Mothering Monarchs

Wednesday before last, I went out to check the mail and discovered a Priority Mail package from Pennsylvania.

It held the ten swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) plants and one dozen live monarch caterpillars (and two that hadn’t made the journey) I’d ordered the week before from Rose Franklin’s Perennials.


It quickly became apparent that our baby milkweed plants were not going to be enough for these very hungry caterpillars. I spent two days carrying pruners and a plastic grocery bag with me in the car so if I saw a patch of milkweed while driving I could yell, “Stop the car!” and jump out to harvest some caterpillar food.

Then the first chrysalis formed. Hooray!

Then I spent another two days taking my pruners on hikes in meadows and to the homes of friends and neighbors with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in their yards before the remaining eight chrysalides formed (three caterpillars didn’t survive the process).

I posted a picture of one of the chrysalides yesterday.

It was very quiet next to the butterfly enclosures for the next week without the rustle and crunch of twelve caterpillars munching on milkweed. We watched, and we waited, missing the smell of fresh milkweed in that corner of the dining room.

This morning, we discovered that the first chrysalis formed in the butterfly enclosure had turned translucent, and that we could see the outlines of the monarch’s wings inside.CIMG8652

The materials we got with our caterpillars say that it would take one to two days for the butterfly to emerge after this happens, but when we got home from our errands this morning, we found this:


We’ve read that it takes ten to fourteen days to go from chrysalis to butterfly, depending on the temperature, but this one formed just eight days ago, so we were a little surprised to see her so soon. Perhaps our hot, humid weather this week hastened the metamorphosis.

The next three chrysalides formed last Saturday, so we’re anticipating more butterflies in the next couple of days, provided they all make the transition safely. This caterpillar-to-butterfly process is more fraught than I’d imagined it to be.

In the meantime, I’m going to plant our milkweed while we wait for this newest member of the family to gain her strength (we think it’s a female) so we can set her loose.

We ordered these as an educational opportunity for my kids, but I was a little surprised at just how maternal I feel towards these butterflies and butterflies-to-be. I feel more maternal towards them than I felt towards the painted lady butterflies that arrived with all of their food in a little plastic cup or towards the cabbage white butterfly we found as a pupa on the collards we bought at the farm stand and put in the enclosure to hatch.

Maybe I feel more maternal because I gathered food for these caterpillars. Maybe it’s because the monarch’s numbers are dwindling, and so this effort feels more significant than just watching metamorphosis in action (which really is pretty stinking cool all by itself). Maybe it’s because we lost a couple at each stage. Maybe the second-grade school field trip to the “butterfly trees” in Pacific Grove, California, made a bigger impression than I realized.

Whatever it is, I feel very invested in their safe transition to butterfly-hood, and I was so thrilled to see our first make her way into the wider world today.

Welcome, little monarch! May you find nectar in every garden and milkweed in every meadow!

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