Little did David and I know how a leisurely lunch on our patio in early August was going to add so much interest and education to the remainder of our summer. As we ate we observed a Monarch butterfly flitting around the milkweed plant in our flowerbed. I noticed its abdomen repeatedly bending upward to touch the underside of the leaves and realized it was laying eggs! While we have had the milkweed for several years this was the first time that I was aware of any eggs on it. When the Monarch left I carefully searched the plant and brought into the house three leaves with an egg on each.
Within a couple of days two of the three eggs had hatched into the smallest of caterpillars. The black spot showing on the end of one of the egg shows the caterpillar head as it starts to eat its way out. While I kept the third egg for a couple more days nothing developed from it.
Once the eggs hatch it is necessary to provide a constant source of fresh leaves to satiate their voracious appetites. I initially kept the leaves and caterpillars in a paper towel lined pie plate, moistened with a light mist of water as the paper dried.
The caterpillars remain in their first instar stage for several days, then shed their skin as they outgrow it, morphing to become a second instar caterpillar. Caterpillars go through a total of five instars. I never did observe the process, probably because the “cat” eats the skin after emerging. Either that or it got lost in the mess of caterpillar poo or “frass” that collected non-stop. It was necessary to keep the area clean so that the cats didn't waddle through the mess and track it onto the leaves where they could end up digesting it and possibly getting sick. In no time, the cats were the striped caterpillars that I had always associated with Monarchs. We were by now getting attached to our new lodgers and had named them Will and Ed, for our two youngest grandsons.
It didn't take long to realize that individual leaves weren't going to last very long for these hungry babies so I started using cuttings from the stalk of the milkweed plant to provide food and a more natural environment for the cats. I used a plastic iced coffee cup filled with water, with a lid through which the milkweed was inserted, and allowed the cats to crawl around as they wished, eating and pooping.
One rainy morning while bringing in more food for the growing boys I was pleasantly surprised to find that the new cutting contained a caterpillar that was well advanced of the two I already had! He immediately became Richard, named for Will and Eddie's father, and a second cup was added. I like to think he was happy to be out of the rain!
Over the next few days I found another two caterpillars and brought them in to join the family. Of course one was named Erin, for my daughter (and mother of Will and Eddie), and the final one was named Sam for our oldest grandson, David's daughter's son. I kept an eye out for one more to also be named Will (#2) for our fourth grandson, but it wasn't to be.
I was away for a couple days but came home to find that “Richard” had already formed his chrysalis and that Will and Eddie had almost doubled in size.
It wasn't long before Will and Eddie stopped eating and crawled up the side of their cage. They stayed this way for many hours while they formed a silk mat from which to hang and then both dropped into the typical J-formation. They were attached by a stem, called a cremaster, into the silk which secured them firmly in place. It is when they are hanging completely straight down and even their antennae are drooping downwards that you know they are about to pupate.
I was looking forward to watching the process of pupating but they both managed to do it while my back was turned! I now realized that once started, it happened quickly!
Will managed to shed his skin completely and it dropped to the bottom of the cage but Eddie's skin remained bunched up and attached to the top of the chrysalis.
A couple days later Erin dropped into the J shape and formed a chrysalis right between the two boys as though she just knew there were going to be fights to break up between these brothers! Richard wasn't far off, keeping an eye on things.
AGAIN, I missed the formation of the chrysalis!
I had one more chance with Sam and I was determined.
As luck would have it we had our grandsons, Will and Eddie, staying with us for the weekend when Sam was ready to perform his miracle. Eddie and I pulled up chairs to the dining room table, tied the screened dome to the light above and prepared to wait. His bedtime approached but we didn't care how long we had to wait, we were going to see it happen.
And once the process started Will joined too.
Fortunately we didn't have to wait too long but I could now see why I had missed it before. The process from start to finish was mere minutes.
After a lot of wiggling the old skin drops off but the chrysalis still doesn't look like the others. At this point the skin is so soft that a touch can cause it to rupture. But within a day it is completely dry and will harden enough to touch.
A couple days later we were due for another miracle. Richard was ready to emerge from his chrysalis. It had turned dark and over time we could clearly see the colour of his wings showing through.
True to form though I missed the actual metamorphosis into a butterfly! But I did see it just moments after, before the wings were fully unfurled. And it wasn't long before I realized that Richard was actually a Rita!!
Later that day we released Rita into the back yard. She hung around on a flower for a short while then sailed off to a neighbour's tree where I could still see here several hours later.
We had a few days of waiting for Will and Eddie to emerge from their chrysalises. Will was the first to eclose, managing to do it while no one was watching, but it was my cue to keep a close eye on Eddie.
Eddie was not far behind. I watched in amazement as the chrysalis broke open and his abdomen suddenly appeared and dropped downwards, followed quickly by the tightly curled wings It has little resemblance to the majestic Monarchs you’ve seen fluttering through your garden. Its wings are small and crumpled, and its abdomen is filled with fluids.
Over the next few minutes fluid is pumped into the wings helping them to expand. Newly emerged butterflies need to have space to hang upside down so that their wings can expand and dry properly. Without sufficient room the wings could end up permanently deformed, leaving the butterfly unable to fly.
In time both spread their wings to let me know that they were indeed boys.
I kept the butterflies until my two little neighbours were free to come over and help with their release later that afternoon. Neither felt comfortable handling the butterflies but the younger one was even more than a little intimidated by them. But I think they enjoyed watching them experience their first forays into the wild.
Will and Eddie hung out together for a short while before taking to the air.
The following morning Erin was ready to emerge and did so quickly. However the temperatures outside were cool and I was afraid she wouldn't be able to fly so I made the decision to keep her overnight. The following morning was rainy and we were planning on being gone for the day so I made the first attempt to release her the following afternoon. Erin sat on a flower for more than an hour without moving. However at that point, even though it was sunny and dry, the temperature was 16 C and forecast to fall to an overnight low of 5 C.
This was a gal who was planning on leaving home under HER terms! I returned her to the warmth of her indoor enclosure and provided her with a slice of orange, a couple grapes and some sweetened water. Butterflies seldom eat in the first 24 to 48 hours but I wanted to make sure she had food if she wanted it.
By mid morning of the following day the temperatures had warmed and I hung Erin's enclosure from a tree branch and let her decide when she was ready to go. She wasted no time in taking off, not even staying long enough for a parting photo!
The next day Sam emerged from his chrysalis. But Sam was really Samantha! She wasted no time in leaving us that afternoon, on a warm and sunny day.
It was sad in a way to see her go, but we felt that perhaps we had made a difference to these Monarchs. Maybe our helping hand gave them a higher chance of completing their life cycle. Mother Nature can be brutal with threats lurking everywhere for the tiny eggs. They are often food for beetles, spiders, ants and wasps. And once the eggs hatch the holes in the milkweed leaves are a signal to predators that a tasty morsel is near. Birds don't find Monarchs tasty. However they don't know this until after this first bad experience so it's not until then that they tend to avoid them.
We are already looking forward to next spring with the return of the Monarchs and another season of raising and releasing. If you would like to do your part for the Monarchs consider planting some milkweed in your garden. You won't be disappointed!