For the past few years Maggie and I have raised monarch caterpillars. We have released about 20 butterflies this year; our biggest summer so far. We had one butterfly die, one chrysalis fail to form correctly, but the rest came out well.
When we moved into this house, the elderly previous owners had gradually scaled back until their once glorious flower, herb, and vegetable gardens were replaced by a bland chemically manicured lawn and juniper shrubs. I wanted to bring the birds, butterflies, lightning bugs, toads, frogs and butterflies back.
We started by planting butterfly-friendly plants: milkweeds, coneflowers, phloxes, buddleia bushes. We called to the hummingbirds with bee balm, honeysuckle and crocosmia. We tempted the goldfinches with thistles, elecampagne and burdock. We put in a small pond for the frogs and toads.
As I planted and pruned, Maggie and Elsa stormed the neighborhood, parading about in their dress up clothes, riding their bikes around the block, drawing with chalk in the driveway.
After the milkweed became established we found our first monarch egg: a tiny pearl under one of the top leaves. I was surprised that Maggie wanted to raise caterpillars this summer. She was so busy: working two jobs, taking a class online, preparing to move on campus this fall. I figured we’d skip it: the milkweeds are threatening to take over sections of the garden now. But she asked, so I got out the aquarium.
We bring in the eggs and newly hatched caterpillars as we find them. We supply them with fresh milkweed every day. Watch the caterpillars grow and shed. Clean the poops from the bottom of the aquarium. We learned that the caterpillars need a place to hang and form their chrysalises, or else they leave the aquarium in search of an appropriate smooth, sheltered overhang; such as under the lip of the kitchen counter.
We watch as the caterpillars transform into glorious jade chrysalises, studded with gold. We wait and wait for days. Then in a period of 24 hours the chrysalis becomes transparent, revealing the waiting black and orange wings. Shortly, the butterfly emerges: midget wings and distended abdomen; completely out of proportion, awkward and ill at ease.
We wait again. The abdomen pumps and the butterfly hangs almost immobile for three or four hours. Then the monarch attempts to fly around the aquarium. Maggie gently coaxes the black legs onto a twig, and gingerly transports twig and butterfly out the door to one of our four buddleias. The butterfly may hang there for a while, or may fly up and disappear into one of the many maple trees. We watch and marvel, then we go about our business.
Tonight we have two chrysalises left in the aquarium, the last of the season. They are turning translucent. Some time tomorrow they will emerge, and by the evening two monarchs will be feeding on the buddleias. Tonight Maggie finishes gathering her things together. Tomorrow afternoon I will take Maggie and her belongings to the residence hall, and by the evening I will have set my first daughter butterfly free: I will place Maggie on her buddleia bush, and I will drive away.