Every child – and adult, come to think of it – should have the chance to witness in person one of the most awe-inspiring spectacles of nature: the life-cycle stages of the monarch butterfly. Seeing it on film just won’t do. That’s like trying to fathom the grandeur of the Grand Canyon by seeing snapshots of it.
This is the time of year when my brother, Michael, and I would go milkweed hunting. In fields, ditches and wooded areas, we would look tirelessly for milkweed plants. After lots of looking and scrutinizing plant after plant – voila! – we’d find what we wanted: milkweed leaves with little white dots on their undersides.
Those little white dots were monarch butterfly eggs.
Michael and I would put the leaves in big glass pickle jars at home with lots of extra leaves. Then we’d wait, checking the jars several times a day with eager-beaver anticipation.
“They’ve hatched!” one of us would shout, announcing the big news.
Other family members, neighbors and friends would peer into the jars, all of them amazed by the voracious appetites of the tiny caterpillars that quickly devoured the leaves. The critters – their bodies striped with bands of white, black and yellow-orange – would scrinch and wiggle on the leaves, incessantly eating until, within a matter of days, they became bloated plumplings. At that point, Michael and I would make sure to put long tree twigs inside the jars – for their “roosts.”
The gluttons were so fat they looked like they were ready to burst. And that, in fact, is what they would do. They would wiggle onto the top of a twig. Then they would go through up-and-down contortions like frantic weavers, making a silk button on the twig from which to hang down, head-first, like trapeze artists in the circus.
We would gaze with wonderment at the next life-cycle stage. The upside-down critter would begin to wobble and wiggle like a wormy Houdini trying to escape a strait-jacket. Its beautiful taut skin would begin to crack open and then – lo! – all that was left was a dangling blob of slimy whitish gunk. It was creepy the way the gunk kept wiggling, jiggling.
And then – this is the part that always brought “oohs!” and aahs!” – that shivering gunk would, minute by minute right before our eyes, become very pale green and then smooth and waxy until it achieved a jade-green “pupa” with a few dots on it that looked just like dew drops of gleaming gold. That “jacket” is called the “chrysalis.”
Within about two weeks, the chrysalis would start turning darker, a bruised color, and that is when Michael and I would start paying more frequent attention to the drama inside the jars. Then one day, if we were lucky enough to be watching at the time (we usually were) we would see the Monarchs – slowly, skittishly – emerge from their chrysalis jackets. Each pathetic butterfly would look like a purplish, crinkly, shrunken preemie, at first. But then, during the course of mere minutes, it would move its wings up and down, slowly pumping fluid throughout its body. And then, at last, there it was in its orange-and-black magnificence – a triumphant monarch ready to take flight into the limitless skies of the big world.
Michael and I were always happy to release the monarchs, to say goodbye with happy hearts as we watched them flutter and soar into the air. We were proud, too, like pint-sized parents who had coaxed and coddled this miracle of nature into being.
We knew, from our school classes, the monarchs we released would join others to fly all the way to Mexico for the winter. Then, come spring, their offspring would fly back to lay more eggs on milkweed plants in Minnesota, in south St. Cloud, at which time my brother and I would become as excited as antsy-pants kids on Christmas Eve.
“Raising” monarchs is a perfect family hobby – fascinating, awe-inspiring, unforgettable. And it’s free. Go for it.