Monday, October 26, 2020

Monarchs Released


Monarch caterpillars emerge about five days after the eggs are laid and spend roughly two weeks continuously eating milkweed leaves and growing rapidly. Photos by Carl Kelly

Monarch caterpillars emerge about five days after the eggs are laid and spend roughly two weeks continuously eating milkweed leaves and growing rapidly. Photos by Carl Kelly

After Hurricane Irma blew down our orange tree leaving a large open space in our yard we decided to fill the space with a butterfly garden. So, we asked the experts who recommended several bush species of the size we required. They told us we would attract monarch butterflies.

“Great! We can go for that.”

So, we bought seven plants to fill our open space, not knowing there were monarch eggs on the underside of the leaves. They hatched in a few days. We noticed them when they got about a half-inch long.

When monarch caterpillars are about two inches long they leave the milkweed and may crawl up to 30 feet to find a suitably secluded leaf on which to attach and form the gold spotted green chrysalises.

When monarch caterpillars are about two inches long they leave the milkweed and may crawl up to 30 feet to find a suitably secluded leaf on which to attach and form the gold spotted green chrysalises.

“Oh, look! We’ve got monarch caterpillars!”

Now, the experts didn’t actually say the monarch caterpillars might denude our new plants, but when those little caterpillars started chowing down on our plants we were amazed at the quantity of leaves a monarch caterpillar can eat. So, we interceded on behalf of our plants by raising these monarchs in captivity.

After 10 to 14 days in the chrysalis, the butterflies emerge and begin a few hours of unfolding and drying the wings. Monarchs will fly first flight sometime during the first day.

After 10 to 14 days in the chrysalis, the butterflies emerge and begin a few hours of unfolding and drying the wings. Monarchs will fly first flight sometime during the first day.

We captured the caterpillars, put them in a terrarium habitat and fed them there, selectively culling leaves from our bushes. Then, we watched them eat and grow.

About two weeks after they hatched from eggs they had grown to more than two inches long and were ready to form a chrysalis, called a cocoon in other species. They crawled up, some to the screened top of the terrarium, some onto a branch we’d earlier placed in the habitat.

There they attached themselves by the last pair of feet and hanged upside down in the shape of a J. Within a day they formed chrysalises that are light green with gold spots. This pupal stage may require 10 to 14 days to complete. On the eleventh day ours turned dark, and the next morning the butterflies emerged.

While waiting through the pupal stage we did the appropriate reading, learning that monarch butterflies should not be handled until several hours after they emerge from the chrysalis and that they do not eat until the day after emerging. We decided to release them the next morning.

We invited our friends and neighbors and even some people who were passing on their morning walk. This is a big deal, this midwifing of new lives. It should be shared, celebrated. The day was yet a bit young or I’d have uncorked a bottle of wine.

We pulled back the screen top of the habitat, but the newly emerged needed some coaxing before they flew. So, Joan assisted their take off, one at a time, and as she did the observers named each new flier. One had to be Joan and another had to be Carl. We named them all, each with an appropriate male or female name corresponding to someone in the group.

Most of us are pretty good at holding up our end of a conversation, but this morning we simply stood and watched quietly marveling at new life while the monarchs flew around our yard, occasion- ally landing, then taking again to the air.

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