Watching monarchs


By Janice Lindsay, Contributing Writer

Janice Lindsay writes about her experience with watching monarch butterflies.
Janice Lindsay

Maybe it’s true, as Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, that “in spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” I wouldn’t know. But I know that in spring this mature woman’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of monarch butterflies.

It might be too early for monarchs to arrive from the south. But it’s not too early to look for the milkweed plants they love. Monarch butterflies aren’t fussy about what they eat, but they lay eggs only on milkweed and the caterpillars eat nothing but milkweed.

Milkweed and I have a history. 

My back yard is approximately an acre of meadow, surrounded by woods. It’s dotted with a few tall pines, with boggy spots and dry spots, sunny spots and shady spots, many wildflowers but no milkweed.

Each year for five or six years, my friend with a healthy milkweed patch gave me milkweed pods from her yard. I opened the pods and spread hundreds of seeds over the field as Mother Nature would, letting them drift on a sweet breeze to settle where they wished. 

Each spring when I looked, not a single plant.

Then in 2019, suddenly half a dozen plants appeared – not in the field out back, but in the middle of my front lawn. Dilemma: Lawn or monarchs? I marked off my “milkweed garden” so the lawnmower guy wouldn’t cut the baby plants, and waited for butterflies to appear.

They did. That year we saw an explosion of monarch butterflies. I found eggs, then teeny caterpillars, on my milkweed plants! I was so excited! But they soon became a challenge.

I didn’t have enough milkweed for all those caterpillars. They ate the leaves, then they ate the developing seedpods, then they ate the green off the stems. I emigrated caterpillars, collecting them in a bucket and driving them to my friend’s milkweed patch. 

My sister had given me a butterfly cage. I captured a couple of my visitors and discovered that caterpillars do only two things: they eat and (can I say this in a family newspaper?) they poop. Feeding and cleaning up after foster babies became a part-time job, especially when I inadvertently brought teeny caterpillars in on the milkweed-leaf baby food and ended with half a dozen growing babies. Friends offered me leaves from their patches.

I was excited to think I could watch my guests build their chrysalises and break out as butterflies.

Apparently, butterflies do not like to be watched.

When they’re ready to spin, they hang in the shape of a J. My guests hung from the leaves of nearby plants, from shingles on my house, from the wrought-iron railing of my front steps, and the walls of their cage. I couldn’t watch for 24 hours a day, and, as often as I looked, I never saw the spinning. They waited until I wasn’t looking. I saw only finished pale green chrysalises.

You can tell when the butterfly is about to emerge. The skin of the chrysalis gets thin and you can see the black and orange of the wings. So you sit down to watch. Nothing happens. You watch some more. Nothing. You keep watching. More nothing. You think, “I have time to make a cup of tea.” When you return with your tea, a butterfly is hanging from the bottom of the chrysalis, drying its wings. I never saw an emergence.

Still, I had the satisfaction of knowing I had made a contribution, as my guests fluttered off in the general direction of Mexico.

In the years since then, my milkweed patch has grown, but I’ve had very few caterpillars. Maybe this year. My milkweed and I will be ready. I’ll be watching.




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