This summer we planted milkweed in our yard, some in the front and some in the back, in hopes of attracting monarch butterflies. Monarchs migrate south from August through October and return north in the spring, seeking milkweed to lay their eggs along the way. The little caterpillars only eat milkweed, so it is vital to their existence. We planted and watched and waited.
After a few weeks we had our first monarch butterfly sighting in our yard, and before we knew it our milkweed plants were being devoured by some very hungry caterpillars. Milkweed is poisonous, and the caterpillars become poisonous by eating it, thus providing them with some protection from would-be predators. We all loved checking on the caterpillars throughout the day, marveling over how much they grew and wondering if we had enough plants to feed them.
One day, after the caterpillars had grown to about two inches long, I noticed them wandering away from their beloved milkweed plants. A couple of them headed toward our patio, which I did not think was a good idea, so I returned them to the milkweed. The next day I found a beautiful pale green chrysalis adorned with gold sparkles hanging below a window overlooking the patio. It was stunning in its delicate beauty and the promise of transformation inside.
And so began our chrysalis time as more caterpillars disappeared, presumably wandering off to start their transformation. But we wanted to see, so we brought four large caterpillars inside, placing them in a mesh “butterfly habitat” with a few leaves for good measure. They did not eat the leaves, but made their chrysalises instead.
The monarch stays inside its chrysalis for eight to ten days before emerging. After a couple days, the chrysalis on the patio turned strangely dark in one spot, as did one of our inside chrysalises. After nine days of watching and waiting, one of our healthy chrysalises turned clear, darkened by the orange and black wing pattern that was now plainly visible inside. A few hours later our first monarch emerged with her lovely wings.
The new butterfly clung to her broken chrysalis, and rested while her wings expanded and dried, dripping some extra color onto the bottom of the habitat like a tie-dyed shirt dripping. She would sometimes twirl and twist and stretch her wings. As she grew stronger, she would flutter a bit.
Within two to four hours of emergence, after the wings are dry, the butterfly is ready to go. The kids and I released our monarch friend in the front yard near some flowers. Uninterested in the flowers, she fluttered from one leaf to another before settling on a leaf on our gum tree. There she rested for so long that we finally gave up watching her. At some point she flew away.
That same day we saw at least two more monarchs in our yard feasting on flowers, apparently the product of our crop of caterpillars who had wandered off into the yard. Two other indoor butterflies emerged over the next day or two, but the two that had darkened early never did emerge. My son also found one other chrysalis in the yard that had been broken before it had a chance to emerge.
It was pretty amazing and special for our family to get this glimpse into the life of monarch butterflies, watching them go through their stages, considering their needs, witnessing their transformation, and releasing them to fly their long journey. I like to think we made a difference for these guys with our little patches of milkweed. Hopefully more monarchs will find us along their route.
Monarch butterflies have seen a decline in populations largely due to loss of milkweed. If you have a place in your yard to plant some milkweed, maybe the butterflies will find you, too. And you can help make a difference for these beautiful, fascinating creatures.