When Dreams Take Flight III

Monarch butterfly

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/31191972@N04 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

After a butterfly egg hatches, its life as a caterpillar lasts about two weeks.  And, man, do they eat!  As I mentioned yesterday, I pretty much defoliated our milkweed plants, so I had to go scavenging for more leaves–in alleys, along railroad tracks, or in the yards of friends.  I would clip leaves, put them in baggies and refrigerate them til needed.

And here’s the surprise:  those caterpillars really poop.  And as they get bigger, so does their poop!  Every morning and evening, I would carefully shake the droppings out of each individual cup.  I had to do it twice a day just for the sake of good housekeeping (or cup-keeping).

But things got even more intense because I kept finding new eggs on the all-but-defoliated milkweed plants out back.  Probably another ten or so.  So I added them to the nursery.  This meant I had about 50 butterflies-in-process, all at various stages of development.  I felt like the Mickey Mouse character in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  These things just kept coming at me.   I was spending about an hour a day taking care of them…and even more time thinking about them!

Thankfully, after a couple of weeks the first batch went into chrysalis mode, then the others.  I took a breather.  There was nothing to do but wait for another two weeks until the tell-tale shaking of the chrysalis signaled a butterfly was about to emerge.  And emerge they did.  Sometimes one a day, sometimes several.  It was thrilling to see it happen–especially after all that work.  Even this part, though, was not without stress.  At one point, we were going away for the weekend so we had to have friends babysit the  chrysalises that were due to come out (otherwise they would have been trapped in the now upside-down cup.)

The payoff, of course, was taking a new butterfly outside, gently coaxing it on to a flower where it would sit for some time before finally taking off–invariably headed south.  It was really very moving to see something very fragile you’d helped bring to life make its way in the world, part of a cycle that transcends time and borders.

But the Summer of My Good Intentions turned out to be one of the most stressful summers of my life.  Helping Mother Nature is a huge responsibility.  When the last butterfly flew from our little city garden, I felt a mixture of elation, satisfaction, and relief.  I don’t know if I’ll ever try it again.  If I do, though, I would only raise a handful.  Well, maybe just a dozen.  Okay, maybe a couple of dozen…

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  • Great butterfly journal, Phil. We agree that helping nature really is a huge responsibility, but it’s fun to be a butterfly’s friend, isn’t it?
    Your new garden is beautiful! I spotted a couple of milkweed plants, but no eggs yet…
    Mary G

  • Barbara Barnes

    Hi, Phill:

    I’m Mary Gingrich’s sisrer and I just had to tell you I am totally charmed by your series on the butterflies. I was with Dan and Mary at the fishing cabin in Wisconsin when Dan’s first butterfly (named Chris) emerged. (I rememer Dan going around at dawn, sahying “Chris is a butterfly.” Since then I’ve enjoyed watching Dan release many many butterflies.

    Having listened to my sister’s tales of butterflies crawiling around the dining room I LOVED your description of your kitchen counter nursery. I notice you omitted Ann’s reaction to this, which I’m sure would have been interesting.

    I also followed Dan’s lead, but to a much smaller extent. havingraised a few monarch’s that I rescued as already large caterpillars on the milkweed I now have in my yard here in Maryland — descendants of a seedpod Dan gave me.

    Thanks for this wonderful reading.