“Outside” monarchs

In 2017 there was so much monarch activity going on in the front yard, I honestly couldn’t keep up with all the eggs, caterpillars, and butterflies. It was a very entertaining change compared to the previous year, when I found only one caterpillar!

The season started really early, with a monarch laying eggs on May 26. I watched at least eight or nine of them (it’s not always easy to find all of them at once to count them) grow up into full-sized caterpillars ready to pupate.

Most of this action happened on the common milkweed. After spotting six eggs on one butterfly weed, I only found caterpillars there once or twice.

For the first time, I saw caterpillars eating not just the leaves of milkweed plants, but the flowers or flower buds, too. This one was likely one of the eggs from the May generation:


(If you can’t use the embedded video above, watch a monarch caterpillar eating common milkweed buds on YouTube.)

The monarch caterpillars, and the American Lady caterpillars, too, managed to ride out a hailstorm in mid-June:

Caterpillar recovering from a hailstorm, facing upward on a milkweed stem, its antennae slicked back.

In previous years I had planted swamp milkweed seeds in the front yard but never saw them appear. In the backyard, I had tried a couple of other varieties such as whorled and the “hello yellow” butterfly weed cultivar, but they were either eaten or overtaken by weeds. Last year, I decided to get serious about trying other milkweed varieties, to not rely too heavily on common milkweed, which often fades too early for the later monarch generations. So in June I picked up a few new milkweeds at the Landscape Revival plant sale: poke, prairie, and whorled (along with a couple non-milkweeds).

Five small potted plants in a row.

Some other time that I’ve already forgotten, I also picked up Sullivant’s and showy. I decided to fence in these new plants (the chicken-wire is not easily seen in this photo, though)…

Late-afternoon sun shining on a garden that is mostly woodchips with some small green plants, with a knee-high fence surrounding.

… and that seemed to make a difference — not only did all of these survive, so did the whorled from years past that I thought was lost, as well as a couple of others that were not planted this year and so I’m not sure what they were. One was a butterfly weed that may have been the old hello yellow or may have been from seed that wandered over from the front yard. The others, I don’t remember at this point; I hope they come back and flower next year so I can find out what they are. But I know that they were milkweeds because all of these, old and new, planted and surprise, ended up with monarch eggs and then caterpillars!

One afternoon while I was giving a garden tour for my Butterfly Buddy, a monarch flew into the backyard to lay eggs. The most amusing part of her visit: she couldn’t figure out how to get over the chicken wire fence protecting the plants, so she first flew all the way around the perimeter, then landed in the middle of the fence and squeezed through one of the small wire openings! I’m really glad there was another witness for that because I’m not sure my husband believed me when I told him later (and I don’t blame him).

When I checked the plants later, I found out that not only had she picked this small showy milkweed, she chose a leaf that already had a hatchling! And on the same plant was a row of four lacewing eggs. When I went back to take a picture with a better camera, the caterpillar had already eaten the egg! That’s one way nature deals with competition, I guess.

Hand pulling a milkweed to see the underside, with a monarch caterpillar near an egg on one leaf, lacewing eggs on another leaf.

In all, I counted seven kinds of milkweed in the backyard, and this monarch laid an egg on six of them! I don’t know whether she also visited the common milkweed in the front yard, but this was a good validation for my plan to plant more species for later generations.

Poke milkweed:

Underside of two large milkweed leaves, a small caterpillars on each.

Whorled milkweed:

Lots of very narrow leaves, one with a small white egg.

Prairie milkweed:

The top of a dark-green leaf with an egg.

Sullivant’s milkweed with evidence of a caterpillar feeding:

The underside of narrow milkweed leaves, one with a small chewed hole.

Unknown milkweed:

Small milkweed with wide leaves, one with an egg underneath.

Are whorled milkweed leaves really big enough to support caterpillars? What happens when the caterpillars grow past, say, the third instar?

Hand holding the top of a whorled milkweed with a second-instar caterpillar, the leaves only as wide as the caterpillar.

Nearly all of these plants were very small, not just the whorled milkweed (which is always small, even when fully grown). The exception was the poke milkweed, which was definitely not a first-year plant when I bought it. None were big enough, or perhaps it was that they weren’t established enough, to flower. I saw many caterpillars over the next couple weeks, but as I had worried, I saw none past the third instar. I’m not sure why: not enough food, too much competition, predators, moved to another area (though the front yard is quite far away for a little caterpillar), or something else.

Possible predator?

Hand pulling down a narrow milkweed leaf with a diamond-shaped black insect.

Following that generation, the next time I saw new eggs on the backyard milkweed, I collected eight of them to raise indoors.

After this amazing season of monarchs indoors and out, I’m hoping for another good local population in 2018 and will plan to order tags for the migration generation.

Blurry monarch flying above an in-focus cup plant.

“Inside” monarchs

After a disappointing monarch season in 2016, I was thrilled to find many eggs and caterpillars in my yard in 2017. Some became temporary “inside” monarchs when I brought eggs indoors to raise the caterpillars and then release them outside as butterflies.

Side view of a monarch butterfly perched on joe-pye weed, facing right.

After seeing a monarch lay a dozen eggs at the end of May, and then finding many more eggs in the yard on the butterfly weed and on the common milkweed, I wanted to bring a few inside to watch them grow.

Looking down into a plastic container with three monarch butterfly caterpillars and several large common milkweed leaves.

But wouldn’t you know that after weeks of my tending to the three caterpillars, and days of watching the chrysalises, they decided to wait to emerge until I was out of town? Fortunately I have a Butterfly Buddy who was more than happy to take the chrysalises…

Three green monarch butterfly chrysalises lying on an open hand.

…and send me updates on the three beautiful butterflies!

After that adventure, I took a break from raising caterpillars during the busy-ness of the summer. There was plenty of monarch activity in the garden during that time, which I will detail soon. I waited until after a five-day family reunion to begin again, and on August 7, I collected eight monarch eggs — then figured that was enough! Four of them had already hatched by the next morning. Not sure where two of the caterpillars are in this photo:

Looking down into a plastic container with eight milkweed leaves of various sizes, with four monarch eggs and two tiny caterpillars.

An upside-down common milkweed leaf with many small holes created by four small monarch caterpillars.

It was during this period that one of the caterpillars met a sad end when I wasn’t paying enough attention while cleaning the cage and grabbed a leaf exactly at the spot where it was sitting on the other side. I tried to console myself by noting that this one was much smaller than the others and not progressing well anyway, but it still was my fault.

An upside-down common milkweed leaf with four much larger monarch caterpillars.

Three pale-green monarch chrysalises hanging from the top of a plastic cage.

In the midst of the raising of this group, on August 23, I found this newly hatched monarch caterpillar when checking out the progress of the front garden. (Good thing the common milkweed was still kicking out new leaves.)

Tiny monarch caterpillar on a small common milkweed plant.

August 30: My first release of the season!

Male monarch butterfly hanging from a cup plant flower.

A watched chrysalis never opens. Isn’t that how the saying goes? Even though there were three chrysalises like this on Sept. 1, I didn’t see any of them open!

Monarch chrysalis hanging from dental floss in a white mesh cage, just before the butterfly emerged, wings clearly visible.

But it was an exciting day, anyway, when the “three sisters” all hung out with me in the garden for the afternoon:

Three female monarch butterflies resting on a cup plant, two facing right and one facing left.

This one starred in a video chat with my nieces and nephew:

Monarch butterfly resting on a pointer finger in front of a laptop.

The next day, one emerged:

Male monarch butterfly with wings open, resting on an open hand in front of sunny black-eyed susans.

Two more were nearly ready that day, but in unfortunate timing, we were planning to leave for a weeklong trip the next day. This time I hadn’t planned ahead enough to pass them off to my Butterfly Buddy, maybe because I had optimistically thought they would have emerged sooner. So I did the next-best thing and tied the chrysalises to joe-pye weed plants so they could eclose outside and fly off on their own.

Luckily for me, one of them did emerge before we left, as I was waiting impatiently but not impatiently enough to pay close enough attention, and it was almost all the way out before I noticed. I’m always surprised at how quiet this process is; I was standing right there and didn’t hear a thing.

Monarch hanging from its chrysalis, wings full-sized and smooth.

The other one apparently emerged safely, since we found an empty chrysalis when we returned.

Before the trip, I needed to release a caterpillar into the wild, too: the single one I found in late August. It was close to being big enough to transform into a chrysalis, but not close enough:

Large monarch caterpillar crawling up the stem of a common milkweed plant.

There’s no way that six days later I would find a caterpillar that had been that large, still in caterpillar form. But it was an odd coincidence to find a fully-grown caterpillar in the same area the night we returned:

Slightly bigger monarch caterpillar upside-down under a common milkweed leaf.

Of course, I brought this one inside, too, and a day and a half later, it transformed:

Monarch caterpillar hanging in the J position from a plastic cage.

On the autumnal equinox, he became my last butterfly of the season.

Male monarch butterfly resting on a pearly everlasting plant, facing right.

Final tally

  • 3 released in the first generation
  • 8 released in the migration generation

Closeup of a monarch butterfly hanging off a joe-pye weed, facing left.

More about my monarch-raising adventures

Late-night snacking

One night just after dusk, as I arrived home after running errands, I decided to see what the caterpillars were up to. For several days, I had been observing eight or nine monarch caterpillars growing larger and larger in the front corner of the yard, in what I’m calling the “milkweed forest” because there are about three dozen common milkweed plants close together. Quite likely, these caterpillars were from the eggs that were laid on May 26.

The caterpillars were getting so big, I knew they’d be ready to form their chrysalises soon. Would they be resting up, or would they be eating all they could? I guessed they’d be eating.

Sure enough, they were still out and about, still eating. Even in the low light, I could easily spot them. They just went about their business without even noticing me, which is generally what they do in the daylight, too.

just a head poking out under a leaf, looking surprised, though that is likely anthropomorphization

caterpillar underneath a leaf, holding on, with a sharp corner in its mouth

caterpillar climbing up a leaf, curved over to eat from the top

caterpillar possibly resting upside-down at the base of a leaf

caterpillar reaching up to the top of a leaf, antennae stretched wide

caterpillar facing down on the left side of a large cluster of leaves

I’m not sure whether they eat all night. Sometime, maybe I’ll check!

Within a day or two, these caterpillars probably moved on to the next stage in life. They must have crawled far away, or hidden well, because I haven’t found even one chrysalis.

Photos were taken on June 15. These caterpillars might be butterflies now!

They don’t call it butterfly weed for nothing

A little over a week ago, I saw a monarch lay an egg on the butterfly weed, so I kept checking on it.

closeup of one butterfly weed bud stem in the sun, with a white football-shaped egg pointed downward on the left side

Two days later I noticed two more eggs. The next day I noticed a fourth, and I was able to get them all in one photo.

large, full butterfly weed plant with two eggs visible in the front and two practically invisible in the middle

Of course, from this distance they’re nearly impossible to see, so I added arrows to show where they are. The orange arrow is the location of the original egg.

same photo, with three black arrows and one orange arrow pointing to tiny whitish spots

A zoomed-in version of the top two eggs:

a black arrow and an orange arrow pointing to white dots

And a zoomed-in version of the bottom two eggs:

black arrows pointing to two white dots

When I leaned in to get a closer look at one of them, I spotted a fifth egg in the crown of one of the stems.

an egg in focus on a cluster of buds, with blurry leaves in the foreground

Then I decided to check the other side of the plant, and I found a sixth egg.

egg on the top left corner of a group of lots of skinny green leaves

Six eggs on one plant. Wow!

I decided to raise two of the eggs (plus one from a common milkweed) inside — partly to simply observe, and partly for a reason I’ll explain in a future post. All three hatched early the same morning, but strangely, they’re growing at different rates.

three tiny monarch caterpillars, one much smaller than the others

It’s monarch season already

This year the monarch migration from Mexico was earlier than normal. Butterflies started reaching the Twin Cities about two weeks ago, so I have been checking the milkweed every few days but not finding any eggs. Then this evening Bill saw a monarch fluttering in the front yard. I raced out with my camera.

monarch butterfly resting on common milkweed

She landed on common milkweed, in a cluster of plants that’s growing outside of the garden in the lawn. While I watched, she paused in the egg-laying pose and then fluttered away, circled the yard, and came back to another plant nearby to repeat the process.

monarch butterfly with her abdomen curved to lay eggs on common milkweed

Then, in my excitement to see this process up close, I scared her away. (Next time, I will be more cool.) I started checking the plants and found two eggs right away, where I had seen her. Then I moved on throughout the garden.

closeup of a striped, football-shaped, ivory-colored egg on a green leaf

We have more than 100 milkweeds, so it took awhile, but there were plenty of eggs to be found. Each was on its own plant. Some were on full plants about a foot tall…

egg on the underside of a large leaf

some on really small plants with only one or two leaves so far…

egg on a leaf that's still unfolding

one curious location near several insects…

egg on the edge of a leaf with several green aphids and white, cotton-like insects

some on plants growing in a community…

a milkweed with many leaves, with two more plants in the background

one on an island in the grass.

egg on the underside of a vertical leaf, only grass in the background

12 eggs in all! So maybe she was done laying eggs, anyway, and wasn’t bothered by me observing…?

Last year, it wasn’t until July 15 that I saw my first monarch in the garden and September 22 when I saw the first caterpillar. While May 26 feels really early, now that they’re here and the cycle is continuing, it’s pretty exciting.

At this point, I’m not planning to bring any of the eggs inside to raise them. It’s only May, and I’m not sure I’m up for an entire summer of cleaning out cages. But once I start seeing caterpillars in the garden, it won’t be surprising if I cave.

2016 monarch recap

Remember back in late June when I whined that there were no monarchs in my yet? The very first monarch I saw was this tattered female in mid-July:

butterfly with wings spread and a chunk taken out of its lower wings, climbing on a purple flower stalk

I also saw a few others, like this one two days later that tried and tried to get the unopened joe-pye weed to work before giving up and flying off to the fully open purple coneflower

monarch standing on the center of a flower, its wings folded closed

and this gorgeous male two weeks later that spent more than an hour in the garden, splitting time between the now-open joe-pye weed and the cup plant

butterfly with its wings stretched wide and the flower in the background, viewed from above

zoomed-in photo of a small orange butterfly from the side, on a yellow flower

and I saw evidence of caterpillars

the underside of a milkweed leaf with a tiny crescent-shaped hole in the lower left and a small circle hole in the middle

but until late September, I never saw even one caterpillar in my yard. After last summer’s excitement of fostering 13 caterpillars over two generations, this was disheartening, especially after bad news about the freak March snowstorm that killed many monarchs in their overwintering habitat in Mexico.

But I tried to stay positive with news from real friends and internet friends about monarch and caterpillar sightings in the area, even though I was seeing fewer butterflies than last year. The reports seemed to be more numerous as the migration generation was growing.

right-side view of a butterfly with wings closed, climbing on joe-pye weed buds

As the season was winding down, I had a blast at Ney Nature Center in Henderson, “hunting” monarchs at sunrise to tag them for their journey to Mexico. There were far fewer sleeping in the trees than the staff anticipated – in fact, we only saw one (and it got away). I then spent many hours walking through the prairie and saw quite a few monarchs

butterfly in a large clump of light-purple asters, with other flower seedheads nearby

and my first-ever viceroys! Such a convincing monarch mimic. This butterfly is much smaller than a monarch, though that’s not obvious unless comparing them side-by-side. The biggest visual difference is that viceroys have a black line through their lower wings, while monarchs do not.

viceroy butterfly with its wings unfolded, viewed from above

In the end, I caught five, though two escaped, so I tagged three.

two butterflies inside a mesh monarch cage

fingers holding a monarch's wings closed, with a small sticker tag on the lower wing

And then – on the first day of autumn – I found a caterpillar in my front yard, moments away from beginning its transformation. I brought it inside, where it created its chrysalis. It stayed that way for two weeks, to the point where I was getting worried that the process had failed. But then, the green darkened to show wings forming inside.

a hand holding a chrysalis with the top still green, viewed from the side with one wing somewhat visible

The butterfly emerged the next day, but I wasn’t home until the evening and so I decided to keep him inside overnight. Then next afternoon he was so antsy to get outside that he climbed out of the (nonsecure) mesh cage (really, a laundry container without a top). Fortunately, I had anticipated this and covered it with a towel, so he didn’t escape. But the release day was chilly – barely 50 degrees even though it was sunny – and I wondered if he felt tricked when I took him outside; he was suddenly in no hurry to move.

butterfly sitting on the top of a white mesh laundry hamper

After I let him climb onto my finger, he flew right up to a tree, like all of last year’s monarchs did, but this one perched in the shade. I knew he was not going to warm up there, so when he was still there an hour later, I climbed up a stepstool and took him down to find a better spot.

monarch hanging from a leaf of a birch tree, viewed from the right side

The backyard was somehow much warmer, so he rested on my finger for a few minutes while his wings warmed up, and then away he flew.

butterfly with wings unfolded, resting on my outstretched finger

I’m thrilled to find out that our common milkweed still attracted monarchs late in the season, when it didn’t look so good anymore. This year we added three other types of milkweed as small plants in the backyard garden, and hopefully 2017 will be the year the swamp milkweed seeds take off, too. The more variety we can provide for summer-long habitat, the better.

A caterpillar at last

In mid-July I finally started seeing a few monarch butterflies in the garden, but I did not find even one caterpillar all summer. That changed today – the first day of autumn – when I was collecting flower seeds and a line of yellow-and-black stripes caught my eye.

caterpillar on the underside of a deteriorating milkweed leaf, with coneflower and milkweed seedpods nearby

With the nights getting colder, I brought this little one inside to form a chrysalis (at any moment). When he or she emerges as a butterfly in about two weeks, I hope it will not be too late to join the migration to Mexico.

 

Monarch reflections and outtakes

Monarch season is long over in the north and we’re hearing reports of butterflies that have arrived in Mexico. It’s hard to believe that the three we released in September may be 2,000 miles away now! Here’s one last monarch post of 2015 to review our first season of raising.

two big caterpillars in acrobatic poses while eating

I was an observer during the first generation of the season. During the second generation, we raised and released nine butterflies. During the migration generation, we raised four butterflies and released three (the fourth couldn’t fly).

caterpillar in J formation, viewed from above

I recorded 72 videos and took more than 900 photos, though I didn’t save nearly that many.

the underside of a leaf, with a caterpillar peeking around a chewed edge

Why so few during the migration generation? I’m guessing it is because we had mostly common milkweed. By the time eggs were laid for the migration season, the common milkweed was not in great shape. I was imagining the female butterflies – who were still visiting the yard – saying, “Ew! I’m not laying my eggs on that disgusting leaf.” It’s a good reminder to diversify the plants to support a full season of insects. I’ve already planted swamp milkweed seeds and will look for more milkweed options next spring.

monarch drinking from joe-pye weed

There was one pair of caterpillars that were always fighting for position. Even when they had climbed to the top of the cage, each was still trying to stake her claim. I felt like I was separating squabbling siblings more than once – “Just mind your own business. Move away so she doesn’t bother you.” – until I realized that I should leave them alone and let them figure it out.

Every day I brought in new milkweed leaves, ripping off bad spots. Many times late at night, I realized that I didn’t have enough and went back out into the yard with a flashlight to harvest more and save them in the fridge, just in case.

one leaf with a spot torn off, and another leaf in a plastic bag

I never understood why they would always finish a wilted old leaf first, even when there was a new, fresh leaf available.

caterpillar eating a leaf down to the stem, next to a wet new leaf

There were two “oops” caterpillars – two leaves I brought in for food had eggs I hadn’t noticed; one even got washed before I found it.

three leaves, each with an egg

Right after molting, with no face…

just molted; new face hasn't come in yet

…because the head capsule pops off during molting:

three discarded head capsules

The fascinatingly creepy skin that’s left over after pupation:

scrunched up skin on the bottom of a cage

Once the skin didn’t detach when the chrysalis was formed, but it turned out fine.

A bigger concern: one caterpillar started discharging a yellow-green liquid the day before she pupated. I isolated her because I was worried about a disease that could spread to another caterpillar, or perhaps the caterpillar had been infected by a tachinid fly that would emerge from the chrysalis (and kill it) and make a mess. But the butterfly was normal.

jar with a coffee filter over the top, with yellow stains

When a caterpillar is ready to pupate, it gets into position quickly; I only caught one caterpillar starting to make the long journey up to the top of the cage.

The caterpillars always seemed so surprised to find themselves at the top of the cage. “Wait, what is this green thing?”

caterpillar inspecting a chrysalis

They go through an elaborate process to spin a web during molting and before pupation.

And another long process to create the silk “button” that will hold the chrysalis.

I’m always surprised by how much I miss the caterpillars when they chrysalis-ize. Things are suddenly really quiet, once a chrysalis forms.

the last caterpillar, one day before pupation

When the first butterfly was ready to emerge from her chrysalis, I was worried she would fall, so I set up lots of towels for cushion. But she didn’t fall, and neither did any other. In fact, one hung from the empty chrysalis all day, then all night, and into the next morning, when I opened the cage to let her out.

Right before the butterfly emerges, the chrysalis looks a little like Darth Vader.

It’s amusing how tiny and wrinkly the butterflies are when they first emerge. But it doesn’t take long for their wings to flatten.

They hold still for several hours while their wings dry.

One was so excited to leave that she tried to crawl through the towel that was draped over the top of the cage. I didn’t see her at first and was worried she had escaped.

monarch lying on its side on a towel

But NONE of the butterflies escaped in the house!

monarch climbing out of a jar

All but one wanted help getting out of the cage. It’s a fun and funny feeling to have a butterfly crawl onto my hand.

All of them flew off into a tree immediately after they were released.

monarch resting in a pine tree

My favorite memory of the 2015 season: the sound of caterpillars chewing milkweed leaves.

Will we do it again next year? I’m not sure. It’s a lot of work – not so much on any one day, but over the couple of weeks during the caterpillar stage. It’s not possible to take a vacation while there are caterpillars. And some people advise against mass-rearing (although our “operation” could hardly be called “mass”), which makes me wonder whether we should raise any indoors.

chrysalis with visible butterfly wings

It was a fun and educational experience, and I’m sure that I’ll want to do it again. It’s hard to see caterpillars in the yard and leave them, because I want to keep all of them safe until they turn into butterflies.

empty chrysalis

More monarch posts

A butterfly that couldn’t fly

This was our first year of raising monarchs. Most of the time, when a butterfly emerged from its chrysalis, the big event happened before I woke up. So when it was time for the 12th birth, the day after Labor Day, I didn’t even try to wake up early to catch it. But when I checked on her, I noticed a that not only had she emerged, there was major problem: she was stuck in the chrysalis.

chrysalis viewed from above with a butterfly's wings below

Her head and wings were out, but her abdomen was stuck to the very top of the chrysalis. It was obvious that she had been struggling to free herself for some time.

Best practices say that you should not help a monarch who is stuck. If this problem occurs, it is because something is wrong and the monarch isn’t healthy enough to live. But how in the world could I not help?! It was terrible to watch her frantic struggling. And I’m already helping by raising monarchs indoors, away from predators. Of course I felt like I had to help her.

Luckily, my husband was at home that morning to assist. I cut down the chrysalis, and we gently laid her on a towel. It didn’t take much to pull the chrysalis off.

gloved hands tugging at the top of the chrysalis

Her wings were limp, which I thought meant she might be new enough that she still had time to finish drying. I struggled to get her back into the cage because she was desperate to climb up my hands rather than be set down. She knew she needed to be able to hang to let her wings dry.

monarch with wings unfolded in a pair of gloved hands

Unfortunately, when I got home from work that night, her wings still weren’t straight. I thought she flew a tiny bit but then realized it was more of a jump with a flutter. I had already decided to keep her inside overnight, and in the morning, not much had changed.

So what to do? It was the migration season, and she couldn’t fly. She needed to get to Mexico, or she would freeze or be eaten. Would it be more humane to euthanize her? Or should I keep her inside as long as she could survive?

There’s not a lot of advice for a situation like this. The only thing I could find was along these lines: “If the butterfly can’t fly, you should feed the butterfly sugar-water or rotten fruit.” Well, of course we should feed her. But then what? Do we keep her for the nine months that the migration generation lives? And even then, if she can’t fly, we wouldn’t be able to let her out even when the others returned to Minnesota in the spring. This was pretty stressful.

I mashed up an old banana and somehow managed to set her down near – or more accurately, in – it. By the time I had a chance to wonder whether she’d know what to do, I noticed her proboscis was already in the banana.

Later she was standing on top of a slice of plum, so I was assured she could move around on her own (even with fruit-covered feet). But it was obvious that her wings weren’t correct.

monarch with its wings back, the bottom two bent inward and the tips of the top two folded outward

With the lack of a better option, we kept feeding her as the days passed. When I had first told people weeks earlier that I was raising monarchs, several people asked me if I planned to keep them. I thought they were crazy. The whole point is to raise healthy butterflies so they can be released. And now we were keeping one as a pet.

I took her outside when I released a healthy monarch. She seemed to enjoy sitting in the sun and made a couple attempts at flying.

Five days after she emerged, she was very active. For an entire hour, she sat near the mashed bananas: drink, drink, drink, rest. Repeat. It even seemed like she was doing exercises, waving her wings and lifting her abdomen. And then she was trying very hard to fly. It didn’t work so well when she was on a flat surface, but if I picked her up, she could jump and fly away – except I eventually realized that she wasn’t so much flying as she was gliding; her path was always gently to the floor.

monarch with its wings expanded on a white towel

The following night she was even more spunky. She wouldn’t sit still anymore, walking all over the table and gliding over to the window and climbing the curtains.

monarch on a window screen

Many times I picked her up and she jumped off my finger. She seemed determined to fly, and she seemed mad that it wasn’t working.

blurry image of a monarch rapidly fluttering its wings

It seemed that she got discouraged after this. The next night, she would barely eat and only briefly tried to fly.

The next morning she was listless on the floor of the cage, one of her legs already folded up. It was time to help her go. Fortunately Bill was home to help me. We put a tissue in a jar to give her a soft spot to rest, and then placed a cotton ball soaked in nail-polish remover in the jar and sealed the cover. Almost immediately, she was gone.

I never intended to have a butterfly as a pet, but this one stole our hearts. I’m sad that something was wrong to prevent her from flying, and that we couldn’t fix her. Though if we hadn’t helped her out of the chrysalis, she would have died anyway. We did the best we could to help her.

So what went wrong? Everything seemed normal when she was a caterpillar. The one thing I noticed was that it seemed to take her a really long time to get into the J position: she was at the top of the cage for a whole day before making the silk pad and falling back into the J.

monarch in J position

But I watched her transform, and that process seemed fine.

newly formed chrysalis that is still bumpy, not smooth

She’s the chrysalis in this photo:

monarch chrysalis above a caterpillar that's eating a milkweed leaf

But of course, she ended up stuck in the chrysalis. Also, her abdomen had irregular white marks instead of the usual defined lines.

wings flat, abdomen raised to show white splotches

Because of those two things, I thought it might be OE, a parasite that lives inside monarchs and related butterflies. We collected a sample of her scales and used our microscope but couldn’t find anything. But since it’s a very cheap model and we weren’t sure it was powerful enough to see tiny OE spores, we sent it for testing.

scales in clear tape, sitting on a microscope slide

Edith at Shady Oak Butterfly Farm didn’t find even one OE spore, proving that tests are needed to determine OE, not just observation. Here’s what she told me via email: “The problem is that the spotlight is so bright on OE that other diseases are openly doing their nasty work and no one blames them. They treat for OE and sometimes OE treatments won’t take care of the other diseases. … It reminds me of magicians imitating pick pockets. We are so busy looking at their right hands with the flashy tricks that we don’t see their left hands picking the subject’s pockets, right there in plain view.”

Another parasite, or a virus or disease, could have been the culprit. A younger butterfly – which had been raised in the same container as this one – was fine, though, which makes me think it wasn’t a contagious problem. Still, it’s a good reminder for next year that we will need to thoroughly clean the caterpillars’ cages daily (which we did this year anyway) and bleach them between generations (likewise) to try to prevent issues.

monarch with wings expanded on a white towel, with one wing visibly bent under

More about our monarchs

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