“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” (Maya Angelou)
“She liked being reminded of butterflies. She remembered being six or seven and crying over the fates of the butterflies in her yard after learning that they lived for only a few days. Her mother had comforted her and told her not to be sad for the butterflies, that just because their lives were short didn’t mean they were tragic. Watching them flying in the warm sun among the daisies in their garden, her mother had said to her, see, they have a beautiful life. Alice liked remembering that.”(Still Alice)
This is a story with a “sad”, not tragic, ending. I say that at the onset of this monarch tale because sad endings are an integral part of the cycle of life. nothing that is born lives forever. we see a caterpillar or butterfly, a bud or flower, an egg, a bird, a baby or child and marvel at the beauty captured in these spring moments. the represent regeneration, rebirth, promise and the hope of life everlasting. Yet, in the flower of youth, it is easy to dismiss the inevitability of nature’s demise.
On an early april afternoon, while sitting in my garden, i spotted a bedraggled monarch butterfly fluttering among the tender leaves of my swamp milkweed. in previous years this same milkweed has been an autumn buffet for the milkweed bug and her offspring, This was the first monarch that had graced my yard. I did not check for eggs until the following morning and was elated to find them on many leaves of each of the 3 plants. This was April 8th, and I reported my findings to Journey North, a citizen Science monitoring network. Within 24 hours I was contacted by another Memphis resident who also had eggs on her milkweed. She advised me to make preparations for predators. I did, but the results were heartbreaking in small increments. I would say we started out with at least 20 eggs on each plant, had about 20 tiny caterpillars survive the egg stage. I covered the plants with a mesh laundry basket. Ants and wasps entered from below. They seemed to do well for a time and then, as the caterpillars got noticeably larger, they began to disappear again. In the end, I staked the cover to the dirt in about 10 locations. This worked for another few days and 5 caterpillars made it to 5 cm in length. In the end, when the last 2 living caterpillars moved to the netting, they were attacked through the mesh by wasps. None survived. The stated survival rate is 10 %. There was a long span of time of growth without any sign of predation. This was toward the end of April. I thought we’d made it to the “safety window,” but was terribly mistaken. So many thoughts have rolled around in my mind. The major lesson I came away with has to do with how nature is as much about death and survival as it is about birth and regeneration. I felt like a bad mother, full of sadness over these creatures with whom I spoke daily and that never acknowledged my presence. Nature takes its course, with or without human intervention. If the stats are so volatile when humans are actively engaged in positively influencing the success rate, then what is to be said for human obliviousness…. or detrimental meddling? The second wave of monarchs will lay eggs in July. My milkweed is robust… and i wonder if the monarchs will return and if the milkweed bugs plan another invasion…
Here are some photos of the journey from birth to death of my monarch caterpillars.