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Learning Lessons from Monarch Butterflies 

click to enlarge Heather releasing a monarch - HEATHER POLIFKA-RIVAS
  • Heather Polifka-Rivas
  • Heather releasing a monarch

"How many more months until my birthday?"

That's my 7-year-old daughter Ruby's favorite question these days. I quickly do the math and give her an approximate answer.

My response is always met with a whine, followed by her huffing out of the room. I try to reassure her that, even though her birthday is far away, there will be many fun times and adventures between now and then. I encourage her to savor each day. Such wise advice. Too bad I don't adhere to it.

Back in March, when quarantine began and everything seemed like it was ending, I found myself wishing away the days. If I could just make it to the end of the school year and summertime, things would be better, I thought. I tried sending telepathic thoughts to Mother Nature. Please stop snowing, I begged.

During this time, I kept seeing the meme that stated: "Nature isn't cancelled." Whoever coined the phrase was right, but it made me bristle. Was that person pontificating about this from a sunny California trailhead? Did they know that there were still stubborn clumps of snow hiding under the branches of our cedar trees?

Regardless, I dutifully tried to encourage "spring" walks with Ruby and her 12-year-old brother Henry, hoping we could focus on the present. I desperately tried to weave science lessons into our mundane strolls.

"Hey kids, look! Those daffodils are sprouting! Why are those flowers always the first to bloom in the spring?" I asked them. My tween's typical response: "I don't care, Mom."

After the rains, Ruby, the more eager and inquisitive of my children, and I played worm rescue. We'd run out to the driveway and pluck the swollen worms and gently bury them into our dormant raised garden beds. I wanted so badly to "embrace the suck," even though I, too, was counting down the days until something special and better came along. I kept reassuring myself that despite this trying time of gray skies, social isolation, homeschooling and weird worm shenanigans, summer would eventually come.

In fact, summer was already on its way — thousands of miles to our south. Over the last three years, my children and I have come to associate the peak of summer with finding our first monarch butterfly. You see, monarchs cannot live in cold-weather climates, so they winter in Mexico. As the warm weather starts to mercifully spread to the Northeast, the monarchs begin their migration to Vermont. We usually see our first monarch in early July.

Within days, our garden of milkweed plants are dotted with monarch eggs. They are tiny and white and sort of roundish yet pointy-ish with small ridges. Very scientific, right? Finding that first egg is how we know summer is in full force.

We love finding the eggs because that begins our annual adventure of hatching them, raising caterpillars, then finally releasing the butterflies back into nature. Last year we released more than 50 monarch butterflies during the course of the summer and fall.

Nurturing monarchs is pretty easy. Since butterflies are insects, they change forms throughout their life cycle, a process called metamorphosis. If you've ever read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle, you know it all starts with an egg, which you can find on the underside of a milkweed leaf. This little egg will gestate for about three to four days. Then, pop! Out comes a caterpillar. When it first hatches, it's just a few millimeters long.

Then, as Carle's picture book explains, the caterpillar gets super hungry and eats everything it can until it's really fat. In the case of the monarch caterpillar, it will eat milkweed almost constantly for about 10 to 14 days.

After the caterpillar grows to about one inch in length — or "the teenager phase," as I like to call it — it will stop eating you out of house and home and climb up to a flat surface. You can tell the caterpillar is beginning to enter into its chrysalis, or pupa, phase when it hangs in a J shape and ignores everything you say and do.

If you time your observations right, you might be lucky enough to see it wiggle and shed its caterpillar skin as it becomes a bright green chrysalis. After another 10 to 14 days, the chrysalis slowly cracks open, and a monarch butterfly emerges. Now that it's become a young adult, you can release it out into the world.

My kids and I were already three creemees into summer when I found our first egg of the season in our backyard. A sense of relief washed over me. Was it possible that our summer might have a recognizable routine? How could something so simple as an egg bring out such emotion?

Our normal summer plans had been ambushed by COVID-19. No camps. No sleepovers. Masks anytime we left the house. I wanted to reassure my kids that we'd have a good summer despite these unprecedented times. But how do you maintain a sense of calm when everything around you is unstable?

My children don't know what school will be like next year or even what's going to happen next week. But they do know that when Mom finds a monarch egg, she will put it in a container and let it grow. They know that, just like last year, we will feed the caterpillars daily and laugh at how much poop they produce. They know that, when we travel to our family's lake house, Mom will pack up the car and bring the caterpillars on the road trip, too. Just like years past, the kids will argue over who gets to release the butterfly, and Ruby will squirm and shriek as the insect's newly formed legs cling to her tiny fingers.

My wish for my children is that they will see that, despite the chaos, these monarchs are still doing their thing. That, though so much right now is unpredictable, nurturing the life cycle of something as simple as a butterfly is still a reliable adventure.

I want them to embrace the feeling of being connected amid the unfamiliar, and to understand that if we tune out during this trying time, we might miss something special.

How to Raise Monarchs

Items you will need:

  • A monarch egg or caterpillar (cat)
    The eggs are typically laid by the butterfly on the underside of a milkweed leaf. You don’t need to remove the egg. Just snip off the leaf and take it with you. To find a caterpillar, look for milkweed leaves that have been chewed or leaves that are covered in poop, also called frass. A monarch caterpillar is smooth in texture with black, white and yellow rings along the entire length of its body. Gently turn over the leaves to look for the cats. Keep your eyes peeled. They are often small and hard to find. And keep in mind, the Milkweed Tussock Moth also likes to hang out on milkweed so you might find some of these cats. They are fuzzy and calico-colored and look like they are having the worst hair day ever.
  • Access to fresh milkweed plants
    Monarch caterpillars subsist only on the leaves of these specific plants. All their nutrition and hydration come from milkweed leaves. Head to the Google machine if you don’t know what they look like. You can find them virtually everywhere in Vermont — fields, sides of roads and backyards.
  • A container to hold your egg/caterpillar
    A plastic or glass jar works great for the egg or when your cat is very small. Keep in mind, the caterpillars can be escape artists, so it’s good to have a secure, well-ventilated lid over the top of them. You may want to consider a mesh enclosure for your caterpillar once it gets bigger. It allows you to give them more milkweed plants (which they will eat voraciously), as well as a place to hang from once they start developing into a chrysalis. In addition, the mesh cage gives butterflies more space to exercise their wings and get ready for release.

Steps:

  1. Once you’ve found your egg or cat, put it directly into your container of choice and be sure to feed it fresh milkweed leaves. If you have multiple caterpillars that are different sizes — let’s say a baby and a larger one — you’ll want to separate them into two different containers. The larger caterpillars are so hungry, they often just chow down on whatever gets in their way, which sometimes includes babies or eggs. I keep a nursery cage and an adult cat/butterfly cage to keep the cannibalism to a minimum. You’ll want to keep your enclosure out of the direct sun, and make sure to clean out the frass daily.
  2. Once your cat becomes a chrysalis, it’s best not to touch it and to just let nature do its thing. The chrysalis color and shape will change slowly over time. Before the monarch butterfly hatches, you’ll start to see the telltale black-and-orange wings through the skin of the chrysalis.
  3. Once the butterfly emerges, it hangs upside down for three to four hours as it stretches and unfurls its wings. Once this time is up and your new friend has prepared itself for flight, you can release it outside. You’ll know the butterfly is ready when it continually flaps its wings or flutters around the enclosure.
  4. When monarchs arrive in July, they are usually the first of four generations to live in Vermont before heading back to Mexico in the fall. The monarchs that you release in July will likely live only a few weeks but, in that time, they will procreate and lay eggs, which will lay the foundation for the next generation. This will continue until mid-fall. The monarchs that are born at the end of summer or early fall can live up to nine months. Since they will encounter less daylight and cooler air temperatures, they are genetically programmed to begin loading up on fuel and building up their fat stores. Do you know why? These are the ones that will migrate back down to Mexico for the winter months. Nature is pretty neat, and definitely not cancelled.

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