Monarch Butterfly populations have declined each year for the past decade, with the last few being particularly bad years. Here in the eastern United States Monarchs migrate thousands of miles to Mexico where they spend the winter, and then a northward migration of the next generation of butterflies occurs in the spring. Loss of habitat all along the migration route and in their wintering location has been the leading cause of the population decline. When my friend Marie of Majarov Photography gave a presentation at an outdoor writers association conference earlier this year detailing the plight of these beautiful insects and explaining how small investments of time, space and money can have a positive impact on the future of the Monarch, I knew I wanted to do what I could.
The Monarch lays its eggs on the one type of plant that the larva, the caterpillar, eats: Milkweed. Less milkweed across the country means fewer Monarchs. So with the guidance of the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, I selected this small area on our property and set out to create a pollinator garden. The garden would include multiple varieties of milkweed to attract Monarchs laying eggs, other flowering plants like native honeysuckle to attract and nourish adult Monarchs, and a bird bath as a water source. I cultivated, planted and waited.
Milkweed, as the second syllable might suggest, grows quickly. Before long I had flowering Butterfly Milkweed, or Asclepias tuberosa, to the delight of this Zebra Swallowtail. The larger leaves to the left are Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. The Swamp variety grows faster and taller, but flowers later. The milkweed was doing the trick, attracting butterflies, but I was still patiently awaiting my Monarch. Until the beautiful male shown in the top photo of this post arrived on our property one morning. It was the first Monarch I had noticed here, and while he wasn’t particularly close to the garden I had planted, I wanted to believe the milkweed I planted had drawn him to the area. Regardless, I was thrilled to see him.
Then one day I spotted this female Monarch on our zinnias, planted just across the fence from my milkweed garden. I watched her for a while and sure enough, she found the milkweed and spent time there. A single egg is laid by the female on the back side of the milkweed leaves, and this can be repeated hundreds of times. I didn’t know at the time what to look for, but I believe this is the butterfly that laid eggs on my plants.
A week or so later while watering the garden I spotted this Monarch caterpillar in one of the milkweed flower clusters. I felt like the work I had done on the garden had paid off, and it was rewarding to have provided a patch of habitat for these Monarchs who need it so. But there was more I could do. In the wild, a Monarch has about a 2% chance of surviving to adulthood. If I were to rear the caterpillar myself in a protected environment safe from predators, those odds increase to 85%.
I later found Monarch eggs on the leaves of wild milkweed plants growing along our driveway, and discovered more caterpillars as well. The egg is unbelievably small. And what is astounding to me is not that something larger grows from something extremely small, that concept is not particularly challenging to grasp. But once I began to see the different phases of the life cycle that begins here, I found myself pondering how on earth all the information this miraculous creature needs to complete its life mission could be contained in a tiny, translucent white dot on the underside of a leaf.
Now, I’ve seen the egg, so I know the caterpillar that comes from it is going to be small. But somehow I wasn’t ready for the smallness of this. The new caterpillars begin by eating their shell which contains nutrients to get them started. Then it’s all milkweed all the time.
The caterpillars go through five stages, called instars, each lasting two or three days. And at times they can really surprise you how much they can eat and grow and poop (the waste product of a caterpillar is called frass) as they get bigger.
When they get to the last instar, they will eat you out of house and home for a couple days, then climb to the top of the enclosure where they make a web and adhere to the top surface.
I won’t pretend to understand what happens in this next phase, and I have not yet witnessed it. So for now, let’s just go with Insert Magic Here. The caterpillar sheds its skin and forms a chrysalis (or pupa) on the top of the enclosure. Here is the discarded skin, a lightly used caterpillar suit.
Okay this was a big step for both of us. Not only has the caterpillar transformed into something completely unlike a caterpillar or a butterfly, but this was the point in the process where it began to sink in what I was privileged to witness. Providing habitat for animals in need, simple enough. Watching things hatch from eggs, no big deal. Observing small caterpillars eating and pooping until they become large caterpillars, no rocket science involved there. But the chrysalis. My God. The first time I laid eyes on this, I realized I had an emotional investment in my Monarch Project. I planted the plants and cared for them until they grew flowers that attracted the butterfly. She laid eggs which I carefully collected and nurtured until they hatched and became caterpillars, which I then cared for and cleaned up after and fed until they became this. It hangs there, motionless and seemingly static for nearly two weeks. But inside, this marvel of genetic engineering, this changing, churning cell factory is transforming essentially a container of caterpillar goo into legs, antennae, eyes, into perfect, beautiful wings.
And when the miracle is ready, the chrysalis turns transparent, allowing light to touch for the first time the masterpiece created within. And I felt so honored to witness it I can’t even tell you.
It gets clearer still, and then turns black. It won’t be long now. It’s almost time. But I didn’t get to see it happen. I went to work thinking about what will await me when I come home.
And when I arrived and checked the enclosure, there he was, a perfect, beautiful male. There are more caterpillars munching away in the enclosure now and five more already in chrysalis. But this boy, the first, from the caterpillar I first discovered on the plants I provided just for him, is so very special. I very much wanted to photograph him, but he had been flying around the enclosure for hours. His wings had been dried, stretched out and tested against the warm, humid summer air. It was time to release him. So I brought the enclosure near the wildflowers the butterflies all enjoy so much, and removed the lid. He soaked up sunlight for the first time, and paused. I photographed him at the edge of the enclosure, the margin between the protective space I provided and the entire rest of the world. Soon he will embark on his epic, pre-programmed journey south, but right now he’s exploring the space immediately in front of his head. I put my finger next to him. One by one his legs traded the familiar mesh fabric of the enclosure for my outstretched hand, and then I was holding him. And I will never look at the natural world, big or small, the same again. Part of being connected to nature and the outdoors, is knowing how much you don’t see.
I held him in my left hand and photographed him with my right. When I was confident I had captured some usable images, I put the camera down and just enjoyed the moment. It felt like a gift. Then he fluttered his wings a bit, and I knew what was next. He let go, lifting off like he had been flying his whole life. He was above the trees in the time it took my heart to reach my throat.
An old friend once told me about a wildlife encounter. He described each such encounter as a ‘kiss from God.’ I’ve always loved the way he put that. Today, staring up into the late afternoon sun, following the erratic path of a Monarch breaking in his new wings, climbing and climbing until I could see him no more, I felt that kiss.
To learn about how you can help the Monarchs, visit Monarch Watch.