In March of 2015 and 2016, I visited Macheros, a tiny town on the edge of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, and went up the mountain of Cerro Pelon to see the wintering colonies of monarchs. This year, on March 8, only two days after I visited, a snowstorm hit, damaging many of the trees on the mountains and killing over 6 million butterflies. News reports out this week say that over 7% of the migrating monarch population was lost, hitting hard an already suffering species. The phenomenon of the monarch butterfly migration is in danger, perhaps even peril. I could say I started my summer science project as an antidote to the sadness I felt at this loss, and it has been that. But really, the project came about by accident.
My husband and I were working on a back-breaking project involving a sledgehammer, crowbars, and a slab of concrete that was once the foundation for what was probably a milking parlor on the barn. It had been an unsightly patch of weeds and saplings growing through broken cement, looking like an abandoned parking lot. With just some hard work, one chunk at a time, we would be rid of it. As I pried up a slab to haul to the truck for carrying away, I noticed a monarch drifting over the yard. I dropped my crowbar and chased it down. A female, and in the overgrown lawn she was landing on little starts of milkweed I hadn’t even known were there. The summer before, I’d raised two caterpillars I’d found and released them as butterflies. But I hadn’t found any caterpillars this year—had barely seen any butterflies at all.
Looking carefully at the underside of one the young milkweed leaves, I noticed a pale yellow dot. An egg! I hadn’t known exactly what they looked like before, since they’re smaller than a pin head and my eyes aren’t so good, rendering anything that small into a vague blur. But having just seen the female touch her abdomen to the leaf, I was certain this is what it was. Soon I’d found another, and another, and another. I collected all I discovered and put them in an old fish tank with a screen on top. The next day, another monarch came around, and I picked more leaves with eggs. I bought a big plastic tub to put the second batch in.
About four days later, they started hatching into what my eyes saw as slightly larger blurs. I purchased some close-up filters for my camera so I could take pictures and zoom in to see the little guys. As they grew and grew, nibbling on milkweed and making it into piles of caterpillar poop (which is called frass, for some reason), I realized things were getting complicated, with hungry caterpillars converting milkweed into stripped stems and frass I needed to clean up. The fish tank and plastic tub seemed perhaps a bit inadequate for the growing bunch. I invested in a couple of mesh butterfly enclosures. Now, about two weeks and many stalks of milkweed later, I have very visible caterpillars who are transforming, gracefully, into chrysalises. In total, if I’m lucky, I may have around fifty by the time this science project completes itself.
Caterpillars raised by hand have a significantly better chance of surviving to butterfly-hood than those fighting it out in the wild. I’m hoping most of mine will be healthy and find their way to Mexico. But I’ll have no way of knowing their destiny or what dent they’ll put in repairing March’s damage.
An egg is a small thing. Had I not seen the monarch visit the young milkweed plants, I would’ve mowed that stretch of grass without knowing what waited in it; I would've destroyed the eggs. A phenomenon is a big thing made up of small things that demand notice but are difficult to see. I can’t help but wonder what I am missing.
(If you are interested in reading more about milkweed and monarchs, see my blog entry from a few years ago, "Traveling Seeds.")