I remember when I was around 11 years old and moved out into the country for the first time. I spent so many hours outside. To this day, I think I should have been an entomologist. I would spend hours watching an ant colony move its home, protect its queen and carry 20x their body weight. I remembered the first day I found a Monarch butterfly caterpillar. It was on a milkweed leaf in the back field. I found an empty jar, filled it with milkweed leaves and kept it under the mulberry tree. I remember searching every summer for the little caterpillars. One summer I found eggs on the bottom of a milkweed leaf and ended up with 8 different butterflies in the end. I grew up and my memories of the Monarch Butterfly were always there. On a long drive, I could spot the milkweed from the highway and wonder. On any walk I took, if I spotted a milkweed, I would always look for the elusive Monarch. Even as I had children, I would tell them stories of the Monarch caterpillar turning into a beautiful butterfly right before your very eyes. I think they thought it was a fairy tale. Even in the house here in Michigan has a whole field of milkweed right next door. I still search.
Three weeks ago today, my son and I were outside weeding the flower beds. He turned to me and said, “Mom, look at this little worm thing.” He then casually tossed it aside. I shrieked when I realized what I thought it might be. I told him to run and get a jar. We filled the bottom with grass and then stocked it with milkweed. I neglected to take any pictures of the small caterpillar that was literally the size of a pencil lead. I found this image, which is really close.
I babied my little caterpillar, who was a real eater. I gave him a milkweed leaf every day. Two days later we left for Pennsylvania. I stocked the jar with leaves and hoped they would last for 5 days.
This is what we found when we returned home. The jar was empty except for this huge caterpillar clinging to the stem of an empty milkweed leaf. I sent the kids out for more milkweed. He ate and he ate. He ate 2 leaves every day. We even took this caterpillar to Indiana with us. The kids were catching my excitement and the importance of this caterpillar.
So, he sat in a jar in my kitchen. He grew and he grew. He traveled back and forth from Michigan to Indiana, twice.
I noticed he had gone into his J shape one day while in Indiana. I knew he would be in his cocoon soon. I had forgotten how long they stay in the J before the cocoon is formed.
We had gone to dinner with some friends and when we came home that night, this is what we found. The kids were home with a sitter and they did not even notice. We looked up on the internet the life cycle of a Monarch Butterfly.
He traveled back to Michigan with us. I was beginning to worry a little about where he decided to make his cocoon. I remembered as a child putting a stick in the jar for the cocoon. They always made their cocoon on the stick. Once I had a caterpillar make his cocoon on the bottom of the jar lid, but never on the leaf. The leaf was turning brown and curling up. I propped up the leaf with the stick. I watched every day.
Last night, I had to take the leaf out of the jar because it was a folded up and you couldn’t even see the cocoon anymore. I knew if the chrysalis opened, the butterfly would not be able to get out of the leaf to allow the wings to dry. I gently folded the leaf back and put it back in the jar–hoping for the best. When I woke up and checked the jar, the cocoon was black. I didn’t remember the cocoon turning black as a child. I thought I had killed the butterfly.
I went about making pancakes for breakfast. I thought about the cocoon again and walked over to check on it.
He was out! I yelled to the rest of the family. They all came running. We had waited for this day. Now what?
I had one of the kids get a longer stick. The leaf was not tall enough and the butterfly could not move his wings to dry them. I got him on the stick and hung it over the top of the jar. I knew they needed to hang vertically to allow their wings to dry and the butterfly blood to circulate through them.
We all took him outside and I carefully put him on a Hydrangea bush. It was a perfect spot for him to hang and strengthen. We watched and waited. I took a billion pictures.
Everyone got bored. It was so hot outside. The kids ran and jumped in the pool. My hero said, ‘nice knowing you.’ I stayed. It was the memory of it all for me. I knew the thrill of watching the butterfly take flight. They didn’t know. They all wandered back here and there.
We studied the empty chrysalis for a while. We ate lunch on the deck close by. We watched and waited.
Then he opened his wings. The excitement returned. We were sure she would fly off at any moment. Time marched on. They all wandered off again. They all came back again.
Then the butterfly climbed up on the flower from the stick. We were all poised and ready. We waited again. They all wandered off again. Then they came back. I think they knew how much this all meant to me.
He opened his wings and just sat there. I was also wondering when would he fly. Would he fly? Did I damage him in some way? I wandered inside. I had to download a free Photo action before 2:00. I only had 5 minutes. My daughter came running in. ” He flew–he flew!” He flew off to a nearby tree. He wasn’t gone yet. You have to wait until they are really gone. They have to fly away. That is the only way you know.
Then he was off. He took off. This is the last picture I got. He flew across the field and across the street into a very tall tree. I could see him. I turned and went inside and out by the pool with the kids. The total time from emerging from his cocoon to flight– 2 1/2 hours.