NPR logo Watching Butterflies Born On A Monarch Ranch

Watching Butterflies Born On A Monarch Ranch

A Caterpillar Transforms Into A Butterfly

Julie Zickefoose is a writer and watercolor painter who lives on an 80-acre wildlife sanctuary in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio. Her latest book is Letters from Eden.

Milkweed is a tough old plant, sending gray-green javelins up in thick stands that can tower head-high by fall. One such stand popped up by our water garden. The plants bloomed in slow, honey-fragrant fireworks, and by July there was a 4-foot wall of milkweed screening a dimly remembered pond. I cut it to the ground. Weeds need to be reminded of their place.

Being milkweed, it sent more shoots right back up. And they were dotted with tiny white eggs, which burst forth with minuscule caterpillars, chewing their way over every tender leaf. In white, black and yellow striped pajamas, they were the children of the big burnt-orange butterflies we've given the title of Monarch. When I cut the milkweed back, the tender new growth that followed was irresistible to egg-laying monarchs. In trying to improve the view of our pond, I had unknowingly begun an autumnal ritual that, seven years later, we anticipate as eagerly as the first Honeycrisp apple.

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Every morning, we amble out to the ranch and check on the caterpillars. We take the biggest, fattest one inside to a big glass vase full of fresh milkweed and voracious caterpillars — a fitting centerpiece for a naturalist's table.

As many times as I've watched it, the transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis still rivets me. The caterpillar undulates, swells, and suddenly its striped skin splits up the back like a pair of skinny pants. A squishy neon-green alien being pops out, shrugging off its rumpled striped jammies in a weird hula striptease. This new being has no mouthparts, no eyes; no feet; what has popped out of the caterpillar's skin slowly hardens into a sea-green capsule, dotted with black and metallic gold and filled with liquid goo. In perfect silence and mystery the chrysalis hangs like a shiny jade pendant, changes we can only imagine happening inside it.

Julie Zickefoose surrounded by monarch butterfly chrysalides. Bill Thompson III hide caption

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Bill Thompson III

Two weeks go by. We almost forget. And one evening the chrysalis loses color and goes dark, and by the next morning we see the orange-veined wings of the butterfly glimmering through the crystalline capsule walls. Hours go by and suddenly the chrysalis splits open. Without ceremony the butterfly flops out, hooked feet clinging to its empty wrapper, its turgid abdomen contracting like a bellows as it pumps fluids through the long black veins of its wings.

The new butterfly hangs upside down, wings hardening, for another three hours. Finally, its abdomen is slim; its wings are rigid sails of brightest cinnabar. Suddenly I sense that it is ready to fly. I pick its twig up and move it smoothly out the front door, into the hay-scented September sunshine. The butterfly spreads its wings and snaps them closed. It climbs to the top of its twig, flutters, and lifts off. With nothing but instinct to guide it, it circles twice and heads for Mexico, tiny, bright and brave, fluttering against the limitless sky.