Thursday, September 17, 2015

From Caterpillar to Butterfly: Laborious And Lovely

A few days ago a single monarch caterpillar appeared on our milkweed, munching leaves like the old cartoon characters eating corn on the cob. Earlier caterpillars had disappeared overnight with no pupae to be found. Two that did become chrysalises also vanished after a few days. I decided to bring this caterpillar inside to live large in a pickle jar.

It was all going well until yesterday morning. When I checked on the caterpillar, he was gone. After searching for several frantic minutes I found him on the underside of a ledge under the table. I was so relieved. I washed out his jar and refilled it with fresh milkweed leaves. He was so active! Crawling around and over every twig and leaf, up and down the sides of the glass. Every time I checked on him he was exploring with energy - but never, not once, taking a bite to eat.

Well, I'm slow, but a light bulb went on over my head. The caterpillar was ready to pupate and was trying to find a place to do it! 

So I went outside and found two sturdy sticks, each long and thick enough (I hoped) to support a chrysalis. One was pine and the other from a deciduous tree because who knows what a caterpillar prefers? For the rest of the morning he crawled over every inch of his jar and the deciduous stick, ignoring the pine.

Note the heads-up position.

At 12:55 P.M. the caterpillar stopped moving. In 20 minutes his posterior was curved to fit flush against the stick. A stem began forming at the point of contact. I checked his progress for the next half hour between visits to the computer to research how caterpillars pupate. It seemed odd that his head kind of writhed from side to side and his long antennae trembled. It looked like he was in pain, as weird as that sounds. 

At 2:30 the front pair of feet detached from the stick. Here we go! I thought happily. I knew from my research that the next step was for the caterpillar to let go with all its feet and hang from the stem in a J shape. That peculiar head wave continued, just with more of the body swaying over the stick from side to side.

Suddenly all the legs moved forward in a wavelike pulse. That can't be right, I thought. They did it again. At 2:40 the caterpillar abruptly pulled its posterior from the stick and swung itself completely around into a head-down orientation. How much energy does a caterpillar who hasn't eaten all day have? Can he really start all over again?

Sure enough, the posterior connected with the stick and a tiny white ball of silk emerged. The back segments contracted and released in a peristaltic motion every 10 seconds or so. Tiny appendages around the mouth were moving rapidly but that disturbing head motion had stilled. 

At 2:55 the front pair of feet again detached. An hour and a half later the last pair of feet let go, and he was hanging head down in the shape of a "J". Progress seemed to stop there. At 10:30 when I checked for the last time before bed, the caterpillar still hung motionless except for an occasional waggle of its antennae.

This morning (7:35 A.M.) it was evident that the caterpillar had been busy all night. Bright green and cocoon-shaped with a blue-green sheath advancing up from the head to the stem, it was transformed from a wormy caterpillar already, but still had hours of work ahead. 
Early this morning, a green chrysalis above and the discarded caterpillar skin below.

Fat segments were still apparent. A line of gold defined the border of the darker sheath. The chrysalis quivered on its black stem. 

At 8:45 the segments were narrowing sharply, and gold spots marked the eyes and the margin between sheath and segments. 

Finally, at 10:55, after 22 hours of labor, the chrysalis looked finished in all its emerald glory. The pupa was opaque with a hint of orange at the top. Black speckles had joined the gold border. No movement at all from the outside, but inside cells are moving around, dividing, or dying according to their DNA programming. Within 2 weeks a monarch butterfly will emerge!

This butterfly will be especially miraculous because it is the fourth generation of monarchs this summer. His great-grandmother mated in Mexico before flying north seeking a milkweed plant for her eggs. One of those eggs went through the pupa stage to emerge as his grandmother and lived for several weeks. Finally, about 6 or 7 weeks ago, the caterpillar that would be his mother emerged from her egg and started eating milkweed, pupated, drank nectar and laid eggs for a few weeks, and died.

But this guy will not die in 2015. Instead he will fly to Mexico for the winter. Next spring he'll begin the journey north to start the cycle again. How does he know he's supposed to do that? How does he stay alive when two generations before him died within weeks?  What an incredible saga. Watching the labor of this caterpillar to become a butterfly gave me a new appreciation for just how precarious their lives are, and how beautiful. 

The 52 Snapshots of Life word for this week is "Labor", and I couldn't have asked for a better coincidence. Thanks to the Lazy Pit Bull for hosting the challenge. All are welcome to join in the fun.


  1. how cool that you got watch all that and how amazing when he finally emerges as a beautiful butterfly

    1. Yes, I'm going to start taking photos today since it's time for the pupa to darken and hatch...

  2. OH. MY. GOODNESS. I cannot believe you captured this all in photos. What an amazing journey one little caterpillar has to become a butterfly.

    1. Isn't it cool? Now I'm ready to observe the hatching process!

  3. WOW!!!! This is amazing!!!
    ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!

  4. Oh my goodness. That was the most incredible post. Amazing!!!!! You caught every phase - and I've never seen anything like it. I hope that you'll keep watching and photographing so we can all see the next phase! Wow.

    Will you put it outside now?

    I tried planting milkweed seeds on our property this year but they didn't sprout. Maybe I'll try again next year.

    1. KB, thank you so much, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm going to start photographing again today…I think I detect a little darkening, the first sign that hatching is happening soon. I won't put it outside until that seems imminent. Unfortunately it's raining today, and I'm worried, but surely they have evolved a way to cope with that (I hope!)

  5. Oh my word Amy I have never seen anything quite so miraculous!! Once in a life time event.
    I was on vacation last week when you posted this I'm glad I was able to see it
    Hugs cecilia and madi

    1. Oh Cecilia I hope to grow so many more next year! Right now every monarch counts!

  6. Hi Y'all!

    What a marvelous series. Thank you for sharing.

    Y'all come on by,
    Hawk aka BrownDog

    1. You're welcome, and thank you for stopping by Hawk!


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