Each fall, Maine’s monarch butterflies migrate two thousand miles to spend the winter in Mexico. Then the following February, the butterflies begin their trek north. It will take three to five generations—the adult monarchs laying eggs, the caterpillars growing, forming themselves into chrysalises and metamorphizing, and new butterflies emerging to continue the journey—for monarchs to reach the northernmost regions, including Maine in early August.
Since milkweeds planted themselves in my front yard a few years ago, I've watched for them to sprout in the late spring. I then corral them within wire border fencing so I won’t step on them and they won’t be mowed.
Monarch caterpillars’ sole diet are the leaves of milkweeds. Without those, monarchs cannot survive. By the time the butterflies arrive, the milkweeds have grown their clusters of fragrant pale purple flowers, and then formed seed pods around the wilted blooms. I happened to be outdoors at noontime when two monarchs flew to my milkweeds. They’d found my small patch of milkweeds among all my trees.
I then started looking for signs of the caterpillars. Since they’re green with black, yellow and white rings, they’re hard to spot, but the milkweeds show their travels. Evidently, the caterpillars have their preferred milkweed leaves, leaving some after a couple of bites, and eating others down to the stalks. Over the next two or three weeks, the caterpillars will grow and molt several times.
Then one day when the caterpillars are two inches long, they disappear to form their seafoam-green chrysalises. Sometimes, they’ll hang where I can watch them. The caterpillar metamorphizes over the next two to three weeks, and finally emerges as the butterfly with vivid orange and black wings edged with white dots.
One late August day when I was in the front yard looking over the milkweeds for chrysalises, I noticed a beautiful monarch butterfly struggling to fly. Its wings were bent, perhaps because they developed that way or the butterfly didn’t have enough room after it emerged to flap its wings before they hardened permanently. That night, it rained hard, but it had held onto stalks of grass. I saw it in several different places in the front yard, sometimes holding onto a flower stem, other times walk-flapping on a flat surface, always trying so hard to fly. I wished I could straighten its wings, that I could help it somehow. It survived ten days. The last time I saw it, it was slowly making its way across my driveway. I didn’t find where it died, but neither did I want to.
I found a chrysalis hanging from the molded cap of a post along the front stoop. When it had only a few more days left before the butterfly would emerge, it fell to the ground, the end attached to the post open, the black points of its wings visible. It didn’t survive.
Another caterpillar preferred the milkweed leaves closest to my house. Then it disappeared. I saw it two days later hanging head down from a leaf stem of a yellow cosmos. It had climbed down from its milkweed, walked six inches to a planter, climbed up the sides and through chicken wire, and then made its way through crowded plants and up the cosmos. It hung from the leaf stem for another two days before it formed its chrysalis. Two weeks later, its dark wings just beginning to show through the chrysalis, it was torn off somehow. All that was left was its mounting pad and the short black thread that had held the chrysalis.
This past spring, I'd hoped for many caterpillars and monarchs. Instead, I saw how their lives were filled with dangers, some from their own ill-chosen sites to metamorphize, others from accidents when they emerged. Yet, these small creatures respond to their instinctual call to survive, and persist through each phase of their lives. If all goes well, they’ll follow the route imprinted within them—and within the thousands of generations before them and the thousands to come afterward—and migrate to Mexico.
This summer, I saw no survivors, but next spring, my milkweeds will sprout again, monarch butterflies will arrive, and I'll be hoping the next generation succeeds.
*I took the photo shortly after the caterpillar formed its chrysalis on the leaf stem. The scraggly plant behind it is the caterpillar’s milkweed. The seafoam-green chrysalis is in the center of the photo.
Bio: Brigitte Whiting has published in Village Square and Literary Yard online journals. She lives in Maine, and has completed the Nonfiction and 3-Year Fiction MFAs at WVU. She enjoys feeding the wild birds and squirrels that visit her yard, and sometimes, she happens on a wildlife story as it unfolds.