When the extraordinary creature emerged from a split translucent capsule I could hardly believe my eyes. Although I have witnessed butterfly transformation many times over the course of my life none have moved me like this butterfly birth did.
For more than a week I had been eyeing the lime green capsule with its golden rim and specks imagining I could even see the butterfly inside! Patiently I waited and hoped. Anything could happen. Once about 45 years ago I raised a monarch whose wings were disfigured. S/he could not fly; so I knew what could go wrong…
Yesterday morning the capsule was black – too black I thought – I could barely see the outline of the monarch. Black capsules that are not translucent usually contain dead butterflies. No one knows why.
The miracle occurred while my back was turned! The next time I looked there was a perfect pale butterfly hanging next to the split capsule. S/he hung on the tree for hours moving deeper under cover of some nearby leaves. Camouflaged as a leaf. I worried about the cool weather. Insects need warmth; butterflies are coldblooded creatures.
I took pictures of exquisite markings talking to the butterfly softly. Wishing her well. I was astonished when s/he moved up the twig and clasped my finger. Some inexplicable life force passed between us…Moments later the butterfly resumed her place under a leaf, her shiny black legs moving so deftly for one so young.
By mid afternoon the monarch was flexing her beautiful deep orange wings now filled with the fluid that had been stored in her abdomen, and I finally noticed that she was a he! Two black spots told the tale. I picked a bouquet of some of the monarch’s favorite flowers and left it clipped to a branch nearby and placed another bouquet on the ground as the dusky cloak of night closed in. The temperature had dropped so I wasn’t surprised that the butterfly stayed hidden in her bower for the night.
This morning dawned a magnificent blue and gold September day. When I opened the door the butterfly was gone. No wind and mild temperatures will make ‘my’ monarch’s first flight to seek food more pleasurable. This monarch will be the one that makes the perilous 2000 mile flight to central Mexico. If he survives he will spend the winter with many others roosting in mountain trees until early spring when he will begin the journey north, mate with a female who will lay eggs, and then both will die. The next generation continues the flight. Others of their kind will finish the trip repeating the scenario again, some arriving here in western Maine around mid July. Most monarchs live only long enough to mate and lay eggs but this last instar lives about nine months. An extraordinary story.
This summer has been an amazing one because I have seen more monarch caterpillars than I ever have seen in my entire life, although I live in an area surrounded by fragrant milkweed. I started seeing monarchs here at the beginning of August. Some days I counted two or three caterpillars on one leaf. Some were less than an inch, others larger. Every morning I examined the milkweed and found more! I was thrilled yet baffled. What was going on here? Most folks know that monarchs are in steep decline – 80 percent are gone.
I visited our local land trust whose pollinator garden attracts a multitude of monarchs. I spoke to the woman who runs the land trust. She told me people were seeing them everywhere, so I wasn’t alone. I also have a friend who has some milkweed in his garden and he was finding caterpillars daily – up to 40 in one day. I had less but enough, so I thought, until in mid – August mine began to disappear. At first I assumed chrysalids were forming. Then I discovered that caterpillars of all ages were being cut in two and left for dead on the leaves they had been eating. Next came some black insect I was unable to identify because after sucking the life out of the chrysalis or capsule that the caterpillar spun to transform; only a black oozing blob remained. This destructive predator pattern eventually divested almost all of the caterpillars on my milkweed. Chrysalids too.
Researching Monarch predators in some depth I learned there were just too many, and it seemed that all of them lived here. Even the tiny caterpillars on my butterfly weed only lasted a day before vanishing.
I re-visited the land trust and saw many caterpillars, some chrysalids and many monarchs, but also learned that some of their capsules weren’t hatching. It was hard to draw any conclusion from the multitudes that floated over the masses of Mexican sunflowers. The magnificent abundance of pollinators in such a small area was not the norm for most. I didn’t know how inflated the monarch population might be as a result.
On the other hand my friend only had a small vegetable garden with milkweed growing here and there and a few Mexican sunflowers. Monarchs were in flight all day long and there were so many of them. Happily, he was also having much better luck with his caterpillars who continued to appear throughout August. Only in the last week have most disappeared, although he is apparently still finding a few. He did discover one black blob and that chrysalis didn’t hatch, nor did another black one. Birds swooped down and made away with another capsule. The last time I spoke to him he had four chrysalids left that he knew of.
I am using his garden to compare what might be happening elsewhere in this area or in Maine, but in truth I do not know. There is one difference between my area and his. My friend’s garden borders on wilderness and I wondered if a healthier natural environment might have something to do with predator control?
The decline of caterpillars here was sudden and dramatic. Although my small property has been left wild it is sandwiched in between clear cuts, mutilated trees/piles of slash, open fields, and other ‘managed’ lands. Around here the remains of what once was forest have an abundance of predators attacking leaves etc. About 10 days ago I stopped looking for caterpillars or chrysalids. Too many dead bodies.
Except for one.
When my young butterfly emerged from the split chrysalis whole and healthy I was overjoyed. Although I didn’t witness his first flight I didn’t mind. All that mattered was that against all odds this butterfly had survived.
I had witnessed a miracle.
I stood under the butterfly tree with blue -gold light streaming through her crabapple leaves.
“Thank you.” The words of my prayer floated up through the tree’s gray trunk and branches.
As scientist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds us, gratitude is the way we reciprocate. By giving thanks to Nature for what has been given we are participating in the Circle of Life.
And Reciprocity closes the Circle.
As I finished this essay I immediately went outdoors and lo – a large monarch butterfly was sipping nectar from the bouquet I left him. I stood there stupefied; he was a male. I watched him fly to the bee balm and white phlox before he disappeared down a woodland path. So yet one more gift had been given…
A second miraculous ending to this story.