One monarch, from caterpillar to butterfly

One Saturday morning as I was cleaning the caterpillar cages, I noticed one of the eggs looked dark on top. Then I saw the egg was moving and realized I was watching a caterpillar hatch!

tiny caterpillar climbing out of its egg

I thought I would remember all of the details of this caterpillar’s life – when he hatched, when he molted, and on and on – but of course I didn’t. It’s hard enough to remember with just one caterpillar, but we were taking care of six and, eventually, nine. But I did take a photo every day, with a dime as a reference for his size.

July 18 – newly emerged and eating the egg:

eating the egg

July 19:

on a paper towel, roughly the size of the flame on a dime

July 20:

on a leaf, much bigger than the flame

July 21:

half the size of the dime's torch, first visible tentacles

July 22:

as tall as the torch, with a recognizable caterpillar face

That night, I found him hanging by a silk thread off the side of the cage. I hadn’t seen anything like this before – I didn’t even realize they spun silk for moltings until this moment – and didn’t know what to do. Was he stuck? Was this part of the molting process? I wasn’t sure if I should intervene or let him figure it out.

But 20 minutes later, he was still there and appeared to be struggling because he was twisting and turning, and was even folding himself upside-down, seeming to be trying to bite at the spot where he was stuck. I decided I had to do something, so I gently brushed a Q-tip on the side of the cage, sweeping him onto the “floor.” He then quickly walked off the thread himself, and I realized I had done the right thing.

July 23:

about the same length but with longer tentacles

July 24:

almost as long as the dime

July 25 – suddenly, they get really big really fast:

longer than the dime

July 26:

tentacles have curved over

July 27:

twice the diameter of the dime

July 28 – last day before the transformation:

more than twice the dime's diameter, and fatter

Night of July 28 – getting into position. Their bodies are shorter and fatter at this point.

looking down onto the cage at the underside of the caterpillar

Morning of July 29 – hanging from the silk pad:

looking down onto the cage at the caterpillar in J position

Later that morning, a chrysalis:

chrysalis still with stripes, about 1.5 times the diameter of the dime

Eight days later, the green is gone and orange-and-black wings are showing through:

chrysalis from above

The next morning, I woke up early to try to catch the emergence. And then I waited… and waited. Two hours later, he finally emerged:

chrysalis from the front, with the first panel open but butterfly completely inside

chrysalis from the side, with one folded leg poking out

starting to slide out the bottom

body out, antennae unfolded

all four legs holding on

front legs moved to the top of the empty chrysalis

abdomen down, wings back but small and wrinkled

looking straight at the abdomen with the dime as reference, about half the length

drying, wings still somewhat wrinkled

holding on tight to the chrysalis, wings smooth

And now I had confirmation that I was right to call it a male. (Though that was just luck, since you can’t tell the difference at the caterpillar stage.)

at the bottom of the cage with wings spread

Unfortunately, he emerged on the first rainy day in more than a week. Best practices say you shouldn’t release butterflies in the rain because they’re too light to tolerate raindrops, so this was the one I previously mentioned looking wistfully out the window:

hanging upside-down from a cage while looking out the window

The next morning was sunny, and he was ready to be released:

hanging to the side of the mesh cage, much bigger than a dime

One last comparison with a dime:

side view as he's hanging off my fingertips

Then I moved him to a black-eyed susan, and off he flew:

letting him climb onto a flower

More about our monarchs

1 Comment

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  1. I love this! A beautiful record of the beginnings of a new life. I’ve never documented a caterpillar’s changes day by day, but there is always that one day—now I know it’s Day 8—when suddenly you’re all, like, “Aww, what a big fat caterpillar you’re getting to be!” And then you have to run out and find some more milkweed, STAT.


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