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Essays : Diary of a Middle-Aged Monarch Watcher


August 20, 1997
I appraised the terrarium filled with soil, bedecked with milkweed, and fitted with a child-deterring lid. Come see Monarch caterpillar paradise at the children's desk! I thought like a carnival barker as I fished for my paint brush. With my co-workers at the Patrick Henry Library in Vienna, Virginia scrutinizing my deft movements, I artfully arranged my insect charges on the plants of their latest home, with only minor mishaps, such as a quick and unintended soil bath.

"Why aren't they moving?" someone asked.

"Ah, marvel at the phenomenon of quiescence," I stated knowledgeably. I received a justified raised eyebrow. "They'll get moving when they no longer feel threatened. It is like chilling out," I answered contritely.

With the arrival of patrons, the questions continued to increase. The large and colorful life-cycle poster I had acquired from Monarch Watch saved me from repeating myself. Parents and children alike studied the caterpillars, then the chart. The FAQ (Frequent Asked Questions) document that I had downloaded from the web page engendered much thought.

"They fly up with the airplanes!"


"She says that when they molt their face falls off!"


Only the first day at the library and already the little critters were a bonafide hit.

August 27, 1997
The phone calls I had received had expressed grave concern. I pushed the envelope racing to get to the library before it closed. I burst through the doors. "You're here," cried the staff.

I brandished two pots of luxuriant milkweed. "Have no fear."

Sixteen pairs of feelers waved at me in reproach. The terrarium had been defoliated. With constant eating and the passage of time, the little insects, now boldly colored yellow, black, and white, had grown long and fat. One reared up on its multiple legs. "What kept you!" it seemed to demand. Another bobbed from side to side. "Give us the milkweed or we will have to mess you up!" The caterpillars had been in my care for eight full days. They had become warp-speed gluttons.

I scribbled in my notebook: Whatever amount of milkweed you think you will need, triple it! It had not helped that a heat wave had destroyed some of my crop prior to the arrival of the caterpillars. For the next two days I could hardly keep up with their demands. They devoured milkweed at alarming rates. I became a regular at several garden shops to replenish my supplies. My frequent return appearances were met with quizzical looks. "Monarchs," I mumbled, dazed.

August 30, 1997
The library is a quiet place at 7 am on a Saturday morning. I put on only enough lights not to trip and to illuminate the terrarium on the children's desk. I peered inside the glass case. My hunch had been correct. The day before some of the insects had restlessly roamed their home, a sure sign that pupation would soon occur. Now three caterpillars had taken that road. They had attached themselves to the inner lip of the tank. They formed little Js, and sometime during the day, I knew they would split out of their multi-colored skin. The creatures that resulted would be lime- green blobs that wriggled for a short period of time before hardening into chrysalises. Phase two of the experiment had begun. As predicted by Murphy's Law, this miracle of transformation would be mostly missed by the patrons, as the library would be closed on Sunday and Labor Day Monday. "Bad Timing!" I scrawled in my notebook. The remaining caterpillars looked up at me expectantly. "Got any food!" was the message those expressive feelers conveyed.

September 2, 1997
Sometimes the universe is generous. There were 11 chrysalises in the tank. Three remaining caterpillars had assumed the J position, and two were still munching on milkweed. At least some of the children coming to the library that day would see the transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis, I thought with pleasure.

I kept one eye glued to the tank that afternoon. The caterpillars in the J position straightened just before they split out of their skin. As soon as I detected the tell-tale movement I gathered curious co-workers and any kids I could find.



"Ugh! It's wiggling."

"Dad, ya gotta see this!"

This was better than any science fiction movie. Better call the men in black. We've got pupae.

September 5, 1997
I knew I had a problem. The two caterpillars that were left had not transformed. One was fat and large, but the other was still relatively small. Both appeared to be eating. Reluctantly I decided to take them home.

All that remained in the library were the two emergence chambers I had erected for the fourteen chrysalises. Caterpillars, I decided, were perverse. Hanging as chrysalises from the inner lip of the tanks was not conducive to their emergence as butterflies. They would need more space to spread their new wings.

Amazingly, I mastered chrysalis relocation. Using the notes from the Monarch Watch web page, I performed the delicate procedure. After wrapping string around the top portion of a chrysalis, the cremaster, I gently teased the silk that attached the object to the tank. Now with the string still attached, I tied the chrysalis to strips of nylon. I placed it where I wanted it. Co-workers watching my attempts at "surgery" offered helpful comments.

"Did you choose the color of the thread to match the pupae, or did that just happen?"

"It was left over from our Roswell display. The alien needed repair."

September 6, 1997
Life ends; life continues. The day of Princess Diana's funeral, the fifteenth caterpillar finally pupated.

September 8, 1997
The last caterpillar died. Examination with a hand lens revealed that it had malformed mouth parts. Although it could eat, it could not take in enough food to survive. I felt silly burying it under my red rose bush. And yet, I hoped for a different transformation than the one that nature had denied. Princess Diana had become the Lady of the Lake. Mother Teresa joined the other saints. What mystery awaited the caterpillar who never became a butterfly? Where happens to broken dreams?

September 10, 1997
Waiting was boring. Observing a chrysalis was not as much fun as following a caterpillar. The opaque green-gold cases, although pretty, allowed no one to see the action beneath the outer layer.

Metamorphosis is strange, a total biological rebuilding. I wondered what those creatures that had been caterpillars experienced as they reorganized into butterflies.

The restless patrons simply wanted to know when the first butterfly would appear. I came to prefer their practicality. You cannot dissect miracles.

September 12, 1997
The call finally came. Butterflies had entered the building. By the time I reached the library, two had emerged. In the blink of an eye, a third one suddenly came forth. The bloated creature with crumpled wings hardly looked like a majestic Monarch. It began to fan its wings. Soon the body thinned as blood reached its extremities. The wings unfurled like flags on a breezy day. "This is too cool," I whispered to a child who watched with me. The incredible process repeated three more times that day.

September 13, 1997
Six butterflies wanted out of the library. Wings flapped in unison in secret Monarch code: "Let's go to Mexico!"

I was glad I decided to check on my charges. I hadn't planned on such an early release, but I was running out of space. The clearing of three chrysalises indicated that more butterflies would emerge soon. The moment of truth had arrived: Time to tag.

I was glad for the quiet, and the fact that I was not on duty for Saturday. The library would not open for an hour. I could do my first tagging without an audience. I prayed as I reached for a butterfly. I grabbed it by the leading edge of its wings so it could not move. However, its feet kicked wildly in annoyance. I popped an adhesive tag on its right back wing over the large discal cell. Finished, I dropped the butterfly into the transport box. I recorded the tag number and the butterfly's sex (a fact discernable in its wing pattern) in my notebook. The procedure had occurred so fast that it took a minute for me to realize that my hands were shaking as I wrote. It took another minute for me to note that I had done what I had most feared successfully.

The male butterfly flapped in perturbation, but seemed otherwise unharmed. "Amateur!" the insect's wings signaled in Monarch.

Just as the library opened, the sixth butterfly received its tag. The fluttering of the insects in the transport box intensified. "MEXICO!"

"Wow, look!" a child gasped.

Disappointed looks followed me as I took the box away. "These guys are ready to leave for Mexico, but more butterflies will emerge today. Watch these chrysalises. We will tag them next week," I promised.

The sky was a deep clear blue. A gentle, warm wind made the trees sway. Gooney Point on the Skyline Drive seemed as good a place as any to release butterflies.

Letting go was difficult. I put one on my finger, and one on a feather, while my husband snapped pictures. The others just soared from the box, the instant I raised the lid.

Among Native Americans, butterflies are seen as messengers that deliver wishes to the Great Spirit. I hoped mine were heard.

September 15-17, 1997
Butterflies are fussy, I decided. The count now numbered eight, and they had ignored my offerings of special nectar, succulent cantaloupe and prime pansies. I had to finally conclude that a little deprivation would probably not adversely effect them. But like a good mother, I still left them food.

"How do you tag a butterfly?

"Very carefully."

The library had a total of 4 tagging displays. Children and adults tensed as I held each butterfly. When it became clear that they did not suffer from the necessary procedure, the questions flowed.

"Where will you release them?"


"Will they die?"

"Some might."

"How do you know when they will reach Mexico?"


"No, the Internet. The tagging data will be on the Monarch Watch page.

If anyone finds any of these guys, we will eventually know."

South Arlington did not have the spectacular beauty of the Shenandoah.

As the last of the eight flew up toward the sun, I knew it did not matter.

September 17-18, 1997
The last pupa finally opened, but the butterfly had a problem. His upper wings had not completely unfurled. He needed the benefit of a more secluded release spot. A Buddhist nun at Kunzang Odsal Palyul Chag Chub Choeling in Poolesville, Maryland came to my rescue.

My last monarch enjoyed the flowers set before the stupa dedicated to the healing of incurable diseases that was located in the meditation garden of the temple. Could he fly any distance, never mind to Mexico? Only the Buddha might ever know his fate.

September 19, 1997
I wondered what Dr. Taylor would think of my tagging data sheet. It contained all the appropriate information, but had an added feature: The circulation staff and I had bestowed names upon the butterflies. Would he actually print those in the Monarch Watch Internet record?

I checked the data sheet one last time. I chuckled at the silly names; warmly regarded those entries marked for friends and relatives; grew sad at those dedicated to the dead.

The project had ended. The days would grow colder and darker, but hopefully the Monarch butterflies would bask in the glorious Mexican sun.

Adios, mis mariposas Monarcas!

w w w . M o n a r c h W a t c h . o r g
m o n a r c h @ k u . e d u

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