I have a kind of interesting hobby. I raise Monarch butterflies from eggs.
I was at home with my kids when they were small. I only worked weekends, when my husband was home, and I tried to do the “earth mother” kind of thing sometimes. We spent a lot of time in county parks, we planted gardens, we made a bird sanctuary in our yard. I read them a book once about raising monarch butterflies and we decided to try it. It’s a wonderful thing to do.
In late August when the Monarchs migrate to our part of the country, I follow one to a milkweed plant. There the butterfly lays a single egg the size of the head of a pin on only the underside of the leaf of a milkweed plant. Monarchs only lay eggs on the underside of a leaf as the eggs are then protected. Bitter milkweed leaves are the sole food of the monarch caterpiller, so when the eggs hatch, they have a ready supply of food.
I bring part of the plant with the newly laid single egg on the underside of the leaf home and put it in a glass terrarium. We watch as the egg hatches later and a very tiny caterpillar is released. It does nothing but climb up and down the plant looking for leaves to eat. It eats slowly and methodically all day every day for it’s entire catarpillar existance. It does nothing but eat and rest and never leaves the milkweed plant it’s entire life. I bring new branches of fresh milkweed leaves home every day. It sheds its skin a few times as it outgrows it.
One day, the caterpillar climbs a stick in the terrarium and spins a tiny network of webbing, as a spider does, on the arm of the stick. It puts it’s feet in the web and hangs upside down, assuming the shape of a J. Its skin splits across its back, and its outer body, legs, head and all, falls into a heap on the floor leaving a wet, slimy mess of its insides.
The butterfly finally breaks free of it’s tomb. It will sometimes spend the better part of an hour on my finger as it spreads its new wings for the first time. It seems to contemplate its new reality for awhile before it finally takes off in flight.
The Monarch butterfly then leaves me and flies away to congregate with hundreds of thousands of other Monarch butterflies that all meet at the same time every year in Mexico or California. It no longer eats bitter milkweed leaves, but the sweet nectar of flowers. I always wonder how it knows to find it’s way across the country, I have a terrible sense of direction. Do the butterflies recognize or know each other when they arrive for the butterfly reunion?
I’ve always loved the Monarchs, but now they are very symbolic to me of the eternity I believe in. I always wonder if the caterpillar in its wildest imagination ever knew of the beautiful and free butterfly it would become. I wonder if it was ever afraid to leave it’s life as a caterpillar, if it ever even imagined the world it would see and the places it would go as a butterfly.
I met a woman this year for the first time just hours before she died of signet ring appendix cancer. I wanted to bring her a gift. I brought her a photo of beautiful and free Monarch butterflies.
When you have come to the edge of all the light you have
And step into the darkness of the unknown .
Believe that one of the two will happen to you
Either you’ll find something solid to stand on
Or you’ll be taught how to fly!