If you’re of a certain age, you probably did as I did as a kid in late summer… captured Monarch caterpillars on a stalk of milkweed and put them in a jar or aquarium and waited for them to go through their amazing metamorphosis into gorgeous orange and black butterflies.
Their wings always reminded me of stained-glass windows. Such big butterflies, too. And the way they flew was always graceful and gliding, not the frenzied herk-a-jerk way a white cabbage butterfly does. But peaceful and unhurried, such a great representative of a hazy, sunny August day.
Well, here we are again in late August and partner Joe and I have been lucky enough to witness the process again out in our little field. We’ve had just a small patch of milkweed appear over the last few summers and this was the first year we’ve seen the plump late-stage caterpillars devouring the plants.
We’ve been carefully guiding our dogs around the area so as not to disturb them, patiently waiting for their beautiful little dangling chrysalides to appear. That smooth-surfaced creamy green cocoon kissed with gold has always enchanted me.
We were not to be fully satisfied this year because just when I was pretty sure the fat black and yellow caterpillars were ready to make the change, the three simply vanished. It turns out this is completely natural. Typically, they leave their source of food and find another perch to go through the change.
Captured in a jar, they have little choice but to use the skeletonized milkweed
stalk to adhere to and begin their next journey, but out in the wild they’d rather move elsewhere. Perhaps they like a bit of privacy… who knows. I’m pretty sure the chrysalides are probably hanging elsewhere in the field and finding them is unlikely.
My dad is having a similar experience over in Alstead. Instead of the usual native milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), he discovered multiples of the caterpillars on his cultivated butterfly weed (there are hundreds of cultivars). As of this writing, he’s down to just a few remaining caterpillars without a chrysalis in sight.
I did a little research on Monarchs and found out that the monarchs we’re seeing going through this cycle of life may not be the ones that make their famous journey to Mexico for over-wintering. An article at gardenerspath.com, “Milkweed Growing Guide,” informs that Monarchs go through an average of four generations per season, with each butterfly only living about four weeks until summer draws to an end.
Only the final emerging butterflies somehow, amazingly, sport a much longer life of six to eight months. They’re the ones that make their perilous journey southward.
The last decade’s crash in the Monarch population has seen a recent upswing and many are likely to attribute that to humans taking extra care in not removing the native plants that appear on their properties as well as planting the cultivars and creating entire butterfly gardens. An article from 2017, “More Milkweed not the Answer,” on The Concord Monitor’s website suggests there’s far more coming into play regarding the decline of the Monarch population.
While planting and protecting more milkweed is greatly encouraged, loss of their overwintering habitat in Mexico due to climate change, the use of a certain class of pesticides (neonicotinoids) and a nasty parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha are also complicit in their population collapse. That pesticide has also been pointed to as part of the cause of honeybee colony collapse that we’ve been experiencing in North America for years now.
Whatever the reasons for Monarchs being threatened — and I’d bet it’s a combination of all the above — it’s wonderful to be witnessing a resurgence. All the articles I read mentioned the toxicity of the milky sap that comes from milkweed and the fact that Monarch caterpillars evolved in such a way that lets them tolerate the milk, making milkweed its sole source of food, and then retaining the poison in their bodies making themselves poisonous to predators.
There’s no need for the caterpillars to be inconspicuous out in the meadow. Wild creatures know to stay away from the plump late-summer guests. Only time will tell what the fate of the great Monarch butterfly will be, but in the meantime, don’t hesitate to let any cultivar of Asclepias flourish in your garden for all pollinators to enjoy.