Monarch Summers

by Andrea Lani

boy watching butterfly in glass globeIn late summer, my children and I search for caterpillars. The milkweed is thigh-high at this time, with fragrant mauve flower clusters swelling into rotund seed pods. When we see leaves that are missing great chunks of green flesh, we peer underneath of them, hoping to find a fat yellow-, black-, and white-striped caterpillar hiding there. When we do find one, we bring it home and place it, along with a good handful of its milkweed host, in our butterfly jar, a bulbous vase of blown glass, to complete its cycle of eating and growing and transforming into a monarch butterfly.

The caterpillars we find here in Maine are the fourth or fifth generation of the summer, the children and grandchildren of monarch butterflies born the southern United States earlier in the season, and the great- or great-great-grandchildren of butterflies born somewhere in the northern US or southern Canada the previous summer. Each of the summer generations of butterflies lives only two to six weeks, but our little caterpillars, the winter generation, will have a lifespan of eight months if they survive the many obstacles they will face over the coming winter. When our caterpillars become butterflies, they will embark a two-thousand-mile journey south to their roosts in the mountains of central Mexico, where they will cling to oyamel fir trees, as many as fifteen-thousand butterflies to a branch, for the winter months. In the spring they will fly to north and lay eggs on milkweed in northern Mexico or southern Texas, passing on their genes to the next generation before they die.

The first caterpillars we raised came to us eight years ago in a pickle jar stuffed with milkweed, a gift from my father-in-law. Already overwhelmed by my two one-year-olds and kindergartner, I couldn’t cope with taking care of one more living thing, so I stuck the jar on top of a cabinet in our living room and forgot about it. It turned out that caterpillars do not need much taking care of and, after a week or so, I noticed the caterpillars were gone, replaced by two exquisite green chrysalises hanging from the sloped shoulder of the glass. Pupae, safely sewn up in their cases, I could handle. I emptied out moldering leaves and frass–caterpillar poop–and moved the jar to the windowsill above the kitchen sink so that we wouldn’t miss the emerging butterflies.

Monarch butterflies, like many insects—those in the so-called “higher orders”—go through four distinct life stages: egg, larva, pupa, adult. A female monarch may lay between one hundred and three hundred eggs, each on a separate milkweed plant. After about a week, the larva, or caterpillar, is born and, as its first act, eats its own eggshell before beginning on its feast of milkweed leaves. Caterpillars go through five stages, or instars, on their way to becoming adults. At the end of each instar, the caterpillar splits his skin and wiggles out, just a little bigger than before. The whole five-step process takes less than two weeks, at which time the caterpillar splits its skin one last time and forms the pupa.

The monarch butterfly pupa, or chrysalis, looks like a little jade pendant hanging by a small hook, called the cremaster, from a small silk pad that the caterpillar spun as a last act before wiggling out of its skin. The textures on the surface of the pupa correspond with structures of the adult butterfly—ridges along the curved top reflect abdominal segments, the smooth sloping side houses the wings, and the curved bottom cradles the head. The pale green pupa looks as if it has been gilded along the ridge where the curved top meets the sloped side, and in dots near the bottom, giving the chrysalis its name, from the word Greek chrysos, or “gold.” After about ten days, the pupa appears to turn black, but closer inspection reveals that the darkness is the butterfly’s wings visible through the clear outer covering. Each time one of our pupae reaches this point, the boys and I begin to watch the chrysalis closely, hoping to see the moment the butterfly emerges—or ecloses—but we usually only catch it after it’s already fanning its wings dry, leaving behind the clear, plastic-like husk and a few drops of dark fluid in the bottom of the jar.

Monarch chrysalis

The day our first butterflies emerged was one of those hectic days that so often characterize life with kids. The twins were sick and cranky. One of them pounded on the other’s head with the wooden hammer from their toy cobbler’s bench. The other one may or may not have eaten the back half of a live wasp. The school nurse called to tell me my oldest son had fallen and bumped his head and, while she thought he was fine, she was going to send home information on concussions. In the early afternoon, having settled fussy, post-nap twins with a snack and turning my attention to washing dishes, I saw a flash of orange out of the corner of my eye. One of the monarchs had emerged, a large, orange-and-black butterfly opening and closing its four perfect wings like the pages of a book. I helped it out of the slippery glass jar with a stick and placed it on a milkweed plant in the yard, and then I moved the jar out onto the deck in case the other butterfly eclosed while the twins and I walked up the long driveway to meet the school bus.

When we got back to the house, we found the second butterfly perched on a twig in the jar, looking horribly deformed, its wings small and shriveled, the ragged orange-and-black train of a Halloween bride. I gently stroked the soft, broken wings, certain I had done something terribly wrong, and placed the butterfly on the milkweed in our yard, near its healthy comrade, so it could at least live out the last minutes or hours of its life in its natural habitat. The twins napped in their stroller while I played soccer with my oldest son. After a while, I went back and checked the milkweed plant and found two beautiful, butterflies with smooth, straight wings. I must have caught the second butterfly moments after it emerged from its chrysalis, before it had a chance to pump hemolymph into its wings, inflating them into smooth, crisp planes. I had not killed it. It had a chance to fly to Mexico and transfer its genes to another generation.

butterfly on red flower

After that year, we began raising monarchs every summer. Though they did not actually split their skins like caterpillars, my children became new again and again. The twins emerged from the chaotic toddler instar. No longer did I have to admonish “Gentle touch” whenever we went into the natural world. At the same time, I became more relaxed, less overwhelmed by motherhood. Raising monarch caterpillars became a joy, not a burden, and the boys became adept at finding caterpillars and even chrysalises on milkweed plants. Our most prolific season came two years ago, when the twins were seven and their brother eleven. Whenever we went out into open fields, we came upon monarch caterpillars. We brought two or three inside to grow in our butterfly vase, leaving the others to take their chances in nature. That fall, weeks after the butterflies we had raised headed south for the winter, I was walking at the arboretum across the street from my office when I saw a bedraggled butterfly flutter drunkenly over a field. She stopped for a brief moment on a tiny milkweed plant, dipped the tip of her abdomen against a leaf, and flew off again on tattered wings.

I crouched near the plant and saw that the poor creature had left behind a single egg, ridged and pearlescent, a tiny jewel. The mother butterfly looked like she had narrowly escaped a paper shredder, and I wondered if laying this egg were her last act before dying or if she continued to lurch through the field, planting tiny pearls. The milkweed plant she had chosen was just a baby, barely longer than my hand, with thumb-sized leaves; it would never be enough to feed a growing caterpillar. I pinched off the plant, brought it home with me, and placed it in a tiny vase in the windowsill. I would give this little monarch a chance to at least attempt the flight to Mexico, even if it was ridiculously late in the season.

After about a week, the egg was gone, leaving behind only a gluey white dot on the leaf. I thought at first the egg had shriveled up, but my husband pointed out to me the very tiny caterpillar, scarcely as long as my pinky-nail is wide, nibbling away at the milkweed leaf, leaving behind pepper-grain-sized dots of frass. The boys and I were excited about our minute caterpillar, inspecting him through the magnifying glass, watching his progress nibbling away at his miniature milkweed leaves. Then one morning, a few days after he hatched, our little caterpillar was gone. In his place was an equally tiny praying mantis, and on the windowsill below, a caterpillar-sized poop.

The children reacted to the loss of their pet philosophically, and generously relocated the mantis to a plant outdoors. Had he survived the praying mantis attack and grown into an adult butterfly, our little caterpillar would have faced innumerable other dangers over the winter, not the least of which was the very late start he would have gotten on his flight to Mexico. While the cardenolide poisons the caterpillars ingest from eating milkweed plants, along with the bright colors of the butterflies’ wings that serve as a warning, protect monarchs from most vertebrate predators, a few species of birds have found their way around these defenses, as has one species of mouse that inhabits the forests in Mexico where the monarchs overwinter. A number of parasites as well as bacteria and viruses prey on monarchs too. If the butterflies survive the predators and the germs and the winter in Mexico, they still have to contend with the vagaries of weather the following spring as they make their journey north to mate and lay eggs. Even without the praying mantis, our butterfly’s great-great-grandchildren would probably have not found their way to Maine the next summer. As it turned out, few butterflies made their way north at all.

boy looking at caterpillar with magnifier

Last summer, when we went looking for monarch caterpillars, we found none. I saw a single monarch butterfly drifting high over a field in July, early in the season, and one of my sons saw another one at daycare, “With bird strikes on its wings,” he told me. Unlike the previous year of abundance, we found no signs of caterpillars. We studied the milkweed at home and at the arboretum for signs of nibbling, but chewed-on leaves revealed only the black-and-orange brush-like larvae of the milkweed tussock moth.

Since the twins were one, our summers had been measured in monarch butterflies. I had taken for granted that we would continue to capture and raise caterpillars right through my own children’s pupation and emergence as adults. Perhaps the butterflies’ absence last summer was just a blip in their population dynamics and they’ll be back this year. But researchers found overwintering populations in Mexico the previous winter to be at their lowest level in decades. They attribute the decline to hotter than normal weather and farming practices that destroy milkweed. I fear that my children and I have raised our last monarch caterpillar. I wonder if we will ever again see a magnificent orange-and-black butterfly drift on the breeze, or if those few summers keeping caterpillars in a vase will be as fleeting as summer itself.

Monarch caterpillars on milkweedIn September, I walked to the arboretum during my lunch break one day and combed the fields for any sign of monarchs. The hum of traffic and road construction faded as my ears filled with cricket song, swaying tree branches, and the occasional scraw of a blue jay. The yellow sprigs of goldenrod had faded to dusty seed tufts, but the asters bloomed in a half-dozen shades of purple and ranged in size from dime to silver dollar. They should have been inviting blooms to nectar-feeding monarchs. But the only winged insects I saw that day were yellow sulfur butterflies, little red meadow dragonflies, and bumblebees.

The leaves of the milkweed plants had started to brown and curl, and some of the seed pods had turned dry and brittle. I cracked one open to reveal the seeds, dark brown teardrops shingled together like a pinecone on one end of the pod, with the silver-white milkweed down laid out smooth as a mare’s tail at the other end. As I shook the seeds loose, each one unfurled its little silk parachute and took to the air. I snapped off the stems of two dried seed heads and tapped them together, releasing the seeds onto the breeze.

Once, as I looked up to admire three turkey vultures drift lazily on a thermal, I saw a single monarch butterfly rise on the same column of warm air. In the cant of its wings, its silhouette against the clear sky, the butterfly looked like a miniature version the massive birds soaring high above it, and I watched until it rose so high it vanished to a mere speck in the blue sheet of sky. I have also seen milkweed plants grow up through asphalt, tender green leaves cracking right through the tar. There is great power in small things.

Monarch with spread wings

It is a small act, raising a caterpillar in a jar. But it is an act of faith, in the ability of this insect that is smaller than the palm of my hand to overcome myriad obstacles to make a journey most of us would find exhausting by airplane. In the same way, bringing children into the world is an act of faith, that our loving presence can steer them safely through life’s hazards.

I can’t change farming practices in the Midwest. I can’t control the climate. I can’t bring the butterflies back through the force of my desire. Nor can I ensure my children’s survival or happiness. But I can spread the seeds of milkweed. And so I clap the brittle stems together and watch white clouds of down whirl across the field.

Andrea Lani writes at the nexus of nature and motherhood from her home in the Maine woods. Her writing has appeared in SaltFront, Brain, Child Magazine, Orion, The Maine Review, and other publications. She has an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and she is an editor at Literary Mama. More of her work can be found at Remains of the Day “Monarch Summers” was previously published in the Spring/Autumn 2015 issue of the journal Snowy Egret. Photos by the author.

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