Volume 28 Issue 1, Winter 2023
Article and photos by Nancy Pierce Morgan
A Monarch lightly lands on the bright orange blossoms that cover the Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in my garden. As August comes to a close, she traverses the bush purposefully, deliberately visiting every bloom cluster. Weeks later, tiger-striped caterpillars, from the tiniest quarter-inch to the plumpest and boldest, devour leaves in a methodical, typewriter-like movement, like someone eating corn on the cob, before moving to the next leaf. Caterpillars battle rivals with a head-bumping “get off my leaf!” maneuver, the youngest quickly scrambling on their little black boots to an unoccupied leaf to continue the feast.
Sturdy branches of an adjacent Butterfly Bush (non-native Buddleia davidii) provide a perfect staging platform for the transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis. In a circus-worthy act, the caterpillar hangs vertically, then forms a J shape. Over a period of days, each proceeds to shed its tiger stripes, antennae and all, flinging the now useless costume to the ground, then wiggling like a camper settling into a too-snug, bright-green sleeping bag. The shrub is soon laden with jade green chrysalises edged in gold beads, cleverly hidden from view. My son’s sharp eye spots the first tiny chrysalis suspended from the underside of a leaf. In time, the jewel-like ornaments turn jet black with orange patterns, signaling imminent emergence.
Despite a nearly constant vigil, the dramatic opening happens in seconds and seems impossible to witness. After gauging the length of time spent in the chrysalis, I set up camp by the specimen closest to the garden edge where my iPhone camera might capture the process — if my timing is right. After crouching and nursing aching knees, I spread a beach towel on the lawn, open my laptop, and sit, back propped against the house, camera trained on my subject, elbow against knee as a makeshift tripod.
The sun warms my face; I swivel my neck periodically to avoid stiffness. After two and a half hours I concede that viewing the actual emergence is not realistic. It might be days more; I begin to feel guilty about my lack of productivity. As I gather my things, one “elbow” suddenly pops out of the chrysalis. “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, it’s happening!” I quickly retrain the camera on my subject. A sudden, silent burst of the chrysalis is followed by a slow-motion backflip into the sunlight. An inflated lower torso (abdomen) appears, followed by a black and white polka dot upper torso (thorax). Stained-glass wings emerge, neatly folded like a Japanese screen. Legs frantically grasp the familiar surface of the chrysalis. The Monarch slowly rotates left, then right, as if exercising untested legs. The proboscis uncurls and curls, all systems moving through their functions in preparation for the impossible (my word) journey ahead. Vivid orange and black wings dry and slowly unfold, surrounding the body like a billowing gown. Over the next few minutes, a clear reddish-brown liquid pools on the leaf below. I wonder if this is the reason for the inflated torso; perhaps the liquid builds up to force the chrysalis to break open. The immense body, at first like an oversized caterpillar, eventually narrows to the familiar slender shape seen when Monarchs take flight.
This was the moment when I vowed to be a full-service way station for Monarchs. I learned they have all senses, so I spoke to them, sang to them, hoping my yard had superior attractions that would be the focus of gossip in Mexico.
I attempted to keep track of each caterpillar, but some escaped my vigil. One was scaling the white stucco wall of my house, the equivalent of climbing Everest. He periodically leaned out from mid-section up to survey his progress. It was hopeless, I surmised, breaking a branch off the Butterfly Bush and placing it near him. He gratefully climbed on, enjoying the lift back to square one, where he fastened his chrysalis attachment to a leaf and dutifully curled to a J. All had fed, traveled to their chrysalis campsite and transformed except one, whom I named Bubba. Bubba, larger than the others, just couldn’t get enough leaves. I thought he might burst. “Bubba,” I said, “times a-wasting. All your siblings have moved on, and I’m afraid the weather might change and you’ll be left behind. Or what if a bird comes along? Woodchucks pass by at night; you wouldn’t stand a chance….” But Bubba kept eating. And then he was gone.
Sitting at my writing table, I looked out the glass door and saw something dangling from the arm of the rocking chair on the porch. “Bubba! you made it! Way to go!” Turns out it was Bubba’s sister, whom I immediately named Rocking Chair Monarch (RCM). Bubba had nestled deep down in the Butterfly Bush to camp out in his chrysalis.
One morning I saw an object caught in a spider web on the sunroom window, curled, blackened, with trace orange markings. A large spider was preparing its feast. Judging from the amount of decay, I believe it was the mother, who is said to die after laying her eggs. I raced outside to reclaim her lifeless body, placing her deep in the Spirea hedge, surrounded by pink flowers, out of her children’s view.
The most memorable moment of Monarch Season was the simultaneous emergence of Bubba and his intrepid sister, RCM, the caterpillar who journeyed to the base of the Butterfly Weed, crossed the slate porch, climbed the leg of a wooden rocking chair and fastened herself to the underside of the chair arm. RCM climbed out of her chrysalis and, finding no viable traction on the smooth chair arms, remained suspended on her translucent chrysalis for a day or two. I kept a constant vigil and was treated to a view of a tiny head and antennae peeking over the chair arm at me. Rushing outdoors I saw her in full view. As I admired her ingenuity and achievement, Bubba appeared in the Butterfly Bush across the way, stumbling around. “Bubba! you weren’t eaten by a bird! Welcome!” Noticing RCM’s struggle with footing, I snapped off another branch, positioned it below her, and she lightly stepped on, accepting a ferry ride to her brother’ shrub. Now, I thought, she will get to know her brother, converse with him, and they can keep each other company on the trek to Mexico. How many motel keepers would go the extra mile like this?
As RCM found her footing and exercised her legs, she made her way to the topmost flower cluster, preparing for takeoff. Bubba was deep in the shrub, losing his balance. But their pre-journey preparation was imperiled by the remnants of Hurricane Ian. At the very moment RCM was perched to launch on October 4, dark clouds and a fierce wind blew in, chilling the air severely. Like soldiers on command, the two Monarchs moved into a parallel position to protect their wings, and fastened tight to the branches. There they perched, immobilized for three days, two nights of pouring rain and buffeting winds. I didn’t sleep. I considered bringing them inside or creating a protective structure over them. But humans are known for doing more harm than good. I had already moved RCM from a dry shelter on the porch to the most vulnerable place near her brother. So instead I brought two chairs outside, covered them with a bed sheet, and placed them just beyond the shrubs to block the wind and screen them from predators. But what if the wind knocks over the chairs and crushes the Monarchs? I woke multiple times to check, and the chairs held. They must be hungry! Online sources recommend fruit juice poured in a shallow dish with a paper towel serving as a trestle they could feed from. But they didn’t budge.
The last day with Monarchs was truly a grand finale. All the knowledge I’d gained over the past two months prepared me to fully appreciate the miracle I witnessed, an intimate association with nature that transformed my actions and advocacy. Morning brought continued chill, clouds, and rain that paralyzed their wings. Brother and sister remained clamped to adjacent branches, wings aligned to channel fierce wind gusts between the corridors of those beautiful stained-glass panels.
No motion for three days. Are they alive? What will reengage them? Consulting BJ Lecrone, an Audubon at Home ambassador for the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, I learned the temperature must be at least 55 degrees to warm and activate their wings. Today the sun was predicted to return, the temperature rising to 55 at about 11:00 a.m. Patience. I brought all my dinner ingredients outdoors, sitting in RCM’s rocker, peeling, chopping, stirring in full view of the Monarch siblings. 10:00 a.m.: 50 degrees. I offered a pep talk. “Today’s the day, guys, I’m almost sure of it. You have been so patient, vigilant. Your time to fly is near.” I sang an improvised version of “Where is Home” from the musical The Visitor , about the plight of immigrants: “Where is home? Oh where is home, our home? / Is it Virginia, or is it Mexico? / Dear Bubba and dear RCM, — it’s — time — to — go.”
Suddenly one wing moved. I checked the temperature — exactly 55 degrees, amazing! Both Monarchs stirred on cue. Slowly but surely, they readied their bodies. A flock of geese flew over. I warned them, “Stay away from those guys — that V thing could be treacherous.” RCM climbed around in the bushes, moving her wings, pausing, resting, repeating. Bubba was still lethargic, one wing bat, then time out. “Hey! why don’t you two fly together and keep each other company?” Differences in their movements suggested that probably wouldn’t happen. Suddenly RCM leaped from the shrub to the top of the sheet-covered chairs, beating her wings furiously and then up, up, straight up, over the roof, and she was gone.
I cheered for her, then turned to her brother. Not much happening. Minutes passed and he started to climb adjacent branches, losing his balance, falling on his back. He climbed over to the completely denuded Butterfly Weed branches, made his way up and down each barren stalk in vain, then returned to the Butterfly Bush near his chrysalis. “Hey, your sister’s already…” He climbed onto the last of the blooming flower stalks and, one by one, dipped his proboscis into each flower and drank deeply — every stalk, every bloom. His sister had taken off with no nourishment. Neither were able to reach the fruit juice. But Bubba wasn’t leaving without a hearty meal. Once he had his fill, he wasted no time, leaping into the air like a superhero, soaring around the White Pine, high into the sky, loop de loops, dips and dives, quite an airshow for 30 minutes. And then he was gone. That night I thanked the full moon for lighting their way, and pictured the great party awaiting them across the border.
Two days later, the silence was palpable. Monarch Season had been a musical event, a dance, a painting, a miracle, a lesson about the impact of some of the tiniest lives on our planet. I peer out the glass door in case a hidden chrysalis has produced another visitor. Next spring, I will purchase more Butterfly Weed plants from the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy Native Plant Sale. When August comes, I will be ready.
Nancy Pierce Morgan is director emeritus of the Georgetown Lombardi Arts and Humanities Program. She leads Loudoun Wildlife’s monthly Writing in Nature program, which is open to all who register to attend at loudounwildlife.org.