Three ginormous and terribly ugly spiders have usurped the garden. They’ve built webs over the tomato plants and sneer at me when I approach. The last time I attempted a harvest, one managed to crawl onto my sleeve: I squealed like a piglet, dropped my colander of tomatoes and ran for cover. I immediately decided that gardening season was over.
Instead, I spent September tending to a solitary milkweed plant and a small family of monarch caterpillars. They came to me by way of Monarque sans frontière, an organization dedicated to saving the monarch butterfly. The school I work for kindly bought a monarch raising kit for anyone interested.
My kit came with five smallish caterpillars and one chrysalis. (Butterflies form chrysales, moths form cocoons. Who knew? The life cycle of the monarch is amazing. Read about it and sign up for your own kit next year.)
Over several days, my beautiful jade chrysalis turned pale green, then black. And then, this happened. It was amazing. I called everyone into my office to proclaim that I’d just given birth.
I tagged my monarch and released him with great fanfare in the garden the next morning.
Under the gaze of a group of wholly disinterested students.
“Look! This one’s male. See the two dots on the lower wings? Those are scent glands. That’s how you know.”
“Yeah, whatever lady, can we go now?”
Baby boy was strong and happy and took off right away. Godspeed butterfly WAC010! Or should I say, ¡vaya con dios! (He did, initially, fly north. Hope he’s figured out that Mexico’s the other way.)
Trigger warning: things don’t turn out well for the caterpillars. If you are sensitive to caterpillar death (like I am!), don’t read on.
My other babies did good for a while: munching away, molting like champions. But then their activity slowed. They seemed sluggish and disinterested.
I tried to encourage them with gentle, loving pokes. I would softly blow air on their curious little faces and they would arch their backs up at me as if to say: “yes! don’t give up on us! we loooove you!”.
But one by one, I found them overturned and deflated on the ground of their cage.
Ophryocystis elektroscirrha is to blame. A protozoan parasite. It devastated most of our caterpillar population this year.
Here’s hoping WAC010 and his peers make it to Mexico safe and sound.
Get down to that romance business soon, butterflies. The future depends on you.
UPDATE: The Montreal insectarium has decided to end their monarch raising program. They have determined that the risk of disease/pest is too high.