By Chuck Hasbrouck
This story has its beginnings almost two years ago when Dale and I escaped the doldrums of late winter by attending the Connecticut Flower & Garden Show. At one vendor’s stand, we saw seed packets of several varieties of milkweed, talked about doing our part to bring back Monarch butterflies, and purchased some seeds.
Three months later, with warmer weather, the varieties of seeds were planted in a section of garden by the pool deck. Will the seed germinate? Will the plants survive? Will we see any Monarchs in the first year? (Usually that is not the case.) The anticipation! It was a lot like Advent – knowing what is to come - yet waiting for Christmas is exciting every year.
Well - we hit the trifecta in Year One! Seeds germinated. Plants grew. Late in the season, we even saw Monarch caterpillars! A few days later, we discovered where one caterpillar transformed into a chrysalis – when Dale brought some freshly cut basil into the kitchen. Hidden among the basil stalks, unscathed, was the chrysalis – now on the kitchen counter. What to do with this orphaned chrysalis? Our rather inelegant solution was to use a small twist tie to fasten the basil stalk and chrysalis to a potted flower plant on the porch. Would it survive this near-death experience in its new locale? Apparently, the Monarch wasn’t very fussy about either location or the red twist tie decor, as ten days later the butterfly emerged from the chrysalis, and a few hours later took its first flight. Watching this miraculous metamorphosis was exciting. Imagine what next year could bring!
This spring, the milkweeds emerged bigger and stronger. Oh, the anticipation! How many Monarchs will we have? Maybe we’ll have three generations of butterflies over the summer. (Take that Monsanto and your butterfly-killing pesticides!) Maybe we’ll see many Monarchs flittering among other butterflies about the yard.
Maybe… maybe … not :-(
Butterfly bushes bloomed, and milkweed grew – the only things missing were butterflies! May and June passed with nary a butterfly of any kind in sight – unless a solitary Cabbage Moth counts. July – still no butterflies. Year Two was becoming a huge disappointment, especially after last year’s start of Monarchs coming to our milkweed plants and a large number of other butterflies. O come, O come, Monarch butterflies!
At last, with August came a few Eastern Tiger Swallowtails – a colorful sight mind you, but still no Monarchs. Then, one afternoon in late August, we saw Monarch caterpillars on the milkweed. Not one or two, but nine of them! Crawling along the stems, climbing out on leaves, defying gravity by moving along the bottom side of the leaves, and contorting in awkward positions, the Monarch caterpillars began voraciously eating leaf after leaf. Excitedly, each day, we checked on their progress, seeing them grow from barely noticeable to large black, yellow and white striped caterpillars, eating more and more leaves. After a while, four or five days, the caterpillars disappeared. Hopefully, they went off to make their chrysalises. Since they can inch their way up to twenty feet from the milkweed to pupate, we wondered how many succeeded in their journey and where. Of course, the first place checked was the basil! Word must have spread among the butterflies to stay clear as none were there. Looking among other plants, no chrysalis was to be found. Really? They had to be somewhere.
Seeking greater security than plants in our garden, staying clear of Dale’s trimmers, we found two chrysalises attached to the underside of a fence rail. Safe and protected, the bright green with gold dots chrysalises started their ten-day pupa. Sure enough, when the ten days passed, the chrysalis began to change color, turning an increasingly darker green. It wouldn’t be long now! The first thing done each morning was to go out and check on the chrysalises’ progress. On day twelve it was happening - a chrysalis had tuned black, and through the thinning walls the colorful wings could be seen. Wow! This was it – nature’s showtime!
I ran inside and got my camera, macro lens, and tripod to set up to capture the literally unfolding events. Many photos were taken over the course of the day. We went out to check on the progress about every ten minutes, excitedly waiting for the butterfly to emerge. It happens quickly. The black chrysalis with its visible wings inside hung from the fence rail and only a few minutes later, (when we were in the house :-( ), the butterfly crawled out and hung desperately to the empty chrysalis shell. Vulnerable, wings were still curled, then loose, wrinkled and dripping wet. Continuing to come out and check, the wings gradually dried and smoothed out. After a few hours, the butterfly moved around the chrysalis shell, hanging on with its spindly legs, eventually opening and closing its wings. At first slowly and infrequently, then with increasing speed, the wings moved. Soon, it was to take its first flight. This was exciting! Staying to watch this event, the Monarch flew a few feet to the top of the fence where it repeated its wing movements. Finally, later in the afternoon, the butterfly flew off to a nearby bush from where it flew away.
Over the next few weeks, we occasionally saw the Monarch flitter around the yard. With both chrysalises emptied, the two butterflies came and went until cooler weather gave them the signal to head south.
The anticipation of seeing the metamorphosis was as exciting as was witnessing the event. It is still hard to fully understand the incredible changes that take place – from a small cluster of tiny eggs, to a growing caterpillar, to a chrysalis that looks dormant, yet has amazing changes taking place inside, to a butterfly whose specie cyclically travels from Mexico to Connecticut, totaling over 5,400 miles. Maybe not fully comprehending it is okay – anticipating and seeing it is all the more wonderful. In many ways, it is like the coming of the birth of Jesus - knowing well the Christmas story, yet finding something new and amazing as we relive it each year. May you find the Christmas chrysalis.