Wild Life / monarch butterfly

meeting Mr. Butters

Hi, friends — the trees are still green, in various shades, but the hard yellows are beginning to show through. The harvest moon and equinox were heavy this week, tilting toward dark, and October looms. Let’s back up a few weeks to when the new monarch butterflies learned to fly. — Amy Jean

Everyone knows the monarch (Danaus plexippus). Its story is magnificent—these incredible navigators traverse a great swath of the globe, from Canada to Mexico, in multiple generations—though also heartbreaking, as its numbers continue to decline (for myriad reasons: extreme weather, habitat destruction, insecticides).

Last summer, our local garden center started selling milkweed. I bought two plants and brought them home without really thinking about it. A week later we had seven monarch caterpillars methodically chewing the leaves. At one point they ate all of one plant, so I made them a bridge to the other plant with a piece of pink shoelace. They ate all of that plant, too, growing into truly fat, rather beautiful striped caterpillars.

At this stage they were fun, and funny, creatures to watch, as they manipulated leaves with their tiny pointed front feet, scanning ahead with long antennae, bumping into each other. When they were as fat as possible, they made a run for it, leaving behind their milkweed home, for some far-flung place—up to 15 feet away—to make a chrysalis. I watched one crawl with great determination straight into the driveway (I moved it to a bush).

I caught two of the caterpillars in a small mesh trash bin and brought them inside. Very few caterpillars survive to become butterflies (maybe 5%), but this pair would have a chance in our protected sunroom. To my great relief and delight, both caterpillars successfully made their tiny beautiful chrysalises.

It’s hard to explain exactly how lovely a monarch chrysalis is, like a pendant crafted of the finest jade, made thousands of years ago, carefully passed down through generations. A chrysalis is only about an inch in height and the warmest shade of mint green with a line of brilliant gold-colored specks (the specks are air holes that glitter from optics, a result of how the milkweed is processed by the caterpillar). I moved the chrysalises from the trash bin with a bit of floss and hung them in an open cardboard box so we could see them more clearly.

Ten days later, the chrysalis for the first monarch—we called him Mr. Butters—turned clear and we could see the wings, like small jewels, tiny and poised. About a day later, at mid-morning, the butterfly emerged. No one saw it happen, though I tried to hover for as long as possible. Where there was once a small, seemingly inanimate object, there now hung a perfect monarch butterfly.

It is also difficult to explain just how beautiful monarch butterflies are up close, with their harlequin-spotted, deep black bodies set against the warm marigold of their wings. Mr. Butters (two black dots on his hind wings confirmed he was male) took a few hours to dry his wings and gain a little strength. When I put a finger in front of his legs, he climbed onto my hand and beat his wings slowly and surely. Occasionally he moved his head from side to side as if trying to figure me out.

My 10-year-old took him outside, and Mr. Butters paused for a beat, holding on to his finger, before lifting up and up, to the low branches of a tall tree. We watched him there for a few minutes, steadily beating his wings, until he lifted up and up again, disappearing into the sky. (“Buddy” the second butterfly followed the next day.)

How does a squishy, crawly caterpillar—or larva, to be more precise—become a colorful slip of sail floating high in the sky? It’s an insane thing to watch firsthand and inevitably inspires existential thinking about life and the possibilities of transformation. Pragmatically speaking, it’s actually a very successful strategy for growing and dispersing babies, and quite a few insects develop this way.

Somewhere between “fun fact” and mind-blowing paradigm shift: experiments have shown that butterflies and moths may remember environmental cues from life as a larva. Sometimes I wonder about Mr. Butters and if he found a mate and flowers for sustenance, if he survived to create the generation that would fly to Mexico. I also wonder if he, however vaguely, recalled the bizarre circumstances of making a chrysalis in the bottom of a trash bin or being moved by a bit of floss to a cardboard box. (Thank you, Mr. Butters, for your patience with us.)

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Monarch butterfly links

  • Plus these lil YouTube vids of Mr. Butters himself !

Animal encounters in recent comments

Also

  • Good lord we’re surrounded by spiders—next time is spider time.


Wild Life #31 / this newsletter is a place to learn about the life around us, one fine butterfly gentleman at a time. If you enjoy reading, please share with a friend, colleague, neighbor, sister, daughter. Keep an eye out for all the animals and have a great weekend.

Just one more close-up, look at his tiny feet: