Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Helping Our Flying Flowers, a Mission for Monarchs - Part Two

By Kristy Belaney

 My milkweed plants, once covered with healthy, green leaves were now all but barren stems. The caterpillars, with the exception of "Houdini", (the fifth caterpillar who I could not find on the milkweed plants when I began collecting) had consumed their fill in preparation for their final and most awesome transformation before becoming adult butterflies. 

When the largest of the five had chewed one milkweed stem down to just a tiny nub sticking out of the dirt, it wandered off and began looking for a quiet and safe place to close one chapter of its life.

My milkweed plants went from this

Caterpillars on the Move

Milkweed plant after being chewed by Monarch caterpillar
to this, in a matter of days
Before a monarch caterpillar forms into a chrysalis, they will seek out a sheltered area much like they do before molting. In the wild, they have been known to wander 8 to 10 feet away from their host plant.

 When I first became aware of this information I immediately began to wonder how many caterpillars get stepped on, or run over by cars and lawnmowers in their pursuit to find the perfect spot. This is yet another benefit to raising them indoors!

                                                                Constructing a Silk Button

Numerous Monarch caterpillars munching on milkweed
Hungry, hungry caterpillars

  Once they are satisfied with their location, the caterpillar begins to construct what is known as a silk button. This "button" is made up of many thin strands of silk which they weave. Its purpose is to act as an anchor for the caterpillar to safely hang from while it is in its chrysalis stage for the next 10-14 days.

  After the button has been spun, the caterpillar will attach itself upside down to this silk pad and hang in a "J" formation. This shape allows for the control of fluids, which is needed to release the caterpillar from its old skin for the final time and form into the chrysalis.

"J" shape

The Amazing Transformation!

  The actual process of caterpillar to chrysalis is an amazing and bizarre thing. Scientifically it can be explained, but I am not a scientist. All I can say is to witness this transformation with your own eyes is a life changing event. If you are lucky enough to have caught this miracle yourself, you will understand what I mean by this.

This chubby one is a day from transforming
  I tried very hard to be present to see at least one caterpillar transform, but with life happening all around me and no pause button to press, it was not an easy task. I admit, I spent several hours sitting on the porch staring at a hanging, motionless caterpillar. Being new with this whole process, excitement had ruled rational thinking many times.
 Low and behold when I stopped trying so hard, I was simply blessed to be at the right place at the right time and out of the five caterpillars I was able to witness the third, and only the third, change into its chrysalis. As the saying goes, the third time's the charm!

Real Life Sci-fi Movie


 All of my previous ideas of how this happens were thrown out the window when I actually saw it. I had believed the chrysalis formed on the outside of the caterpillar to protect it and while inside this "cocoon" like structure, the butterfly developed. Not quite. The chrysalis is actually the inside of the caterpillar!

  Once the caterpillar has hung in its "J" formation for almost a full day, you will notice the bright yellow, black and white stripes fading and becoming less distinct. A slight greenish hue will take over the caterpillar and the two antennae will begin to thin and wilt in diameter. Just before the transformation occurs, the caterpillar will begin to move, pulling itself up and down as if doing sit ups. The caterpillar's body will begin to shake and quiver.

  What happens next is so odd you will think you are inside your own real life sci-fi movie. The skin of the caterpillar will split open at the head, revealing a bright green jelly like body underneath. As the caterpillar continues to wriggle and the old skin continues to tear and part, the cremaster will reveal itself. The cremaster is a spiny, black appendage at the end of the abdomen. This very important part is what hooks into the silk button allowing the chrysalis to hang.

  Once the old skin is split completely to the top which is actually the bottom of the caterpillar, the caterpillar will stab the cremaster into the silk button. It may take several tries, and some caterpillars fall during this stage if they cannot attach. I came across a funny explanation of this exact process on This description was given during an experiment called, "Monarchs in Space: The Challenges of Microgravity." It was written as follows: 

"Monarchs in Space: The Challenges of Microgravity"


Imagine this:You are hanging upside down from the ceiling with the use of socks made of Velcro* and you are wiggling out of your old clothes (you have some new clothes underneath) and just as your old clothes reach your ankles you have to pull your feet out from your socks and jab your Velcro covered feet into a patch of Velcro on the ceiling that is right next to your socks – and you only have seconds to do it and you can’t see what you are doing.

 Hard to imagine and I bet even harder to do!

The second chrysalis from the left has just formed, note the ripples, compared to the smooth texture of the others

  Wow, that is hard to imagine and I bet even harder to do! As stated earlier, some chrysalis unfortunately do fall during this feat. If this should happen and it is not damaged by the fall, you can gently attach the chrysalis to a stationary object by the cremaster with a drop of glue. You could also tie dental floss or any other thin type of thread around the cremaster allowing it to hang. At the very least, you can try to position the chrysalis upright so the butterfly has a chance to form properly. This method may or may not work.

The color variations in each chrysalis coincides with the timing of formation
  Once the adult butterfly emerges, the wings are very soft and malleable. The butterfly will need to hang upside down for at-least four hours for them to dry out and harden otherwise it will not be able to fly. If you choose not to reattach the chrysalis by glue, thread, or another method, you will need to place something like a stick or twig for the butterfly to immediately crawl onto and hang until its wings are dry. Just remember to use caution when touching and handling a newly formed chrysalis. They are very soft and delicate until time allows it to harden.You will be able to see the anatomy of the butterfly in it, such as the wings, legs and eyes. It is truly fascinating.

Green Jewels and Sleepless Nights!

The butterfly is visible and is near to eclose

   I cannot tell you how many restless days or sleepless nights I spent worrying about the caterpillars or my little green jewels. I wondered if the caterpillars had enough milkweed to eat before changing, I stressed that a curious, stray cat would get their claws caught in the net enclosure trying to paw at a crawling caterpillar, knocking the whole thing over. I agonized over the extreme cold nights and sweltering hot days being too much for them. I chewed down all my nails during windy thunderstorms thinking a chrysalis would fall. I prayed that all the butterflies would emerge healthy, free of disease and properly formed. Had they been parasitised by a tachnid fly while in their larval stage or did they carry an OE infection? Legitimate concerns, as these two threats are a common killer of monarch butterflies and usually do not show signs of being present until the chrysalis stage or adult. If that were the case, would I be strong enough to humanely dispose of them by placing the deformed, sick butterfly in an envelope inside the freezer? I shuddered to think.

So many concerns dominated much of the time I spent caring for them but now I know it was the only way to learn, to grow and to understand how to be a better monarch mommy in the future!

The first monarch to emerge. What a beauty.

These two are drying their wings

Family of Five!

  All five of my monarch caterpillars emerged healthy and in perfect condition. Excitement overwhelmed me as I watched each chrysalis undergo variations in color as the adult butterfly became closer to revealing itself. Jewel toned jade green, dulling to a bland, yellow gray and even darkening to a frightening black that anyone would assume was ominous. But then the darkness begins to transcend into a transparency so clear, the obvious, remarkable orange and black butterfly is right before your eyes and you see that it is lovely and good. A gentle tear of the chrysalis and and out comes the butterfly, grasping at anything it can with its new delicate legs. The wings are crumpled and damp and you are surprised and concerned at how small it is. But within a few moments, the wings begin to unfold and expand and you can smile and breathe a sigh of relief. At this moment, you realize you would carry those previous worries all over again, because helping these marvelous butterflies is completely worth it in the end.

"Love is like butterfly, beautiful and delicate... If you truly care for it, you'll do whatever you can to make it happy, even if that means letting it go."  


-Scott Pemberton

Saying Farewell

Ready for freedom
  When four butterflies had emerged within a day of each other, I half-heartedly and somewhat reluctantly set out to release them. They were all females, absent of the two visible black dots which are scent glands male monarchs have on their hind wings on each side of the abdomen. I chose a nearby park, which boasted a large open meadow full of native plants the butterflies could nectar on. Houdini was still in its chrysalis so transport was done carefully.

A new home
  Many feelings flooded me that day and as I set each butterfly free, I felt each one of those feelings collide. Accomplishment, happiness, hope, protectiveness, concern, anger, and love, all combining together turning me into an exhausted puddle of emotion. One by one the butterflies gathered their bearings, sitting weightless and patiently on my hand until they felt ready to take on the world. As I gazed at each beautiful one, I felt sadness that it had come to this, where humans now needed to intervene nature to help, because we had intervened to hurt.

 Some of the first flights were cautious and conservative, only amounting to a few feet. But one butterfly took off, soaring high into the trees almost in an instant. I don't know if it was the wind that carried her or her own mighty will but it was breathtaking.

  Smiles and laughter pushed through the tears and prayers were spoke internally and out loud. I tried to envision each of them surrounded by a circle of light and love, that would protect them from any and all harm on their long journeys south. I will never know, but I can only hope it was enough.

Unlike Any Other

  The houdini butterfly eclosed about a week after I released the others. As fate would have it, I decided to stop referring to it as "Houdini" and name it something else. Without any idea if it would emerge male or female, I chose to call it Charlie, after my dog who unexpectedly passed away while caring for the butterflies. When the butterfly finally emerged, it turned out to be a male, the only male out of the five. I knew right then it was more than just a coincidence and that this butterfly was special. I planned to release Charlie at the same park, but after his wings had hardened, he became incredibly eager to fly. He began flapping and fluttering his wings with such fierceness I thought he would hurt himself before we managed to get there. So I set Charlie free at our home and watched him take his first flight straight to our blooming goldenrod. He hung out there for quite a while, taking in the nectar of these important late blooming perennials and eventually took off heading north towards some neighboring pines. I guess Charlie knew where he wanted to be.

"The future depends on what we do in the present"

-Mahatma Gandhi 

  Raising Monarch butterflies has been an incredibly rewarding experience. When I share my experiences with others, it gets lost on some. I hear, "Oh I did that in school when I was a child." Or "That's kids stuff." I have even heard some people ask, "Why?" To me, it's shocking that someone wouldn't know that monarchs are near to becoming the next passenger pigeon and need our help. But then I am reminded of the tortoise and giraffe. These two creatures inhabit the same spaces, they dwell in the same lands. Essentially their worlds are identical but the world seen by the tortoise is nothing like the world seen by the giraffe. Neither is wrong, they just have a different sight line. The ones who ask why are the people I find can be educated the easiest. They don't have a preconceived notion of the monarch, they simply don't know. And anytime I have an opportunity to share the facts and my experiences with someone I seize the opportunity. It isn't about changing people or forcing your ideals on others. It is about giving the facts and leaving the rest up to them. You cannot make it your business to know what they do with the information but it is your business to provide it. Especially when something means so much to you.

You're a Good Man Charlie Brown!

Charlie Brown
  I would like to dedicate this blog post, in memory of our beloved dog, Charlie Brown. He was a loyal, loving, crazy, intelligent, happy, fierce, and beyond adorable Pembroke Welsh Corgi, whom we adopted from a rescue when he was almost 6 years old. I am thankful for the nearly 8 years we had with him and pray that someday we will be reunited.

  The suddenness of his passing still haunts us and we continue to miss and grieve for him. But like the caterpillars in this post, we believe that although his life here on earth may have come to an end, it was really only a transformation into something greater and there was a new beginning waiting for him somewhere else.



  1. I felt like I was there personally with you on this journey! You captured my interest and I hung onto every word. I look forward to our next journey, whatever it may be. Rest in peace dear Charlie!

    1. Thank you for commenting, it is always nice to hear feedback from readers. I'm happy you enjoyed it!