Five-year-old Raymond Dean of Spencer knows quite a bit about plants and insects. This summer he recognized a praying mantis cocoon and watched one hatch. He can identify several varieties of milkweed, and he knows more about monarch butterflies than the average person. With his mom, Jennifer, they have fun while learning about nature on their walks in the park and exploring their own backyard. Heâ€™s allowed to use the family camera and won third place in the Tell-a-Story category at the Lorain County Fair this year for his monarch storyboard. He points to one of his photos and explains how the â€œbumpiesâ€ on their head begin the chrysalis.
Their interest in monarchs began when he was just 2 years old and carried one into the house when he was playing in his sandbox. It must have been a newly hatched one, his mom surmised, for a child to be able to catch it. Last year they found their first monarch caterpillars in a neighborâ€™s blackberry patch and put them in a clear plastic strawberry container while Jennifer researched what they needed. The next day, before they could be moved into a more suitable enclosure, they attached themselves to the lid and began their metamorphosis.
With successive caterpillars, Jennifer learned they always go to the highest point to attach themselves, and so the aquariums they used as nurseries were turned on their side so that the top (now on the side) could be opened to feed them milkweed leaves. In the caterpillar stage, they eat non-stop, so fresh milkweed must be supplied daily until theyâ€™re in the chrysalis. They place damp paper towels on the bottom of the enclosure to keep the leaves fresher and make the clean up of frass (caterpillar poop) easier. In about two weeks, the chrysalis turns clear enough to see their wings through it, indicating itâ€™s almost hatching time. When they do, their wings are crinkled and take about half a day to dry out. And then they fly away, she said.
They raised four monarchs last year and eight more this year. Itâ€™s an amazing project for kids to watch, but a supply of milkweed must be available, and they must be released as soon as their wings dry, she emphasized.
Monarch metamorphosis takes about a month. The white, spherical eggs are always laid singly on the underside of milkweed leaves during spring and summer. Depending on the temperature, the egg hatches in about three to 12 days, and a tiny caterpillar emerges. The newborn caterpillar first it eats its own eggshell, then it starts feeding on milkweed. During this larval stage, it eats almost constantly and develops into a caterpillar about 2 inches long, molting four times as it grows.
After about two weeks, it weaves a small silk button underneath a twig or leaf where it attaches itself and hangs upside down in the shape of a â€œJâ€ to molt for the fifth and last time, a process which is completed in a matter of hours.
Itâ€™s now in the pupa stage, and the chrysalis hardens into an emerald green case with golden dots. After about two weeks, the chrysalis becomes somewhat transparent. When the butterfly emerges, the wings are wrinkled and wet, and it clings to the chrysalis while fluids from its abdomen are pumped into the veins of the wings, expanding them. After a few hours, the wings dry and stiffen, and the butterfly is able to fly away.
The life span of the monarch varies, depending on the season in which it emerged from the pupa. Those emerging in early summer live only for three to five weeks, but those that emerge in late summer live eight to nine months and migrate to a temperate climate. In the spring, they return to their summer homes and lay their eggs along the migratory route.
How the species knows to return to the same overwintering sites, even though they are the great-great-grandchildren of the butterflies that left the previous spring, is a subject of research. Some are caught and tagged so data can be collected to determine if they take certain pathways and how the migration is influenced by the weather.
Monarch larvae feed exclusively on milkweed, ingesting the plantâ€™s toxins to make them toxic to predators. At one time milkweed was widespread, but due to land development and the use of herbicides, milkweed has been greatly reduced. Without milkweed and nectar from flowers along the entire route, they would be unable to make their journey, so conservation of their habitats is critical to their survival.
Remember to plant flowers for them, and if milkweed grows near your home donâ€™t pull it out. It might be host to a wonder right before your very eyes.
For more info on monarchs and what to plant for them, go to: www.monarchwatch.org/garden.
Barnosky can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing The Gazette, 885 W. Liberty St., Medina, 44256.