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The Monarch Hatchery

Mike Hillman

A few years ago, while eating dinner, my wife and I noticed all of our animals fixated on something in the adjoining room. Following the direction of their stare, we saw the focus of their attention was ‘our black snake,’ who somehow managed to get into the house and was making its way through the living room.

Most people that I know would have done at least something like grab a broom to usher the snake out of the house, or scream and run out of the house themselves. But not us. We simply ignored the snake and continued on with dinner. It eventually found a hole in the floor and slithered into our dirt basement where the mousing was good.

Only two years had passed since my wife decided that Mother Nature was a better gardener and stopped gardening for other people’s pleasure. Instead, she started gardening for the pleasure of wildlife. The appearance of a snake in the house was proof positive that Mother Nature did indeed approve of my wife’s change in gardening focus.

It was a hard transition for me, who grew up with yards and gardens that competed for the centerfold of House Beautiful where everything is meticulously kept and everything has its place – everything, that is, but wildlife.

Over the years, my wife’s once-pristine gardens turned increasingly wild. Non-native plants gave way to indigenous plants, and birds and bats that were attracted by the native plants grew plump from the abundance of mosquitoes and flies.

Try as they might, however, neither my wife nor Mother Nature could figure out what to grow around our back porch. The perennials my wife planted never survived our dogs who consider the spot a prime ‘relief station,’ and all Mother Nature wanted to plant was sunflowers, which always seemed to snap in half just before they went to seed.

But everything changed this summer.

My wife decided to plant milkweed around the porch this year, which is a favorite food of Monarch butterflies. She hoped the milkweed would help attract more Monarchs to her garden oasis. As time would soon tell, she would not be disappointed. The Milkweed plants grew quickly and in short order were covered with tiny Monarch caterpillars. Every day my wife went out and counted the number of caterpillars on each plant. At first there was only a handful, then a dozen, then two dozen then scores.

Over the summer we watched as the caterpillars munched up one side of a stalk and down the other, devouring every leaf they came to. But just as quickly as a leaf was devoured, a new one appeared in its place.

Eating is a caterpillar's main job, and milkweed, as I learned from my wife, is the only food the yellow, white and black striped caterpillars eat. By ingesting toxins from milkweed, monarchs give themselves protection from predators. Birds won't feed on larvae or adults because they taste terrible.

Oftentimes we would find two caterpillars on a single leaf and would watch in awe as they performed what could best be called a ‘dance of intimidation,’ as one caterpillar would attempt to force the other to abandon the leaf. Of course, I never had the spare three or four hours needed to wait around to see who actually won. As the summer wore on, our new ‘pets’ grew fatter and fatter and we became so engrossed in their antics as caterpillars that we forgot that they were only in stage one of their lives.

But that all changed when my wife spotted the first cocoon, properly known as a ‘chrysalis,’ hanging from a single strand. As a caterpillar grows it sheds its skin four times. On the last shedding, it wiggles free of its skin and forms the chrysalis - a beautiful jade green shell with a single fine line of gold around its circumference.

The chrysalis we spotted was tiny compared to the caterpillars still munching away on the milkweed leaves. Determining how our big guys stuffed themselves into those small little sacks soon became the focus of all our attention. Fortunately we didn’t have long to wait.

The next morning my wife spied a caterpillar crawling up the siding. Over the next 24 hours (caterpillars don’t do anything fast) we watched it attach itself to the siding with its hind limbs, drop down and invert itself into a ‘J’ shape, with its head pointed upwards. Try as we might, we never actually caught one shedding its skin for the final time to form the chrysalis. I frequently checked on caterpillars I thought were ready, and would no sooner grab a cup of coffee than return to discover the process was already completed! If I looked closely, I could see the chrysalis still moving from the inside, but that was all.

For reasons that escape me at the time, all the caterpillars seemed to pick the same piece of siding to hang from. About 10 days after spotting the first chrysalis, we noticed it turning black, and awoke the next morning to find a newly hatched Monarch warming itself in the morning sunlight. It was then I realized why they chose that spot of siding - the morning sun! Crammed inside the chrysalis, its wings were crumpled. It used the warm rays of the sun to harden its wings as they slowly straightened out.

By mid afternoon the Monarch hatchling was fluttering about the garden, nectaring on the flowers of the Milkweed right next to caterpillars it had crawled past just a few days before.

For the past four weeks the cycle has repeated itself countless times. The siding is covered with empty chrysalis, each one a wafer-thin transparent shell that now dangles freely in the wind.

While we celebrated each new arrival, we also sadly discovered that not every caterpillar made it. Oftentimes we would find a caterpillar that managed to invert itself on the siding, only to die still in its caterpillar stage of life. Other times we would discover a newly hatched butterfly lying on the ground under its chrysalis, wings barley moving.

Intervening with nature, I often placed these struggling creatures out of harm’s way in the sunlight in hopes they would rally, but none did.

One morning I found a spectacularly beautiful newly hatched Monarch lying listless on the ground, and like the others, I moved him to a safe sunny spot. All day long I checked in on him, hoping against hope that he would break my string of failures, but in the end, he too died.

I carried him gently into the house and placed him under my computer monitor, wings spread in all their glory. When the snows of winter once again descend upon us, he will serve as a reminder of how much enjoyment our back porch Monarch hatchery brought us this summer. And so goes the cycle of life in the county.

Read other stories by Michael Hillman