The Christmas monarchs

This story isn’t specifically art-related, but it has provided further inspiration for my monarch butterfly series of drawings, so it’s worth sharing!

On November 8, 2013 I was harvesting seeds from a milkweed in our front-yard garden, and was astonished to discover a monarch butterfly caterpillar on it.  I kept looking and found a total of five!  Three things were remarkable about this: 1) it’s the first time in my life I’ve been fortunate enough to find monarch caterpillars, even in all my years growing up on the farm, 2) November is many weeks past the time for caterpillars, and 3) they were all on one large butterfly weed (milkweed).  It meant that a female monarch found our front yard milkweeds while migrating to the overwintering site in Santa Cruz.

One of the five caterpillars on butterfly weed.

I checked on them often over the next three days.  Sometimes I couldn’t find them all no matter how hard I looked, and I worried that they’d been eaten or died, but then they’d turn up again later on a different part of the plant.  I was amused at how their little antennae bobbled with each bite of leaf.

On November 18 the temperature plummeted.  The highs were only in the mid 40s, lows below freezing. I had to bring them indoors or they would’ve died.  I did some reading and  set them up with several clippings of fresh milkweed in a narrow-necked bottle of water, inside a 5-gallon bucket with mesh over the top (to keep them from wandering off).  They were eating machines!  All they did was eat and poop–every morning I had to supply more milkweed clippings and replace the paper towel in the bottom of the bucket.  The milkweed plant outside was dying back quickly, so I worried that I might not have enough to see them through to chrysalis stage.The indoor nursery

On November 23 over a span of two days, all five stopped eating, climbed up the inside of the bucket, attached to the mesh, hung down and turned into chrysalises.  I didn’t get to see the transformation of any of them; no matter how vigilant I was, it happened while I was out of the room.  The wait began.

A few hours before emergence, the chrysalis turns transparent.

A few hours before the butterfly will emerge, the chrysalis turns transparent.

A monarch chrysalis looks like a piece of jade with gold metallic trim.

A monarch chrysalis looks like a piece of jade with gold metallic trim.

On December 1, something even more amazing happened:  I found two more caterpillars outside!  They were even smaller than the other five were when I’d found them, so they hatched after the frost two weeks earlier.  I promptly brought them indoors and set them up in a separate bucket.

Normally the chrysalis stage is supposed to last about 10 days, but after 14 days nothing had happened, so I did some more reading.  I learned that a temperature below 70 degrees greatly slows their development inside the chrysalis.  Aha!  We keep our house at 66 degrees while we’re away, so it was our fault.  I moved them into my studio with a little space heater to keep them warmer.

On December 11, after 17 days of chrysalises, I awoke to find a brand-new, perfect monarch butterfly waiting for me!  By the 13th all five had emerged–two males, three females.

5 new monarchs

5 new monarchs

We drove them to Santa Cruz on December 15 (it was 70 degrees there), and released them in the monarch sanctuary at Natural Bridges State Beach.  It turned into quite an event, as the junior ranger on duty  welcomed them as the star attraction for her afternoon program.  Several people got to hold a monarch for the first time in their lives.  I hope the children always remember!

Leading the crowd to the monarch sanctuary to release my five monarchs.

Leading the crowd to the monarch sanctuary to release my five monarchs.

Several adults and children got to hold the monarchs before they flew to join their cousins.

Several adults and children got to hold the monarchs before they flew to join their cousins.

On December 23 the other two monarchs emerged from their chrysalises.  I couldn’t ask for a better Christmas present!  The were both males.  We drove them to Santa Cruz on December 29 and this time my husband got the release on video.

I hope when spring comes and “my” monarchs migrate out from Santa Cruz, they’ll remember the way back to our yard and stop to visit, maybe even lay eggs of their own.  It’s probably wishful thinking!  Wherever they go, I’m honored to have been the caretaker that helped seven more monarch butterflies into the world. The population is in severe decline, so they need all the help they can get.  I’ll keep drawing monarchs to help raise awareness.

If you want to help, sow milkweed seeds!  Milkweed is the only thing monarch caterpillars eat, and there’s not much left thanks to modern agricultural practices and herbicides.

A male released on December 29, 2013 in the sanctuary at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz.

A male released on December 29, 2013 in the sanctuary at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz.