They Grow Up So Fast

The author's son, up close and personal with a monarch caterpillar. His keen eye for spotting the creatures helped lead the family to host dozens of the insects indoors to increase their chances of survival.
The author's son, up close and personal with a monarch caterpillar. His keen eye for spotting the creatures helped lead the family to host dozens of the insects indoors to increase their chances of survival. (Courtesy Of Marie Mccarren)

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By Marie McCarren
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 16, 2007

Like so many obsessions, mine started with a packet of seeds.

"Butterfly weed," it read. Well, who wouldn't welcome a few butterflies? I scattered the seeds in a sunny spot near our front door and looked up Asclepias tuberosa in my gardening book. It's a type of milkweed, and monarch butterflies lay their eggs only on milkweed. As fields are paved over, milkweed disappears, and the monarch population suffers. I was happy to do my bit to help the butterflies. And wouldn't my nature-loving 6-year-old be delighted if we saw a caterpillar or two?

That first August, we found two large monarch caterpillars. A quick search on the Internet told us their odds of survival were slim. To help them out, we dug up the milkweed plant and put it and the caterpillars in an old hamster cage. They needed no other care. They ate milkweed nonstop for a few days, crawled to the lid of the cage, hung upside down and turned into jade-colored chrysalides. Two weeks later, the butterflies eclosed (emerged), and we sent them on their way to Mexico, where they would spend the winter.

The next August we again found two full-grown caterpillars on our butterfly weed. Two weeks later we released two butterflies, keeping up our 100 percent success rate.

The hamster cage was cumbersome, so the following season I ordered two net butterfly cages, big enough to hold three vases of milkweed each. By the end of August we had released one adult and had three chrysalides. We thought the season was over, but my sharp-eyed son was now good at finding caterpillars and at ever younger ages. Paul found 15 one morning, some less than an inch long. We cut the milkweed they were munching on and brought them in. The next morning we found four more, and in the afternoon another four.

I knew we had at least a week before the young ones would be ready to pupate, so we covered the dining room table with an old sheet and turned it into an open-air nursery. We had run out of vases so we dug salsa and spaghetti jars out of the recycling. We were also running low on our garden milkweed, but I had found a patch of wild milkweed hanging over a guardrail a few blocks away. I cut fresh butterfly fodder there every other day.

I spent much more time with the "cats" than Paul did. I liked to sit and watch them eat. I gave them milkweed, and they chomped it appreciatively. They never said, "Can I have cereal instead?"

Even though we had enough caterpillars to keep us busy, I searched our garden every time I walked past it. Paul said, "Mom, quit looking!" But I couldn't stop myself. Over the next two weeks our total reached 42. This was too many for us, so we recruited friends and teachers as satellite monarch nurseries.

One friend e-mailed me, "The second thing I do after I get up every morning is check on the cats." Another reported that she got up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday to set up a garage sale, feared that her three caterpillars would be out of milkweed before the garage sale ended, and hightailed it to the wild milkweed plot. Her husband thought she was nuts. (Try to suck others into your obsession. Then your behavior becomes the norm.)

Despite the help, our household still had 30 caterpillars. Caterpillars do little besides eat and produce frass (poop). I became like a waiter at a fine restaurant, "de-frassing" our dining room table twice a day with a sheet of stiff paper.

Keeping track of inventory became a part-time job. The cats would occasionally leave for a better neighborhood, and I wanted to catch them before they crawled off the table. I found myself visiting the nursery every hour, counting the cats on each plant and checking the number against those written on the pieces of paper I had put under each vase. (The paper also was handy for catching the frass.)

One time I moved some small cats to fresh milkweed, dumped the old water into a houseplant and tossed the stripped milkweed stems off the side of the porch. I went back inside and ran an inventory. One missing.

Some people are natural accountants and can't stand to be even a penny off. That's me. But I also felt responsible. If I didn't find him, he'd starve to death. It didn't matter that in the wild he'd have had less than a 10 percent chance of becoming a butterfly. Once I brought him in, I was obliged to do my best.

For 20 minutes, I made the rounds of the only three places the little guy could be: on the dining room table, in the potted plant or on the ground where I had dumped the old stems. I tried to enlist Paul, he of the sharp eyes, in my search, but he didn't share my concern. "Mom, you gotta figure you're going to lose some," he said as he continued to watch Saturday morning cartoons.

At last, I saw the little caterpillar inching along the rim of the flower pot. I could almost see his thought bubble: "Whoa, what a ride! Where's my milkweed??"

As the cats got bigger, we moved them into the butterfly cages. When they were ready, they marched up to the top and turned into chrysalides. After 10 to 14 days, a chrysalis will look black. That's the morning the butterfly will eclose. I took to eating my breakfast while staring at the butterfly cages so as not to miss the three-minute show.

Most of the butterflies eclosed on school days, but a few came out on the weekends. Late in the season, I called Paul over to watch one emerge. He looked for a few seconds, then said, "I've already seen this," and ran off. I stayed.

Forget childlike wonder. Feed your adult wonder.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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