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Milkweed Royalty

By Grace Grattan, Phase I Fellow

Within the past week, the Lodge has become a temporary home to four new striped friends.

It all started when we were weeding around some milkweed last week and stumbled across a handful of monarch caterpillars chomping away at the leaves. We decided to take one and raise it in a jar, supplying it daily with new milkweed leaves.

The caterpillar, who we named Harry, did nothing but eat and sleep, until one day we noticed him dangling from the side of the glass jar in a “J” shape. The next day, Harry shed his skin one last time and transformed into a beautiful jade colored chrysalis. The transition surprised us because it only took him about ten minutes to transform! Inside his new chrysalis, Harry swung around in a circle, which was really interesting to watch. He eventually stopped swinging and has been metamorphosing for seven days now.

Harry's beautiful Chrysalis, with tiny, shiny gold details along the top.

After Harry’s pupation, I decided to do more research on monarch caterpillars and their lives. I learned that these fast-growing caterpillars go through five stages called instars, each marked by the shedding of their skin. The caterpillar basically spends its life eating and storing up chemicals from milkweed plants, which will make it toxic as an adult butterfly. At the end of the fifth instar, the caterpillar stops eating and searches around for a suitable place to pupate.

The caterpillar then uses a spineret near their mouth to spin a silk button on whichever surface it has chosen to hang from and latches hooks by their back legs into the silk. It dangles from the button in a “J” shape for about a day. Then, the caterpillar splits its skin for the last time and forms its chrysalis. At this stage, the pupa begins the circle swinging motion – the same motion that we observed with Harry - to further entangle and secure its hooks in the silk button.

The metamorphosis process takes about two weeks, depending on temperature. During this process, the caterpillar liquefies itself and the butterfly parts begin developing. In the last couple hours, the chrysalis becomes clear and you can see the orange wings inside. Once hatched, the new butterfly has tiny wings. It needs to wait for them to dry as it pumps fluid into them, making them full sized.

The Monarchs that hatch late in the summer and early fall will migrate to warmer climates (California, Mexico, or Florida). They can live up to nine months and travel hundreds of miles! The farthest a butterfly has been documented to fly in a day is about 250 miles! Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve learned though is that, according to a study on moth caterpillars, there is evidence to support that adults retain some memories from their caterpillar days! That’s pretty amazing especially considering that when inside the chrysalis (or cocoon), the creature is liquified.

In the midst of all this research, we also found three new caterpillars to raise. I placed the largest, Gerry, in Harry’s jar and placed the smaller two, Mary and Terry, in another enclosure.

Meet Mary and Terry, eating away.

On Sunday, I noticed Gerry wandering around his jar and realized that he was searching for a good place to hang. Surprisingly, he decided to spin his silk button right next to Harry’s chrysalis! He hung in a “J” shape right next to Harry for about a day. but despite our best attempts to catch him in the act, we missed him shedding his skin to reveal the chrysalis underneath.

Gerry hanging in a J shape next to Harry.

Gerry and Harry metamorphosizing together.

Just yesterday, Mary and Terry both began searching for a good place to hunker down and both assumed the dangling position at the same time. Both turned into chrysalises while we were out on a hike.

Terry and Mary chose opposite corners to hang.

It’s been amazing being able to take part in these four monarchs’ lives and I’m grateful we’re in a place with abundant milkweed for them. The good news is that the Highland Public Schools STEM teacher shared some special tags for the monarchs. This means that we can that we can attach the tags when they hatch and log them into a larger database to track for their migration.

And I hope, that maybe one day, Harry, Gerry, Mary, or Terry’s offspring will be able to come back here and lay eggs on repeat the cycle all over again.

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