Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “North Four Corners News”

North Four Corners News ♦ February 2024

Monarch Magic on Cavalier Drive

By Robin Loube

As you may have heard, milkweed is the essential and sole food of monarch butterfly caterpillars.  And where there are black, white, and yellow striped monarch caterpillars, gorgeous orange and black butterflies may appear.  But there are some critical — I call them magical — steps in between.

Two monarch butterfly caterpillars eating milkweed.

We grow lots of milkweed in our garden (it’s easy to grow, by the way) and I had a delightful time last summer and fall observing (and sometimes, just trying to observe) the stages of the monarch’s incredible life process.  I’d like to share what I saw with you.  Perhaps you’ll grow milkweed, too!

I only noticed one or two monarch butterflies in our garden earlier last summer, but at least one of them must have laid her eggs on our milkweed plants because, lo and behold, in mid-August I counted at least 12 caterpillars that had hatched from the eggs and were munching away on milkweed leaves.  The caterpillars chow down!  They just about defoliated all the swamp milkweed plants in our garden.

The caterpillar forming a J under a leaf of the sweetbay magnolia tree.

However, their numbers diminished quickly.  Where had all the caterpillars gone?  Had they all been eaten by ants, spiders, wasps, birds?  That would have been its own contribution to our natural ecosystem.  But I was hoping at least a few had hidden themselves nearby to enter their next stage of development — forming a chrysalis, from which an adult monarch would emerge.  I saw nothing, and wondered.  Had all that serious munching come to naught?

Then, on 20 September, walking the pup, I glanced at our tiny sweetbay magnolia tree, and there, attached to the underside of a large leaf, a caterpillar hung in the shape of a J.  The telltale J indicates the caterpillar is on the way to becoming a chrysalis.

The chrysalis.

Thrilled, I took Barkley around the block, returned to the little tree and stared.  I wanted to watch the chrysalis as it formed.  But no luck.  I returned a few times later that morning.  Zip.

We needed groceries, so I headed to the Giant.  Upon my return, voila!  In the time it took to drive to White Oak, shop, and bring the bananas and eggs home, the J caterpillar had transformed itself into a pendulous green jewel bedecked with a row of tiny gold pearls.  A monarch butterfly chrysalis.  Wow!

I watched and waited. Online sources say typically the butterfly will emerge (it’s officially called “eclosing”) in 10 days to two weeks.  By 1 October, nothing had changed with that chrysalis, but the milkweed continued to provide entertainment and wonder.  Two other chrysalises appeared, attached to wire fences surrounding the garden, and a friend discovered a newly emerged monarch butterfly in a different flower bed.  I hadn’t even noticed the chrysalis for that one, hidden as it had been under the leaves of a coneflower plant.  Wonderful!

The black chrysalis, just before eclosing.

Meanwhile, on 14 October, three and a half weeks from the day of its appearance — the cool weather may have delayed its development — the first chrysalis in the little tree turned black, or at least it looked black from a distance.  Up close, you could see through a milky white outer layer of the chrysalis, the folded orange and black wings of the butterfly inside.  I knew the butterfly itself would appear any day now.  Of course, I wanted to watch as it emerged.

OK, I missed that event, too.  On the 16th, I headed out to the garden and checked out the black chrysalis, still hanging there.  After weeding a little while and chatting with a friend, I picked up my tools and checked out the chrysalis again.  There she was!  The monarch had emerged while I was weeding.  (I say “she” advisedly, because I have learned that male monarchs have a black dot on their hind wings, and she had no such dot.)

Her wings hung limp, her probiscus curled and uncurled.  Perhaps I could watch her take her first flight when she was ready?

The next morning, there she was, still hanging.  Was she dead?  No!  I returned from an exercise class to find that she had moved from one twig to another in the little magnolia.  That was so heartening.  A couple of hours later, I looked for her again, but didn’t see her.  I guessed I had missed her first flight.  Then I noticed her nearby on a nodding onion plant.  I watched her walking around in the dirt.  Would she fly?  Should I do something to help?

The newly emerged monarch and its abandoned chrysalis.

I put a pot of blooming flowers near her, thinking perhaps she needed to drink nectar from the flowers.  Using a large dried leaf and a dry stem, I placed her gently on the flowers.  She moved around, but she did not drink nectar.  Nor did she fly.

I picked up the pot of flowers topped by Madame Butterfly, put it in the sun, and sat down to watch.  Very very soon, touched by the sun, she fluttered her wings.  She fluttered and she flew, up and away.  I had witnessed her first flight.  Did she find enough nectar plants to fuel a long migration?  Is she wintering in Mexico?  I hope so!

[Loube, a Montgomery County Master Gardener, has lived on Cavalier Drive for 34 years.]   ■

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