There is something amazingly about watching monarch butterflies. For a while we’ve been watching the caterpillars grow up on the milkweed plants outside our house. This past few days we’ve had four monarch caterpillars inside our house. I brought them inside because some sort of black death was taking many of the caterpillars outside, and I had been cutting away frantically at the leaves with dead ones, throwing them out so the contagion wouldn’t spread. These four had all just started their fifth instar, the last part of caterpillar life and they were all unfortunate enough to have part of their old skin hanging off. In my panic I thought they too must be dying and cut the leaves but before I could throw them out I realized my mistake and carefully brought them inside.
At first my kids were very excited. Monarch caterpillars normally get wanderlust before they transform into a chrysalis so despite the hundred or so caterpillars we have been fortunate enough to watch over the years, we have not been able to see them in their chrysalis stage or hatching into butterflies.
We built a house for the monarchs using our glue gun to reinforce balsa wood with pop-cycle sticks and then covering it with mosquito netting. This tent-like structure we placed in a big Tupperware container and after some trial and error got the hang of taping the edges of the mosquito netting down. I cleaned the container and refreshed the leaves twice a day. During the night we kept the container inside but during the day we put it outside. Twice before I got the hang of sealing the edges we had escapees but each time we could find the caterpillar and return it to the container.
It was after the first time a caterpillar escaped that one of my boys abruptly lost interest in the monarchs. He didn’t want me to release them all into the wild, but he would no longer help in gathering milkweed leaves or cleaning the containers. He had that edgy tone in his voice like something was too scary for him. I tried to talk to him about losing the monarchs and keeping it in perspective but he didn’t want to talk. He just didn’t want to invest his energy into something that might fail.
I could sympathize with him a bit. The monarchs looked so frail. The ones on my bush outside continued to die, though in slower numbers, and I kept watch and cleaned away the bodies. The inside ones would seem to lose all appetite and just stand around and we’d start to worry about them, but the next time we looked they would be eating and pooping like normal. Every time as I sealed up their freshly cleaned cage I was conscious of the possibility that improperly sealed a caterpillar might sneak out and wander around looking for food until it dies.
I thought about the Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman show we’ve been watching recently and all the episodes where Clark bemoans Lois’ vulnerability. I could sympathize with the idea of someone powerful and strong trying to look after something incredibly delicate. If I felt that sense of fear, how much worse for my young child to face that possibility?
Webpages about how to raise monarchs in a classroom say to be prepared some monarchs might die and that as long as one keeps their home clean and their food fresh there really isn’t much else one can do. Kids should know they tried their best. They should know death is part of the cycle of life. I even tried reassuring my guys (and myself) that monarchs lay lots and lots of eggs because its normal that some will die, but I knew that would not be able to protect us from the disappointment if something went wrong with these ones.
The monarchs helped remind me what my kids feel regularly: the possibility of failure. They are bright kids. They aren’t great at lying to themselves and they care passionately about things. I think I’ll be a bit more sympathetic to what they are feeling next time they express concern about trying something that they know they might fail on, like when they are hesitant to try a new activity. I’ll understand more their fear of doing so just a little bit more than I did before trying to raise these monarchs.
The monarchs have survived, at least to the point where one is a chrysalis and the three others are hanging upside down in the J-pose that they take before becoming chrysalis. It took about 16 hours of hanging before the one disappeared and even knowing it was going to change doesn’t change the strange shock at looking back in the cage to see a little green thing hanging there instead. The discarded head is waiting at the bottom of the cage for us to examine when I clean the cage out one more time before sealing it up to wait until their release.
The monarchs are amazing. I can’t help but wonder what goes through their heads as they wait. All four were on the top together, three crawling around on the pop-cycle stick lattice while the first one hangs there by his little silk button. A couple of times the others would come up and touch that first one with their antenna, and he would jolt and around a bit as though trying to ward off an attack. Could they know what he was doing? Could they know they are preparing to melt into a contained little puddle of goo to take a new shape and form? Were they annoyed he was in their way or were they trying to communicate?
For more information about caterpillars we found these two articles:
- This one that mentions that researchers have found butterflies retain some memories of their caterpillar time, suggesting that some neurons remain.
- This blog post that talks about the retained memories and about the question of whether caterpillars “die and are reborn.”
- This one about researches using CT scans to watch what happens inside chrysalises.
Update: We were lucky and could see two of the monarchs turn into chrysalises. It was amazing to watch. While they hang upside down they start to loose the yellow coloring in their heads, and as my kids noticed, they look for quite a while like they are bobbing their head or eating something. Then their antenna start to go totally, totally limp. and shortly after that a crack forms at the back of their neck and they start pulling out of their skin. When they get their skin off they still have slight yellow stripes on half of their bodies. I’m posting some pictures here of one of the caterpillars splitting open and you can see the chrysalis on the right has not taken its final shape yet.