It’s a summer ritual. Every August, we’re on the lookout for baby monarch butterflies in the form of caterpillars or caterpillar eggs.
If found, we bring them inside and place them in a small empty fish tank, along with the food they’ll need to transform into a monarch butterfly.
Even with three rambunctious boys, inside is much safer than the great outdoors where the fragile creatures could be gobbled up by a larger bug or washed away during a heavy rainstorm.
We watch the daily progress, amazed by nature. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed, and they gorge on the large leaves. As they grow, they eat more and more food and leave behind more and more droppings. Yes, everyone poops, even caterpillars.
Eventually, they’ll grow to be fat and about two inches long, and they’ll attach themselves to the top of the habitat. Each caterpillar will then split its skin and form a chrysalis (think of it as a bright green sleeping bag) that it will stay inside for a little more than a week before emerging as a brilliant orange and black butterfly.
That, in a nutshell, is how a monarch caterpillar transforms into a butterfly.
The caterpillars are hardwired to do this, and that’s what makes it all so fascinating. They are programmed to eat and eat and eat, find a safe place to hang and then hide themselves away until it’s time for their big reveal as a butterfly. The monarchs around here make their way to Mexico, so I like to think of their coming out party as a quinceanera of sorts.
Hatching monarchs is a relatively stress-free hobby. Until this year.
I found this year’s caterpillar on milkweed that I planted in our front yard right next to a giant butterfly bush. So ingenious, I thought. The plan was that monarch butterflies would be attracted to the butterfly bush and would lay their eggs on the neighboring milkweed. It was a solid business plan. Like placing a Red Roof Inn right to a strip club.
I set the little guy up in usual fashion with a stalk of homegrown milkweed sticking out of a plastic water bottle. I placed him on a leaf and prepared for nature to take its course.
Except this little guy seems to be a bit confused. He must have missed the memo from Mother Nature. Subject: Eat and poop
The little guy started eating, but then stopped. For a 12-hour period or so, he just lay listlessly on the same leaf. No eating, no pooping. I figured that he was just taking a break, but then I got nervous. I poked him with my finger to make sure that he was still alive. “C’mon, buddy, you’ve got to eat,” I told him. He formed a U-shape with his body, clinging tightly to the leaf with his tiny feet.
I tried some additional poking and prodding and words of encouragement. I was Anthony Robbins trying to get a little green caterpillar to walk across the hot coals of metamorphosis.
I finally gave up and went back to my work because I’m not really Anthony Robbins and I don’t get paid to motivate people let alone insects.
Regardless of my lack of credentials, my pep talk must have worked. When I checked on the little guy a bit later, he was eating! Such a relief.
Anyway, when W (or wife, not in the legal sense because we live in Pennsylvania but in ever other way that matters because we had a commitment ceremony last year) came home from work yesterday, she was surprised that the little guy was still alive. “I thought he was dead, but I didn’t want to upset you,” she said.
Just when we thought we were out of the woods, we came downstairs this morning and saw that the little guy appeared to be attaching himself to the lid of the aquarium.
“No, no, little guy. You’re not ready yet,” I told him.
W thought he was done. And, a little touched in the head.
“No, he’s just a little confused. He can still do it. I WILL NOT be digging a grave for this caterpillar,” I said firmly.
After W left, I thought about dislodging the little guy from the top of the tank and moving him to a leaf. I was worried that I’d hurt him or disrupt his cycle if he was prematurely forming his sleeping bag. Maybe he was just really tired and thought he’d forgo all the eating and pooping and just call it a summer. Spin a little hammock and put up his 16 tiny feet.
Maybe he’d emerge as a really tiny butterfly. A dwarf monarch. “How cute,” all of the other butterflies would say.
When I checked on him this afternoon, he had descended from the top of the cage and had resumed eating. A lot.
I texted W the news.
Me: Caterpillar is eating!
W: Are you kidding me?
Me: No. On a leaf. Ate a lot this a.m.
W: I think there’s something wrong with him.
Me: He’s ok. Transformation is hard.
W: It is.