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Essays : My Summer Journey

by Kathryn Arnold

The date of October 15, 1998 does not normally bring to mind summer, caterpillars, and butterflies. However, that is exactly what is on my mind this day. Here, in the midst of October, three of my final five Monarch butterflies have emerged from their chrysalis.

I have always enjoyed watching butterflies, and in 1997 decided to help the University of Kansas in their project called Monarch Watch, by tagging migrating Monarch butterflies. Although I successfully tagged 66 butterflies, it seemed something was missing. I felt the need to do and learn more, and so, much to my husband’s chagrin, began to plan yet another flower garden - this one specifically for attracting butterflies...not only to sip the nectar and rest on the flowers, but to entice them to lay eggs. I knew that butterflies only lay their eggs on plants that their caterpillars will eat, and so made it a point to collect information about food sources for different butterfly species, including Monarchs. I grew native milkweed in my Butterfly Bed, along with tropical milkweed, parsley, fennel, violets, asters, and numerous “regular” flowers to encourage the adults to stop by: butterfly bush, coneflower, lithium, zinnias, and trench marigolds.

The last three months have been exciting. I was very successful in attracting female Monarchs - almost too successful! Each day I collected eggs, plus the occasional already-hatched caterpillar. At one point in midsummer, I had more than 40 eggs, 32 small caterpillars, 30 ravenous adults, and 85 chrysalis.

The hungry hoard quickly outstripped my supply of milkweed leaves. Every other day I made foraging trips to my “stashes” of milkweed plants, sometimes out along a country road, other days along highway exit ramps. After picking crunchy leaves for the ravenous large larvae - “tanks” - and young tender shoots for the little ‘pillars, the leaves were brought home, washed, and placed between damp paper towels. Then they were tucked safely inside a plastic zip bag, and stored in the refrigerator for quick access. A supply of 60 leaves was exhausted by the group of ravenous large caterpillars in one-and-a-half days. Each caterpillar got half a leaf in the morning, and then was checked around noon to see if they had finished their portion. In the warm summer evenings, feeding caterpillars and cleaning containers became a lengthy responsibility, taking over an hour to complete. Halfway through this job, in the still of the night, you could hear the “tanks” munching the new leaves! With up to 40 large caterpillars munching 40 large leaves at one time, it sounded incredible! I never thought I would admit this, but perhaps the caterpillars themselves held just as much fascination for me as the end result - the butterfly.

The last 5 eggs were collected on September 13, and hatched on the 16th. The caterpillars ate, molted, and grew; ate, molted, and grew - until finally, they each one after the other spun a silken pad and hung by a tiny hook at the ends of their bodies near their hind feet. They hung in the shape of a “J” until it was time to shed their skin one last time. Then their emerald green chrysalis - the last trace of the caterpillar - began to appear, beginning September 30. The last yellow, black, and white-stripped caterpillar became a chrysalis on October 2.

I became nervous when the approximate time of 10 to 11 days to emergence of the butterfly came and passed. I searched through the publications from Monarch Watch and found that cold can slow them down a few days. I have relied on nature to take its course in due time - and they have turned from bright green, to dull green, green-black, and finally to black. Actually, the chrysalis is clear, and the final black color that is seen is the butterfly itself. The wing veins and distinctive orange and black coloration is clearly visible a day or two before the butterfly emerges.

I must admit, through all the feeding, cleaning, and watching them grow and become chrysalis, I have become considerably attached to these last five, and have confirmed my husband’s suspicions that I am indeed eccentric, by naming them: Honey, Shy, Cookie, Ditto, and last but not least, Zorro.

I DO realize it sounds bizarre to name caterpillars, but I have noticed that they seemed to act different from one another: May I even suggest some have definite personalities??! Honey loved to be held, even from a tiny caterpillar, crawling up and onto my hand each time a new leaf was offered. Now, Shy was - well, Shy! Touch the container - she rolled into a ball. Move a leaf, she rolled into a ball. Walk into the room - you can imagine what’s next!! Cookie, with her crooked right antenna, was another sweetie, who enjoyed being held; and Ditto, you know, ditto that last thought! And She’s a girl! As I have been typing, she popped out of her chrysalis and has begun to tilt back and forth. She will hang with wings pointed down, pumping fluid through the veins to stretch them into shape, with the help of gravity. In 20 minutes they will be full-size; it will take another couple of hours until she can fly.

My last little one is Zorro, who is about 2 days behind the others. Z is the last letter of the alphabet, and Zorro will be the last Monarch. My summer journey with the caterpillar-who-would-he-king will end with Zorro, who will perhaps emerge from chrysalis on Saturday, October 17. Having invited the last 274 Monarchs I have raised to enjoy at least one day of my hospitality after their emergence, the least I can do is invite the remaining 5 to do the same. Then I shall place a small, numbered tag on each of their hind wings, carry them to my black knight butterfly bush, and encourage them to leave me by way of stepping from my outstretched hand onto a blossom of that fragrant flower.

It is difficult to explain the emotions that touch my heart when they finally lift off from the flower: I feel awe gazing upon their fragile beauty. How intriguing that a caterpillar can free himself from the bonds of earth to rise into the sky as a winged creature.

I am hopeful they will safely make the long trip to Mexico, to bask in the warm sunshine there throughout our cold winter months here. Perhaps then, next spring, Honey, or Shy, or Zorro will begin their journey north to continue the odyssey and mystery that is the migration of the Monarch butterfly.

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