Sunday, August 21, 2016

Butterflies Aren't Exactly Free

When I wrote my last post, "The Nursery Is Ready," I was displaying my ignorance. We thought our crop of milkweed would be the nursery for the monarch butterfly eggs we planned to order. Eventually our milkweeds would become the pantry, as you will see. Although the website* mentioned the need for a "suitable rearing chamber," we thought we wouldn't need one because of our outdoor "nursery."  So when 28 eggs arrived on August 5th,  attached to a little milkweed plant, we were shocked to learn that we were supposed to raise the butterflies indoors. It was the weekend. We had nothing around the house that would do as a "rearing chamber." So we felt we had no choice but to put the little milkweed out on our patio and hope for the best. Something chewed up the leaves of the milkweed, but we never saw a single caterpillar. Not one. We felt bad.

I decided to try again.  Borrowing a terrarium from our daughter, I ordered just 10 eggs (or  caterpillars, depending on availability) for a little over $26. A box of caterpillars arrived within 2 days, cradled in a nest of milkweed leaves.

After laying a sheet of newspaper on the floor of the terrarium, we placed the caterpillars inside and said good night. 

Every morning for the next 10 days, we gathered 6 milkweed leaves from our front-yard plants. We washed them and patted them dry (butterflies get all the water they need from eating the leaves). Next we lifted the newspaper, containing the caterpillars, their poops and yesterday's shredded leaves, out of the terrarium. We laid fresh paper and returned the caterpillars--still clinging to shredded leaves--to the terrarium.  Finally, we placed the fresh leaves in the terrarium and closed the screen lid. 

Within 24 hours, the hungry caterpillars changed the sturdy milkweed leaves into tattered lace. They ate and ate and ate and mostly lolled around. One day a couple of them got into a skirmish that looked a little like a fight, but it was over almost before it began.  Mostly they ate.  And molted. And ate. I briefly considered ordering another batch of eggs/caterpillars, but our milkweed plants were turning yellow during the hot, steamy weather. Just when we thought their demand for leaves would exceed our supply, two of  the larger caterpillars stopped eating and began climbing the wall.

Reaching the top, they lay stretched out straight on the top for a day or two and then curled into a "J" shape.  Several hours later, I went in to check on them and was surprised to see two bright green chrysalises, along with a third caterpillar what had just reached the top.

When I saw the two chrysalises, 
I felt a little like a mother 
whose children had gone off to college 
without saying good-bye. 

As of today, there are 6 chrysalises at the top of the terrarium, plus 1 J-shaped caterpillar. A 7th chrysalis adheres to the glass, halfway up the side. Two large, fat caterpillars and 1 "runt" that has just molted remain on the bottom. Yes, you counted right. A few days ago we suddenly noticed that we were raising 11 butterflies. There must have been an egg on the leaves they came with.

It takes 10 to 14 days for a butterfly to hatch. We may be out of town for our nephew's wedding when that happens, so we may miss the finale of this miracle. Our daughter and her family will probably be the ones who see them off to Mexico.  Still, we are grateful for the part we got to play. We hope to do this again next year, maybe more than once. 

As I understand it from the brochure from Rose Franklin's Perenniels, our end-of-summer babies will probably migrate to central Mexico and spend the winter there. Their life spans will be longer than the 4-to-5-week lifespans of Monarchs hatched between spring and midsummer. After mating next February, the wintering Monarchs will start north as milkweed comes back to life in Texas. They will lay their eggs on the Texas milkweeds and their lives will end. It is their children that will continue the northward migration. 


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