Posted by: Michelle UluOla | August 31, 2010

Against All Odds: Monarch Metamorphosis

Last month, I wrote about growing milkweed plants with the intention of fostering Monarchs. Today, I’m doing my impersonation of Paul Harvey and relating “the rest of the story” of how they rewarded me for my efforts, along with chronicling how great the odds were against them.

First some history. Monarchs spend four months over-wintering in southern climes, mostly in northern Mexico. While there, they are susceptible to wet and cold. Storms buffeting that habitat have always killed Monarchs, but more recent events have been extreme, including severe weather and the clear-cutting of the trees they depend upon during hibernation. The thick, forest canopy functions like a blanket of protection, while holes in it expose the butterfly colonies to fatal chills on clear, cold nights. In January 2002, 80% of their population died during a winter storm that froze millions hanging from those trees. I recall the heartbreak of seeing photographs of researchers wading ankle-deep through dead butterflies. Miraculously, the insects bounced back from that. However, Monarch numbers were at a puzzling all-time low when they returned for the 2009-2010 winter. Then in February 2010, extreme rainfall, plummeting temperatures and major flooding may have destroyed up to 50% of them. There are those who would shrug their shoulders saying, “They’re only butterflies; who cares?” Like the proverbial, canary in a coal mine providing a signal of danger, the die-off of Monarchs works the same way. The ongoing destruction of their habitat due to illegal logging and deforestation impacted the people in the region in a tragic way when floods and landslides destroyed homes, businesses, and vehicles and washed out bridges and roads, especially in the area of Angangueo, Michoacan. So before the spring migration even began, the odds were already stacked against the butterflies.

The milkweed colonies in the planters at the back end of my patio took a cue from Jack’s beanstalk and put on extreme growth during June. By July 4, they were almost seven feet tall–two to three feet higher than average. It seemed they’d decided to do everything they could to flag down Monarchs. They burst into bloom and perfumed the air with their heavenly fragrance.

Milkweed at back of patio to foster Monarch butterflys

Ready and waiting!

Not long after, I observed a Monarch butterfly very deliberately visiting the plants multiple times. I watched as she hung upside-down on several leaves, then circled the plants, flew across the patio directly toward my face, pulling up a few inches away. I had the delightful feeling she was saying “thank you for providing for my needs.” Later, I inspected the plants and was elated to confirm she had indeed laid several eggs that would hatch in about 4-5 days. So far, so good, but there’s lots of danger lurking for the babies, as many other bugs and parasites prey on them, once again reducing their odds.

Caterpillars start out very tiny and grow many times their initial size over a two-week period. They only feed on milkweed leaves. Once a caterpillar is big enough, it crawls off the plant in search of a spot to anchor and form a chrysalis where it will go through a two-week metamorphosis into the next butterfly—one of 4 to 5 summer generations. While in the chrysalis, heat, cold, rain, wind and parasites stack the odds against the completion of the process.

Monarch caterpillar munching milkweed leaf

Caterpillar munching away, almost full-grown

I’d never seen a chrysalis in person, so I watched carefully, hoping I might be able to spot one. This was my lucky year, as the caterpillars were very accommodating, or maybe it was that evening star I wished upon. On July 24 at 12:30 p.m., I was astonished to look out my patio door and discover a caterpillar in its classic “J” position, anchored on the edge of the top of the door-frame…right where I’d be able to watch it from inside! It started to build its chrysalis around 6:40 p.m., and by 7:30, it was done, all tucked away in its lovely green room decorated with sparkling gold dots. I was amazed that it had crawled over twelve feet across the siding to that perfect spot under a two-foot overhang that would protect it from sun and rain. How did it know? What were the odds?

Monarch chrysalis anchored on patio doorframe

Monarch chrysalis anchored on patio door frame

On August 3 at 8:30 a.m., the new butterfly unzipped its chrysalis that had turned transparent the previous day. It clung to the door’s screen while unfurling and drying its wings. I was jubilant! A few hours later, it flew off, probably in search of a mate, as a few days later, I spotted more eggs on milkweed leaves, followed by more caterpillars.

Just after emerging from chrysalis, Monarch pumping "insect blood" through veins to inflate wings

Just after emerging from chrysalis, Monarch pumping "insect blood" through veins to inflate wings

Wings getting longer

Wings getting longer

View from inside house: drying its wings before first flight

View from inside house: drying its wings before first flight

View from outside: almost ready to launch

View from outside: almost ready to launch!

Evidently, my wish was still active, as on August 16, I discovered another chrysalis hanging inside a decorative concrete block. Once again, it was in a perfect, completely protected site. The caterpillar had crawled more than eight feet from the milkweed plants across concrete to get there. How did it know where it go? On August 28, another butterfly was launched. What were its odds?

Chrysalis inside block hollow

Concrete "castle walls" protect chrysalis hanging in uppermost room on left side

All was not completely well in the kingdom, though. Also on August 16, I found a chrysalis hanging from the lip of a storage container on the patio. At first, I was excited, as it was almost transparent, and I could see the shoulders of the butterfly wings in the top of it. Sadly, it never made it out. I don’t know what aborted the process, but that one didn’t beat the odds. We’d just had a spell of extreme heat and humidity, followed by heavy rain, and it was exposed to all of that.

Aborted metamorphosis

Third chrysalis didn't make it--metamorphosis aborted

On August 22 at 6:00 p.m., I was surprised to see yet another caterpillar hanging “J” on the inside of the wooden lip of a cat guard I have outside my patio door to protect the big screen from ripping. Once again, it parked right where I could watch it from inside.

View from inside of caterpillar "Hangin' J"

View from inside of caterpillar "Hangin' J" just before forming chrysalis

By the next morning, it was fully in chrysalis. Its choice of location wasn’t optimum, as the sun rides lower as August wanes, and the chrysalis would be exposed to sizzling heat. Sometimes, as the Beatles pointed out long ago, everyone needs a little help from their friends. I made a denim shade and attached it to the outside of the guard.

Demim sun shade

View of chrysalis from inside with its denim sunshade behind it

If the odds are on our side, the third Monarch out of four will launch from my patio within a few days. Given the lateness of the season, I’m speculating this one will be of the final generation and will join those that have already started migrating south. What were my odds of seeing four chrysalises?

Thanks to the Royals, this turned into my Summer of the Butterflies. As I worked to attract and foster Monarchs, many of their court members also came to keep me company. A few Viceroys did their impersonation of the leaders, but their smaller size gave them away. There were several Red Admirals, the most tame of the group that allowed me to get almost nose-to-nose with them—unfortunately, without my camera. The delicate Question Marks (yes, that’s their real name!) were much more flighty. There were others that fluttered by too quickly to allow me time to identify them in my Field Guide but supplied me with smiles just the same.

One afternoon last week as I walked out to get my mail, I found myself literally enveloped in a butterfly cloud. European Cabbage Butterflies, mostly yellow, but some white, were streaming in from every direction to feast on the nectar of the Sedum in full bloom in my mailbox’s planter. There were well over a hundred, and while most leapt back into the air at my approach, several refused to give up their spot at the table and allowed me to snap their photo:

Blooming sedum serving nectar to Cabbage butterflies

Cabbage Butterflies feasting on Sedum nectar

Yesterday, a Giant Swallowtail circled the patio to my amazement, as if to put an exclamation point on the summer. It hovered long enough to sip from a pink Cosmos.

All butterflies go through the egg, caterpillar, chrysalis/cocoon, metamorphosis progression, but most spend their whole life-cycles in one area. Only Monarchs make an epic migration of thousands of miles—they are a wonderment. I feel so honored that they made me part of their journey, delighting me with their beauty, amazing me with a literal window into their lives. Reminiscent of a certain cornfield in Iowa, they proved that if I built a garden for them, they would come to populate my field of dreams, inspiring me with their indomitable spirit. In some special way, I feel they transformed me on the wings of their metamorphosis.

Godspeed little ones—I’ll be looking for you next summer—the milkweed welcome mat will be out.

*********

Additional Information:

See an impressive photo documentation of the sequence from caterpillar through chrysalis to butterfly.

“Did you know that fewer than one out of every ten eggs laid by a female monarch will survive to become an adult butterfly?” Read why.

Complete “life story” of Monarchs.

Read field reports written during the 2010 crisis at Monarch Watch.

News and updates at Monarch Butterfly Journey North.

View chart showing Monarch populations in over-wintering areas from 1994-2010.

******©UluOla 2010******

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Responses

  1. LOL loved the reference to the Beatles. Four chrysalis’ and three resulting butterflies – sorta like P,G, R and J – who is not here anymore 🙂

    Yes – reckon I, too, would’ve been compelled to give some assistance to the last one – am thrilled they rewarded you in such a fashion – but there again – you are a very special person.

    Would’ve loved to have been there to share and see it with you.

    Have a perfect weekend, my friend.

    Like

    • Cool observation you made about the Beatles. I actually gave a bit more assistance, but didn’t want to make the blog any longer than it was. I found two caterpillars in my front yard that were on badly stunted milkweed plants with small leaves that were already turning color, so I “teleportated” them to large, healthy leaves in the backyard. I believe they’re the two that built the last chrysalises where I could see them, maybe to let me know the move had worked. 😉

      Thank you for all your kind words, Dani. Many blessings to you and the family.

      Like

  2. Great stories on the milkweed and the monarchs–most enjoyable. Thank you for sharing, and more important, thank you for doing!

    Like

    • Thank you, Paul, for your support and kind words–much appreciated! I’m glad you enjoyed my story.

      Like

  3. Great article with photo documentation which will help me remember things: like the flying J and placement. Wonderful. Thanks and the link worked well.

    Like

    • Thank you, Steve, for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed it!

      Like

  4. Michelle, this was a fabulous story! Thanks for sharing. I am looking for milkweed seeds to add some plants to my yard. You are an awesome reporter to the fabulous world of Monarchs. Love the denim shade, good for you!!! Sally

    Like

    • Thank you for your kind words and support, Sally–much appreciated! I’ll contact you directly about seed sources.

      Like


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