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.
|My milkweed plants went from this|
Caterpillars on the Move
|to this, in a matter of days|
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
|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.
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|
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 monarchwatch.org. 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|
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."
|Ready for freedom|
|A new home|
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 future depends on what we do in the present"
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!
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.