In case you hadn't heard, for me the spring and summer of 2019 was pretty preoccupied by monarch butterflies. These well known Lepidoptera* have relatively recently become a species of concern and work well as a poster species for rousing the general public into supporting pollinators.
Their numbers have been in decline for the last several decades due to habitat loss/fragmentation, pesticides and herbicides on the food they eat, and as is often the case, climate change.
Here I would like to chronicle a little project that we took upon ourselves here at Ogden Nature Center
Two little girls who frequent the nature center quite a bit, helping us release one of the butterflies we raised.
*Lepidoptera-order of insects that include moths and butterflies
In March of this year we did a teacher workshop on monarch butterflies and how to teach about them in the classroom. It was a interdisciplinary workshop, combining science and art. It was free and one of the benefits was that at the end you got a certificate good for 5 free monarch butterfly caterpillars and milkweed to raise in your classroom with your students.
Fast forward to the end of summer, right before the school year started. We got 30 milkweed plants and about 150 of the teeniest, tiniest caterpillars. I wish I could have captured just how small they were when they were hatched! Their eggs are no bigger than the head of a pin so imagine how small the caterpillars would have to be coming out of that!
As it is I did take some pictures of their growth progress.
Caterpillars were probably about 5-7 days old at this point.
So cute!! See how many you can spot in this picture.
Not all the teachers actually came and got their monarch caterpillars so we at the nature center were able to experience raising about 15 of them.
About a week and a half old here. Maybe closer to 2 weeks.
I would check on them every day to make sure that they had plenty of milkweed to eat and that they were all growing ok. It was really magical watching them grow.
2.5-3 weeks old.
3.5-4 weeks old.
After about 4 weeks and LOTS of milkweed later they were full grown and ready for the next stage. Once a caterpillar has eaten it's fill and is ready to pupate it will create a little silken platform on a leaf (or in our case the top of the mesh enclosures we had them in). They then hang from this silken platform and form a "J" shape.
A caterpillar just about ready to pupate.
A fact that not all know is that in the next stage while it grows wings and completes metamorphosis, butterflies don't form a cocoon. Moths are the ones that spin cocoons around themselves while they change. The picture below is actually just the exoskeleton of the pupa form of the caterpillar. Not a cocoon. It's called a chrysalis.
Here is a pretty neat video of the process.
The caterpillar will stay in the pupal stage for about 4 weeks before emerging. They are called "monarch" butterflies because of the golden "crown" that is seen at the top of the chrysalis.
Just before they are ready to emerge, the chrysalis turns black and you can begin to see the distinct pattern of the butterfly come through.
These two have less than 24 hours before they will emerge.
Then right before they come out the chrysalis will turn clear.
In only a few hours this butterfly will emerge.
If you look near the tip of this butterflies abdomen there are two symmetrical little black spots on the veins. This indicates that it is a male butterfly.
We released them as they hatched which was also quite a magical process.
If you look near the tip of the abdomen on this butterfly you will see it does not have the black spots that the male has.
Another butterfly with the spots indicating a male.
I just wanted to share a little bit of the magic and one of the many and multiplying reasons I love my job.
Sure there is stress and frustration and exhaustion as there will be in most jobs.
But at Ogden Nature Center, I get to counteract that stressful stuff with moments of childlike wonder.
Whether it's watching children make a connection and have the time of their lives discovering animal tracks, or it's me chasing after insects or spotting a bird, or crossing paths with deer, it's a relief and rejuvenation.
And I adore it.
Here in the dead of winter, I am already anticipating the warm months of sunshine and new life.