Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Royal Beginning . . . The Metamorphosis Of The Monarch Butterfly

I would like to share with you some of my observations over the years, while raising Monarch caterpillars. It is a truly wondrous wandering through days and weeks of change. Where else to begin but at the beginning . . . with an egg a bit larger than an aphid filled with an off white bundle just about to embark on a magical journey. A Monarch butterfly egg attached here by it's mother may appear still to those viewing its delicately etched casing.

There is constant movement of change going on within the hard protective shell,  where there is a wax lining helping to keep the forming caterpillar moist. After a few days a teeny black head appears at the tip of the egg. With a magnifying glass I can see it moving and soon it cleverly carves an exit hole through the shell.

Once the little ivory creature emerges it makes breakfast of the entire nutritious casing . . . nothing is wasted and it leaves hardly a trace of its former vessel. Free of its tight quarters like a jack-in-the-box granted liberty, the one twenty-fifth of an inch long caterpillar begins to explore its new world. 

The female Monarch usually lays one egg to one Milkweed plant. I most often find them on the fuzzy underside of the leaves. Sometimes there are two or more fastened to one plant. They can be found on the upper or under sides of leaves and on the dangling pink Milkweed florets . . .  or even the seed pods. If the mother is in a hurry almost anywhere on the Milkweed plant will have to do. There is much danger lurking about the plant too. I have seen small white spiders camped out near other intricate Monarch domes . . . in wait for what it considers a delicious morsel . . . the unknowing cater . . .  to evacuate its finely ridged eggshell.

This egg is merely a empty clear casing. The female  butterfly carries anywhere from  300 to 700  eggs and sometimes they are not all 'good eggs'.

The vulnerable caterpillar moves through the hairy landscape of leaf, likened to a silver glade or meadow, over streams and tributaries of milk. First, it grazes on milkweed hairs, thereby making a clearing to the leaf surface. Carefully, it must begin to nibble a hole that will not open a large stream. The caterpillar is so small it chews between the veins of milk-like fluid and is not caught in a flood.

A tiny hole soon appears on the leaf. It will grow in size as the skilled leaf cutter persists, and bite-by-bite, the caterpillar grows larger itself.  I look through the minuscule hole with my magnifying glass and see the tiny, shinny, inky, black head meticulously cutting parenthesis shaped slices with the same determined spirit as its mothers, when she carried our her destiny. Within a day or so we begin to see the colors of the cater emerging. I think it such a cute little fellow. 

Like most young, there is the need for quiet time and I do find the little ones napping a good bit between molts. After a couple of days steadily eating and resting, hidden in the down-like fuzz of the leaf, the caterpillar is nearly ready for its first molt. The Monarch caterpillar does not have a skeleton but an exoskeleton or cuticle, which protects the inner soft parts of the caterpillar. This hard skin cannot stretch to allow it to grow, so the caterpillar must molt, or shed its skin, five times before it becomes a butterfly. 

Here we find our little ward just after its first molt. Note the once solid black-patent head is now covered in a design. 

Often we will find these toddler caters near the top of the plant munching on the young tender leaves. The scientific term for caterpillar is larva and comes from the Latin meaning ghost and mask. Truly the small creature is masking a notable transformation, for while it is a caterpillar it is always becoming a butterfly.  Inside, its body cells and hormones are casting the parts it plays simultaneously. The caterpillar grows larger on the outside with each molt, while its inner parts evolve towards its fascinating metamorphosis.

This little face mask reminds me of a fencing mask.  It often looks as though the cater could fall off the surface but when the caterpillar crawls, it holds onto a leaf or stem with all sixteen legs. Each proleg has numerous minuscule hooks called crochets, which cling to the leaf and the silk thread the caterpillar spins, along the way, allowing the caterpillar to reach out with its six true legs to seek higher or lower ground. The silk is spun by the spinneret and gives the little caterpillar something more to grasp while moving around on a leaf. Similar to a rock climber, the caterpillar can also drop a silk line and move quickly down from one leaf to another. 

Here the little face mask is somehow still attached to the new face. The secure little cater works hard to be rid of it. It is also quite a labor to take off the old tight dress. Note how the short tentacles are all slicked back . . . like an Elvis hair do. 

The yellow and white stripes are the actual caterpillar but the black stripes are part of the clear skin. Here the tentacles are perked up and we can see the face is actually yellow.

The Monarch caterpillar has three separate body parts; a head, thorax and an abdomen. The head has twelve simple or weak eyes called ocelli, two small antennae, mouthparts, which include an upper and lower lip with strong jaws or mandibles, scent/sensory organs called maxillary palpi and a spinneret for spinning silk. The thorax has six true legs while the abdomen displays ten prolegs also called false legs, as they do not stay with the caterpillar when it becomes a butterfly. The last two prolegs are also named claspers and they play a most important role in the caterpillar’s life. 

These tiger striped caterpillars to me are the true heros of what we all admire in their later self. They are steadfast towards their purpose and constantly continue nurturing what they are becoming. I do not believe they get their due. I have harvested small Milkweed plants growing in harms way along the paths and have enjoyed the ritual of raising these magical creatures for nearly thirty years. I have written a book proposal of their metamorphosis that was consider a narrow slice of a narrow topic . . . so no book was born, but the joy continues. Now I am at risk of creating doubt in some of my readers . . . I admit to being slightly obsessive here, for I love the metaphor to our own struggles in life . . . to our striving to become who we really are. I find these amazing caters inspiring in how they pursue their goals and will continue with a few more post to show . . . the complete metamorphosis of the Monarch Butterfly. One thing to keep in mind is the size of the tentacles. They will double in size before the final molt into a jewel-like chrysalis. This fellow has more molts to go before he hangs in a 'J' and begins the final transformation towards the end of its life journey. Then that too will be a new beginning . 


Andrea said...

yes Carol every photo appeared as X, will visit next time again

Edith Hope said...

Dearest Carol,

What a masterpiece of observation, record and beautiful expression. I could see all your pictures which were breathtaking and left me in awe of how much time and patience is needed to capture these complex images.

I rather think that the metamorphosis of caterpillars to butterflies is a metaphor for life in so many ways. For my own part, I can identify with many changes in both physical and spiritual ways and I find it therapeutic to regard every day as a new beginning. It is often quite destructive to hold on to 'yesterdays', better to sift out the treasured memories and anticipate the wonder of tomorrow.

This has been a truly inspirational posting, dearest Carol.

Carol said...

I am sorry to have lost Bangchik's comment.

"They come for a colourful life "~bangchik

Carol said...

and... this comment from our butterfly guru Randy Emmitt-

Well done, the photos and narrative here is really good. Even I leaned a lot! Meg now has 3 Black Swallowtail chrysalis at school! Funny the kids are so fascinated with frazz!

Carol said...

Curbstone Valley Farm has left a new comment on your post "A Royal Beginning . . . The Metamorphosis Of The M...":

Carol, what a truly fascinating peek into the world of the Monarch. Not something I really get to see here. The part of their life-cycle played out here is as a place they choose to overwinter, and it's remarkable to see hoards of them covering tree branches in early winter. However, it's just as much fun getting this glimpse into how they all start. Thank you for sharing!

Carol said...

Thank you all for your kind comments!

Pure poetry Bangchik! Thank you!

Edith you express my feelings as well. To me this metamorphosis is a beautiful metaphor for life and the caters especially are so much more than they appear. Thank you Dear Edith, for your very kind words.

Yes Randy that frass is quite important in telling when the caters will molt too! It is great Meg can share this with children! I did have a group of third graders visit the gardens this summer but no Monarchs had arrived yet. I receive much joy from sharing this process with adults and children. My son Sean was the first and we shared this ritual for most of his childhood. Thank you so much for your supportive comment!

Clare, You get to see a magical part of the process indeed! I had to go to Mexico to see what you are able to see from your world. Lucky you! Thank you!

To be continued... next installment in a few days and I hope it goes smoother. ;>))

Dave@TheHomeGarden said...

Very good post! I'm going to have to start looking for the eggs so I can watch them grow in my garden. My kids would love to observe the process.

joey said...

Certainly appreciate the effort that went into this post/photo shoot, Carol. Thank you so much for the valued information and life we don't often see.

noel said...


your observations are quite impressive and the detailed photos amazing...i'm so excited to get this in-depth view of this beautiful little caterpillar...i'm hoping that the rest of the story will continue soon, i hope?

Meredith said...

Dearest Carol, how frustrating to have the photos go missing just when you pressed publish. Yet now all is restored. :) I see them perfectly!

I was riveted from word one. This is an amazing glimpse into an amazing life cycle and I really am looking forward to the next installment, Carol. I know almost nothing about the monarch, really, that you have not taught me (or Benjamin over at The Deep Middle).

I'd read your book, altho your passion reminded me of something Thoreau is quoted as saying when in one of his famous enthusiasms: "What a rich book might be made about buds and, perhaps, sprouts!" I say write the book anyway, and self-publish. There are sites now where you can self-publish in e-book form and if someone really wants the physical version, they can have it printed up and bound. You could start with a small, shorter form of the book you envision, and then use that as part of your next book proposal. Ah, well, I obviously just don't want you to give up your dream and your passion! :)

Beatriz said...

!Que proceso de crecimiento tan bonito! y que paciencia y que bien captado por tus fotos.
Saludos desde Europa

Andrea said...

Hi Carol, this is my 3rd visit, and now am not disappointed! Magnificent. Being a plant scientist i know very well of butterfly metamorphosis, but the way you wrote your narrative truly inspires readers. There is always the anticipation of the next step, and it is equally supported by awesome photographs. How beautiful. I am now thinking again of my old favorite, Lewis Thomas, who wrote the famous book "The Lives of a Cell", "The Medusa and the Snail". If you don't know him yet, you can look him up. He is a scientist who was able to make such complicated observations seem like an ordinary phenomenon. Go on Carol, i second Meredith in saying pursue your passion...and we are here anticipating not only your continuation post but also the metamorphosis of that book! God bless and take care!

Wenche said...

WOW,wonderful picktures.

Tatyana@MySecretGarden said...

Carol, you are a talent, and this is almost a ready book for kids (and adults too)!

Eva said...

Dear Carol~~No matter how many times I enter this world of the Monarch—mostly thanks to you for eloquently sharing your passion—I always learn more. I have to agree with Meredith about your book. I would gratefully own one. The book has been almost writing itself over these thirty years, I feel. You are the medium . . . the witness to one of Life's wonders. And because you have opened your garden to them, nurtured them, protected them . . . it is a personal story. Your careful and attentive narrative would reach across ages. Please don't abandon your dream.

How fortunate all your visitors are! I look forward to the next stages.

Barbarapc said...

Carol, I've got Monarchs, I've got Milkweed - now I need to go back out there and look for little eggs. Thank you so much for showing me what I should be looking for - can hardly wait to what I can find!

Anja said...

Dear Carol!

What amazing nature photographer you are Carol!/kram, Anja

Noelle said...

Hello Carol,

What a beautiful photo story. They would make a beautiful children's book. I am literally speechless with wonder....

hazeltree said...

one of the most fascinating posts i have ever read...

Carol said...

Thank you! Thank you! You are all so kind. I so appreciate your taking the time to read this story and for your encouragement. Really... it is so touching to read your words. The next installment is nearly ready! I am sorry it is not sooner Noel. I am so happy you like this post! Andrea thank you for coming back and for your intro to Lewis... I look forward to finding the book! M., A. and Eva thank you for those words of support. Wow! Michael... thank you! Bar., B, W, J, N, Anja, T... Thank you all! ;>)

leavesnbloom said...

I never knew anything about the joys of raising Monarchs and milkweed until I started blogging and its just such an amazing journey they go through to turn into those beautiful butterflies. Carol your first installment was so informative and so visual. I look forward to part 2.

I hope one day your dream will be in print.

Autumn Belle said...

Carol, this is a biology lesson so well told and written, it deserves to be in a book. I went to your class today and was fascinated by these magical creatures so many people pull out as pests and disposed off before they are allowed to even become the butterflies they are meant to be. Whenever I see a tiny egg or a little caterpillar, I don't mind sacrificing my vincas and citrus plants for these 'friends' of my garden.

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