The majesty of monarchs
Occasionally, we get some strange gifts, say a small honorarium, maybe a recently deceased woodchuck, or a book on a topic that makes me sick. Recently Jason, a man of many gifts (some mechanical contraptions that look scary), but this time, due to his immediate holiday in Germany, he dropped off a cage, a flimsy thing but still suitable for a poisonous lizard, a miniature sloth, or talking blackbird.
Well, it seemed he and the kids had put together a nursery for monarch butterflies. There, clinging to assorted milkweeds were no fewer than a half dozen caterpillars all voraciously chomping on their favorite meal. Hanging from a netted structure above were another six to eight chrysalises waiting to metamorphose. Once the unfolding occurred, we were told, the adults would hang around for a couple hours, getting their unfolding wings straightened out. With wings lightly fluttering, they’d beg to be out by waving their antennae.
It was our task to carry out the part of providing the fresh milkweed, counseling, and ultimately releasing them for their trip to Mexico. It was a huge responsibility, probably worse than caring for their pet forty-pound badger.
Jason explained how after gorging themselves on the milky weed they would crawl to the top of the cage, latch on, and then begin the process of making a pupal home by exuding stuff and weaving it, all at a speed that was impossible to detect. They could sure munch and were nothing short of consumption machines — almost like humans but with a singular focus.
Within a day or so one of the larva decided he/she (I don’t think they are hermaphroditic) had had enough and headed for the top of the cage. By next day there was this dandy hanging green chrysalis, the new but temporary home for the caterpillar.
About the same time, one of the chrysalises that were there on arrival started showing some signs of changing by turning dark and possibly wiggling a touch. Now mind you, even though I had studied entomology in college, the idea that this slime-filled, multi-legged caterpillar could get inside the pupal cage (like a papal enclave) and then just out of nowhere, turn into an actual butterfly still seemed beyond imagination. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention back then, more concerned about genetics and insect infestations that needed extermination than to take note of this natural wonder. Possibly, I paid more attention to it as a kid and that, I am sure, is why Jason was doing this. One needed to almost be a kid to grasp the magic of it all.
But then, at this age, maybe I am more childlike, not immature I think, but childlike. We were enthralled and each morning would dash, as best we could, out to the cage to feed and release butterflies for their trip south.
One by one, all 12 of the jewels, on their release, rested on for an hour or so outside the cage. Some tried their wings out, maybe fidgeted with their antenna, and generally took in the day with a little walking on leaves. Once oriented to the local surroundings and quietly saying goodbye to us, they lifted aloft, and almost every glorious insect did a circling flight upward as if to get their bearings. Once a hundred feet up, they would head out to join the rendezvous going south.
What a gift, and while it was Jason and his family that gave it to us, it’s hard to not thank Mother Nature for figuring that one out. I suppose that what it comes down to is that we have to work together to make sure the insects keep flying — looks like it’s no small task.
A closer look at a newly hatched monarch butterfly.
The monarch butterflies freshly emerged from their chrysalises.
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