The Monarch Butterfly Danaus plexippus, is perhaps one of the most widely known and beloved butterflies. We know that climate change, threats to the fragile overwintering sites, pesticides and loss of essential host plants, Milkweed, is causing concern for the survival of these amazing navigators. Yet Monarch butterflies have survived for millions of years and somehow I must believe they will adapt to our environmental disasters and continue to do so. It is too heartbreaking to imagine otherwise.
Female Monarch butterflies have now flown from their over wintering sites in Mexico towards Texas fastening their eggs to Milkweed plants and then dying . . . passing the torch, as it were, to their offspring to continue further north and east until the fourth or fifth generation of the Monarchs, who took flight from Flower Hill Farm last fall, will arrive here to begin the Monarch butterfly metamorphosis anew.
I have been so blessed for over thirty years by being able to share parts of the summer months with these remarkable butterflies. I cannot imagine life without this renewal . . . observing a unique transformation close up. Inspirational and joyous moments abound through the discovery of a small creature's struggle to grow, change and then take off on a momentous journey.
It is remarkable to consider that the intelligence, consciousness or genetic code is already set within this tiny form that will one day transform into another form supporting wings and then take flight to faraway lands.
The cream colored Monarch caterpillar chomps through its clear, finely-etched egg casing and gobbles it up for its first nutritious meal. It will continue to munch milkweed leaves, flowers and stems growing and shedding its tight skin four times, not to waste a good meal the Monarch caterpillar will eat each pile of molted skin then pick up munching milkweed again . . . growing more until the fifth time when it unveils the chrysalis it has been creating inside the later clear black striped caterpillar skin. The yellow and white colors are the caterpillar body inside the skin.
A part of the butterfly that it will become is already tucked inside the little Monarch caterpillar and it will nurture that part of itself during the two weeks it munches milkweed, sheds its skin and becomes bigger and bigger till suddenly it feels the urge to weave a silk node and let go of its caterpillar self.
Note the small silk ball or node the Monarch caterpillar carefully weaves and forms from the thin silk threads it pulls out of its spinneret. This is an important creation for the caterpillar, for its very life depends on its strength to hold the caterpillar, while it pulls up its skin to reveal its jade green chrysalis hidden inside of the black, yellow and white striped caterpillar.
The Monarch caterpillar has also been building a 'cremaster' or pole just about where its hind feet are now. The 'cremaster' has hundreds of tiny hooks to hold fast to the silk button it is creating. This important part of the chrysalis will pull out from under the pile of skin to find the essential silk node and latch onto it, then thrashes around to be sure its hold is secure.
One day a Monarch caterpillar whispered to me . . .
"Please raise me with dignity . . . give me space and fresh air as I find out in the garden and fields . . . do not toss me into a box or jar or fish tank with dozens of others of my kind. You will never really get to know me that way. I may get sick and die from overcrowding. I play a very vital role in the making of what I become . . . thank you for honoring that and my journey as a caterpillar."
And now the curtain is about to rise! What do we see? A caterpillar or chrysalis?
The caterpillar trachea is no longer needed so it lifts off with the old skin. The shape of the caterpillar is not quite gone yet. The chrysalis will shrink and a clear casing will harden enclosing and protecting the reshaping life.
A Monarch butterfly template is revealed within the forming chrysalis.
Tiny jewels hang for about two weeks while the Monarch metamorphosis takes place.
When it is time, a fresh new butterfly flips out of its protective chrysalis casing. The butterfly abdomen is bloated being filled with the fluids that will blow up the wings. Once they are fully blown out the butterfly hangs to dry like a fine dress on a clothesline . . . this can be a dangerous time for a butterfly. It must hold on tight and not fall or it will surely die.
When the Monarch butterfly's wings are dry and the butterfly is familiar with its new body and has discovered how all the parts work, it will begin pumping its wings preparing to fly.
Releasing Monarch butterflies is especially thrilling.
Whispering 'Best of Luck!' We watch in amazement and joy as each butterfly takes its first flight.
For weeks during late summer enchantment fills our days.
The native plants and others in the fall gardens are more alive with Monarch butterflies readying for their long voyage to Mexico. Native Ironweed and Rudbeckia are particular favorites. Buddleia (below) or butterfly bush can become invasive in warmer climates. Here in my climate of today I can barely keep one alive. A Painted Lady sips nearby a newly released Monarch butterfly.
Sedum 'Autumn Joy' is a magnet for the Monarchs.
The wild asters in 2011 were covered with Monarchs where Autumn Joy was the main attraction in September 2012.
We can all help these beautiful butterflies and others by never using poisons and by calling congress and the EPA demanding an end to the use of harmful chemicals that kill insects good and 'bad' and cause cancer and other diseases within human organs. We can also plant milkweed that is native to our areas to guarantee the monarchs will always have host plants.