This morning when I went to check on the butterfly pupae that are hanging from a Christmas cactus on the room divider just beside my back door, I discovered that a butterfly had emerged. Usually the emerging butterfly grasps and clings to the sides of its now empty chrysalis and hangs there while its wings dry. Unfortunately, this butterfly had lost its grip and fallen. It lay on its back, a sight I hate to see, because if the wings dry while folded or crushed, they will never straighten and the butterfly will die. I put my finger where the butterfly’s feet were feebly waving in the air. They grasped my finger, and I lifted the butterfly, its wings still not descended, and let it cling to a branch of the milkweed plant just behind the Christmas cactus. I left it there, having little hope for its survival. I checked on it ten or fifteen minutes later and discovered that its wings had descended just as they should! Apparently I had found it only minutes after its emergence and fall, and the wings had not begun to dry. The descent of the wings had allowed it to become a beautiful, perfect monarch butterfly.
I first became interested in monarch butterflies after seeing photos of the area in Mexico to which huge numbers of monarch butterflies migrate and reading articles about their endangered status due to pesticides and habitat loss from encroaching development that threatens that migratory area. Also, in the U.S. the milkweed on which the monarch caterpillars live is becoming scarce due to urban development. To preserve the butterfly, people are urged to plant milkweed, a flowering plant so called because when a leaf is plucked or a branch broken, a milky liquid oozes from the place of the break. Also known as butterfly weed, the proper name for the plant is asclepia. There are many different varieties of asclepias, but they all have in common that they are the only food source for monarch butterfly larvae, or caterpillars.
I bought some potted milkweed plants and set them in my side yard. Sure enough, I began seeing monarch butterflies come to the plants, and then I began to see the caterpillars, small ones at first and then larger ones. But I soon learned that many of the caterpillars did not survive, either because they consumed all the leaves on the plant and then had nothing more to eat or because they fell prey to predators such as wasps, which carry the caterpillars off to their nests to provide food for their own larvae. According to Wikipedia, commonly fewer than 10% of monarch eggs and caterpillars survive.*
To improve those odds a bit, I began bringing one or two potted plants into the house and putting them on top of the bookcase room divider by my backdoor. On those plants I put caterpillars I find on the outside milkweed plants. And yes, it’s messy, since all caterpillars do is eat and poop. I put large sheets of plastic under the pots to catch the droppings. I also have a Christmas cactus on that bookcase, and it has proved to be an ideal place for the caterpillars to pupate.
I got into this hobby to further the conservation of the monarch butterfly, but I soon became utterly fascinated by the life cycle of the insects. It strikes me as one of nature’s most miraculous processes. The butterfly lays its eggs usually on the underside of the leaves of the milkweed plant. The eggs are tiny white spheres no larger than the head of a pin. From the egg the caterpillar emerges as a tiny green worm. It immediately begins to eat—first, its egg case and then the leaf on which it was born. It is scarcely recognizable as a caterpillar in this stage. It will go through four more stages, molting after each stage. After the first molt it is recognizable as a caterpillar, is banded, but of a uniformly yellow color. After the second molt it is larger and its bands are now alternating yellow and black. It becomes considerably larger after the third molt, and after the fourth it is not only larger but shiny, almost appearing ceramic. I find it quite pretty at this stage.
It is after this fifth stage that the amazing miracle occurs. The caterpillar stops eating and becomes restless, searching for a place to pupate. It wanders about, its instinct leading it to look for a place safe from predators. It is not always easy for me to persuade it to pupate on the Christmas cactus. One does get away from time to time, and I’ve had a caterpiller pupate on the underside of a chair or table. But for the most part they do eventually settle on the Christmas cactus and form their “J.” That is, they spin a silk pad, the “legs” on their hindmost segment fuse into a sturdy “stem,” and they hang upside down with their head end curving upward. They may hang in this position for several hours or close to a day. Then a green liquid oozes from the head and pushes the head and skin before it as it creeps over the body of the caterpillar. The caterpillar writhes and twists until the head and skin are a black bundle at the very top of what is now a lime green globule. That bundle falls off, and the pupa takes shape, becoming a beautiful green ornament with a row of gold dots toward the top and two slightly larger gold dots at the bottom. This is the chrysalis, actually a transparent case enclosing the liquefied green remains of the caterpillar. After nearly two weeks during which this pupa hangs like a lovely Christmas ornament, a shadow appears at the top of the green globe, and then the green becomes cloudy, taking on a milky appearance. If you look closely you can see that the milky color is wings forming within the chrysalis, and the shadowy portion is the body of the butterfly-to-be. A day after this becomes apparent, the chrysalis turns dark. The butterfly has acquired its coloration, and as it is squeezed within the chrysalis, that coloration looks dark red, almost black. The nascent butterfly awakes, pushes, and the chrysalis splits. The butterfly squirms out of the now transparent shell, its legs grasping and, if all goes well, clinging to the sides of the shell. In about two weeks the liquefied insides of the caterpillar have reformed into an entirely different creature with beautiful orange and black patterned wings and a black head and body adorned with stylish white spots. This wonderful transformation never ceases to fascinate me, and I am always awed by the intricate and mysterious process that transpires within the chrysalis, unseen by human eyes. To think that I am privileged to witness such a miracle in my own kitchen!
Oh, and the butterfly that came out this morning? It was a very dark and rainy morning, so I left it inside as long as I dared. When I saw it exercising its wings, I knew I had to take it outside. As rain was still falling, I took the butterfly out the front door under the covered walkway to my carport. Right beside the carport I have potted milkweed. I got a flowering milkweed plant, put it in the carport, and put the butterfly on it. It climbed up onto the flower (actually a cluster of small flowers) and there it stayed most of the day. Late in the afternoon, long after the rain had stopped and the trees were no longer dripping, I moved the plant it was on out of the carport and back into its place. The butterfly flew off, onto a chain-link fence and then over it and onto the lantana I have growing there. I had witnessed its first flight! I guess it got a meal from the nectar in the lantana blossoms, as it lingered on the flowers for some time. Then it flew off, stronger now, soaring high above the roof of the neighboring house, circling, and then flying into the neighbor’s oak tree, where it could find a safe resting place for the night—and leaving me with a sense of satisfaction and pleasure from having witnessed this beautiful creature’s entrance into the world.