September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

The mighty, mighty monarch

By Kelli [email protected] | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Wisconsin Author Michael Perry wrote, "Summer here comes on like a zaftig hippie chick, jazzed on chlorophyll and flinging fistfuls of butterflies to the sun." (I had to look up "zaftig," myself. In Yiddish it means juicy, succulent, voluptuous, plump.) That was certainly the case this year.
The milkweed I have growing in my flowerbed tripled in size in one week, and I have been anxiously watching for monarch caterpillars chomping on them.
Some people may call me a tree-hugger for carefully watching for caterpillars, but the truth is the little buggers completely fascinate me - I even do a little foster care of them.
Many people consider milkweed to be, well, a weed. I actually encourage it to grow in my flower beds and have two different varieties.
I will try to summarize the life cycle of monarchs, but frankly it is rather hard to comprehend even when you know it to be scientific fact.
In September and October, monarchs in the upper Midwest pack up and move up to 2,500 miles south to hibernate in warmer places like Mexico and California. In February and March, they wake up to find a mate and migrate north to find a place to lay their eggs.
It takes up to four days for the monarch eggs to hatch. Then this teensy caterpillar which is only about two millimeters in length starts to eat - and it only eats milkweed. Within two weeks it becomes full sized, about an inch and a half in length. 
If I find a caterpillar of any size it goes into our official "terrarium," which is really just a plastic box with a vented lid that my kids used when they were little to put insects in. I put in fresh milkweed leaves every day. The reason for doing this is not all that different from why farmers raise dairy calves instead of leaving them with their mothers: it increases their chances of survival. By keeping them in the terrarium, other bugs and birds can't eat them and my family gets the opportunity to watch the life cycle and eventually release the monarch to the world after their wings dry post-hatching.
A couple of years ago I discovered a horrid parasite that infects monarchs and kills them, usually when they are in the chrysalis stage. With enough observation I was able to figure out the strange behaviors of those that were infected and kill the caterpillars before the parasite could reproduce, but it sucked to have to do that.
Anyway, provided the caterpillar makes it to the chrysalis stage the magic of metamorphosis occurs. Over 10 to 14 days the caterpillar parts turn into butterfly parts.
It is amazing to watch the caterpillar turn itself into a chrysalis (it kind of appears that they are shedding their skin), and the chrysalises themselves are incredible. They are a gorgeous shade of spring green, with these little dots on them that closely resemble actual gold. When the butterfly is ready to come out, the chrysalis becomes clear.
The butterfly emerges and lives for two to six weeks. They eat flowers and fruits, and die after laying eggs. There are typically four generations of butterflies a year, and the second and third generations of butterflies go through exactly the same four stage life cycle as the first generation did. The fourth generation lives six to eight months and makes that astounding journey south to hibernate and return in the spring.  
How monarchs know where and how to travel so far four generations after the first ones did it is anyone's guess. How Mother Nature managed to make an insect that looks so fragile be able to travel so far is also an unanswerable question. I also think there must have been significantly more butterflies for much of history before there were cars going so fast and smacking the life out of the little winged wonders.
I love the fact that awesome things like this go on right under our noses all the time. We all need to always look at the big picture, but miniscule things can be miraculous.
To learn more or, or just go look for some "weeds" and look closely.[[In-content Ad]]


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