Wicked Witch of the West-like, I’ve been biking around everywhere. I don’t know what she was doing, besides failing to live up to societal expectations for a person with a uterus. I was looking for Monarch caterpillars in the Milkweed, and growing worried over finding none. But one day in a new spot there they were, visible from four feet away, chowing down. I couldn’t bring any home with me on my bike (no basket and no Toto) so I returned with a car.
I had already decided I would bring some inside if I found them, although I have qualms about effing with nature like that. There are so many predators and parasites hoping to have their way with my friends, and you never know if someone will come spray the Milkweed or mow it down. Into my purse they went, on their leaves, little antennae waving in what appeared to be curiosity but perhaps was panic. No way to know.
And so began the time of frequent Milkweed gathering. First of all, caterpillars eat a lot. Their only job during the two weeks between hatching from an egg and forming a chrysalis is to eat. They eat their eggshell and then proceed from there. This process is well documented by my friend Eric Carle. I was going out twice a day to get fresh leaves for my dudes. The leaves were consumed quickly, and also dried out fast. Caterpillars do not drink water. They get all their moisture from Milkweed. While picking a leaf early one morning to divide between them (not wanting to waste precious weed) I noticed how soaking wet with dew everything was. Not a shocker, but I do wonder now if this is another moisture source for wild friends. Mine got wet leaves anyway, because I rinse and rub the heck out of those suckers. No pesticides, and I hope no creepy nasty parasites, will hurt these little ones on my watch.
On the Monarch lifecycle: They start hard to see, and grow to a fat juicy two inches. Not having a backbone, like all insects these are invertebrates, wearing their protection/shaping/spanx outside, as an exoskeleton. Exoskeletons are shed often to allow for body growth. So to get bigger, a monarch sheds its skin. It does it on a specific timeline too, five sheds total. Each stage in between, called an instar, has distinct features that make it possible to identify without relying on size. Here is a stolen Google Image of all five stages seen together:
I determined that while the big caterpillar was obviously a 5th instar on the brink of pupating, the baby was a 4th Instar because it had a bunch of little “fake” prolegs with big white spots in addition to its six real legs. After two days of constant eating, my mother, channeling her inner ICU nurse, stated: the baby has not eaten or pooped in 14 hours. It hasn’t moved. I think it is going to die. Not wearing his hearing aids, and so unaware that I had already been informed of the prognosis, the Grumpy Old Man seeing me looking yelled from the couch “It’s gonna die!”
I was never the best at leaving things alone, even when I knew I should. It is a known butterfly-hand-raising recommendation that you not keep more than 5 in a container, however large. It increases the risk that they will share disease. Being a nurse myself I obsessively attempt to prevent the transmission of aquarium-aquired-infection. I moved the baby on his leaf into an old tank. It is also known that you shouldn’t mess with caterpillars a lot. It stresses them out. Believe it or not they will find the milkweed that you put two feet away from them. If they crawled up to the ceiling it is because they wanted to. But this did not stop me from shoving little fresh milkweed pieces in front of the sweet, young, and mysteriously not hungry mouth. Still no eating. After some intrepid googling I encountered the following: caterpillars preparing to molt will stop eating and moving for 24 hours. Do not move them around or shove leaves in front of their mouth… You know who you are!
Well they called it. And I was very relieved to learn that my little baby was thriving to such an extent that he was preparing to grow! Even the mysterious fact that while he would lift his head and forelegs into the air, his posterior end had remained immobilized for hours was explained. The caterpillar, when preparing to molt, weaves a little web around its hind prolegs to hold them down so that when ready, he can walk his new body out of them!
Nobody saw, but evidently he did. And ate his old skin to boot. Here is how he looked on being discovered.
Almost the same, but with much longer antennae (or tentacles if you want to get tentnical). After a couple hours an absolute feeding frenzy began, lasting approximately five days.
Meanwhile, lest you think I forgot about Big Brother, someone was preparing for a change of his own.
He stopped eating and pooping (all that stuff on the ground was produced by this dude in half a day) and began feverishly wandering around. Would anything be good enough for my dude? He seemed to take forever to decide. Finally he stayed on the enclosure roof and wiggled his head in circles. This was forming a web to dangle from in a J for about 24 hours.
I walked in the door and put my stuff down, and naturally wandered over to check out my little J-friend. Oh my gosh. He was mid-change! His bottom half was a light green blob, and his top half was still my black and yellow striped friend! This changed in a matter of seconds. The skin moved up, the little nub attached to the web, and the green blob spun in crazy circles to get his old skin off and get his nub well attached. The skin didn’t fall off in this case but I guess that is alright.
Here he is, a brand new adolescent, unlikely to make the usual fuss. When he hardens up a bit he will be lighter jade green with little gold specks, a regular gem. Like the Spicebush Swallowtail, this is a chrysalis. “Skin” was shed to reveal the layer beneath. Basically, butterflies make a chrysalis, moths make a coccoon- out of “silk” (or sometimes actual silk).
I have to say that I was left in shock by spotting the pupae forming. I mean, the thing is in a J for hours and hours and the transformation only take 60 seconds. The odds that I would be there to witness it were so slim. It is not unlike that other amazing transformation, birth. So much happens to fast. What’s been 9 months unseen is revealed. I have seen probably 200 babies be born. Still every time it is too much to process. I am left unsure of how it actually happened, after so much work and so much waiting, and then a real baby is there (hopefully skin to skin) crying and eating and I am drying it off, but how did it happen? So fast, so slippery, from crowning to here, so much, too much really for my mind to fully grasp. After it happens it just isn’t believable that what you remember resulted in this person being here. It is hard to believe that the green thing hanging there is still my old friend. Like a new Mom no longer sharing a body with her baby, even though the same insect soul remains, albeit transformed, I miss him.
You too can enjoy these everyday wonders. I think that if you are able to take great care of a Monarch caterpillar it benefits these guys to be raised indoors. I finally found some, but their numbers are nevertheless decreasing at an alarming rate. I hope that all those just born babies will be able to share Monarchs with their own babies (or grumpy old friends) one day. If you go for it here is some advice:
1. Make sure they get fresh air, humidity increases problems with disease. Mesh held on with a rubberband makes for a well-ventilated habitat.
2. Don’t overcrowd them. To explain in hipster terms, one Bell jar should only house one caterpillar.
3. Provide fresh milkweed that has not been sprayed at least once a day but preferably twice. Be warned that milkweed obtained from nurseries often has pesticides that are lethal for monarch caterpillars. The best choice is leaves from the plant they were found on, since this was evidently not killing them. Rinse and rub well, leaf can be given to dudes while wet. To save trips to the field you can keep leaves fresh for a week with a square inch of wet paper towel in a sealed ziplock in the fridge.
4. Thrill your friends at bars with stories and photos of your “children.” Seriously, soon they’ll be coming over to see for themselves.
5. The chrysalis will turn clear in the hours before the butterfly emerges. At this time it is very important to ensure that the new butterfly will be able to stretch her wings out all the way, otherwise they will dry bent and leave her flightless. A larger container may be needed.