ugly worm (though I find monarch caterpillars quite lovely) into a beautiful butterfly who flies free … a journey many of us take in life.
Monarchs look delicate, but they fly thousands of miles to get to Mexico for the winter. No other butterfly species migrates like the North American Monarch. Their sturdiness during this migration is another great metaphor for facing and persevering through life’s challenges.
As sturdy as they are, about fifteen years ago, naturalists expressed alarm at their dwindling population. They were no match for pesticides which kill off their food source (milkweed) and climate change.
Assisting Monarchs’ Survival
Because Monarchs are an endangered species, people are encouraged to build butterfly way stations to help them out. When I moved to my home in October 2015, I had room in my backyard to plant milkweed. In the spring of 2016, I bought milkweed and butterfly weed (a butterfly favorite) from the Marianist Environmental Education Center at Bergamo. They have a Native Plant Sale every year to support their nature preserve. This was my beginning.
In 2017, I was thrilled when the milkweed began to spread and the butterfly weed bloomed orange flowers. I hoped Monarchs would find it.
I would love to have a way station and pollinator prairie in my backyard. The deer and bunnies have foiled my attempts so far. They seem to love cone flowers. The bunnies even ate my butterfly weed this year. Fortunately, they don’t like common milkweed and they have haven’t bothered my butterfly bush.
A Gift Inspires Me
One day I received a call from my friend, Cindi, who is well aware of my love of Monarchs. She was all excited about bringing me a gift.
Turns out, her friend, Peggy, has a huge butterfly habitat in her yard. She gifts people with a chrysalis as a way to entice them to take the next step … helping to raise monarchs. They only have about a 10% chance of surviving in the wild.
The chrysalis was about to pop. They turn transparent when the butterfly is about ready to come out and you can see the butterfly wings through the chrysalis skin. I placed it in my bedroom, hoping to witness the emergence. However, when I awoke the next morning, it had already emerged.
Peggy keeps track and wanted to know if it was male or female. How to tell? Turns out I had a female.
I Was Hooked
In 2018, with my milkweed spreading even more, I was thrilled that Monarchs began to arrive. I bought a small habitat cage terrarium and brought in two chrysalis. I was disappointed not to see the chrysalis forming or the butterflies emerging, but was thrilled with the female clinging to the cage on September 10. Here she is as she starts her journey to Mexico.
A few days later a male emerged.
Joy on the Journey
This year (2019), my milkweed spread even more and I was eager for the Monarchs to arrive. Finally, in July, I spotted four caterpillars. I checked on them for several days, watching them chomping away and growing fatter. I was crestfallen when they disappeared.
Then in August, I saw a female flitting around the plants. She wouldn’t let me get close enough to see her laying eggs, but I was pretty sure that was what she was doing. Sure enough, a few days later I spotted two caterpillars.
I brought them inside. I didn’t want them to disappear. I cut off the top portion of the milkweed plant, brought it inside, put it in a vase, spread paper towels on the floor of the terrarium, and placed the vase inside.
I hadn’t really wanted to bring the cats (short for caterpillar) inside, because they are really messy at this stage. The gorge themselves on milkweed, spend the whole day eating, and they poop a lot. It is important to keep the cage clean because they will get sick if you don’t. But soon I had developed a routine and it wasn’t as difficult as I imagined.
Those two caterpillars soon expanded to more. I kept finding teeny, tiny baby cats on the milkweed I refreshed every couple of days.
Then the first cat curled up in preparation for forming a chrysalis. I was disappointed not to see the chrysalis form. Woke up one morning and there it was. It was clear, I needed another habitat to give the Monarchs room to spread their wings when they emerge. So I bought a second, much larger habitat cage terrarium just for the chrysalis.
It was a little tricky transferring the chrysalis. I had to move cats to a new plant. I found that they could tolerate my touch. They seemed startled and curled up, but soon they were happily chomping away again.
Witnessing the Miracle
Finally … I got to witness a caterpillar forming its chrysalis. I called for my daughter. We watched in awe.
Nicole loves Animal Planet and one day was watching a program about the Bronx Zoo. The segment on butterflies showed them receiving boxes of chrysalis in the mail. They spread them out on a table, pinned them, and attached them inside a container.
I watched in astonishment. “They must not be as fragile as I imagined.”
I searched You tube and found several videos on this process. I found the one that would be easiest for me. I cut off the leaf, cover it with paper tape being careful to surround the cremaster (black stem at the top of the chrysalis), and then I pin it to the top of the large terrarium.
I have already released a male and female. As of this writing, I have six chrysalis. I am hopeful that I will get to see at least one of them emerge (eclose is the proper term). How exciting that will be.
In the small terrarium are at least four and maybe five caterpillars. The teeny, tiny ones are hard to spot.
My Next Step
I ordered tags from MonarchWatch, but don’t know if they will arrive in time for me to tag this year. Tagging them makes it possible to track your released butterflies. That would be awesome if someone reported seeing a butterfly I released on its way to Mexico.
Monarch Watch also monitors butterfly sightings and this year they are up. That is a good sign and I’m excited to be a part of helping the cause of saving these beautiful creatures. As I said, it brings me joy!!
If you are interested in watching the whole miraculous process from start to finish, this YouTube video is great.