Three Very Hungry Caterpillars
Oh how fast they grow
I am worried about my children. Are they safe? Are they cold? Do they have enough to eat? Have they been eaten?
These children are my three monarch butterflies. I watched them with pride as they changed from practically microscopic eggs into plump yellow-, black- and white-striped caterpillars and then into breathtaking butterflies. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
In mid-August, my friend, Melissa, brought stalks of milkweed to our playgroup. The monarch’s lifecycle takes place all on this pretty unremarkable weed. As a preschool teacher, Melissa had raised many generations of monarchs in her classroom. She had tried another kind of caterpillar but the liquid that came out of the chrysalis when the butterfly emerged resembled blood—a potentially gruesome sight that could have resulted in more than a few traumatized preschoolers as well as a few angry parents.
Melissa really wanted to share the milkweed with the other moms. Everyone smiled pleasantly as she excitedly explained the process but, in the end, no one was interested. (Maybe “bugs” are just too “messy”—unlike two-year-olds.) I, with a long history of loving animals of all kinds (except any fast-moving insect that decides to skitter up my bathroom wall when I’m vulnerably alone in the shower) was thrilled.
I carefully took my milkweed stalk home in a paper bag. It already had a caterpillar on it, no bigger than an eyelash, and two tiny eggs. Melissa’s butterfly habitat is in a big plastic pretzel jar, so I dug around and found one in the garage. (After 12 years of marriage, my husband’s tendency to hoard had finally paid off.) I cleaned the container, made a few air holes and then gently placed the milkweed inside. And watched and waited.
The caterpillars grew to about two inches long in less than two weeks, munching the leaves down to the veins. My son, Ian, at 2 ½, didn’t completely understand the process, although he did constantly ask to pet the caterpillars. (They are actually kind of fuzzy, like velveteen.) Those endlessly chomping little creatures made me realize that Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar is actually nonfiction.
One after another, the caterpillars soon went into the chrysalis stage. The chrysalises are almost as gorgeous as the butterflies that eventually emerged; they resemble pieces of jade rimmed in bright gold. Unfortunately, we were never home to see the butterflies actually emerge. We would return from a morning out to a slightly damp butterfly, unrolling its long tongue (I’m guessing it was a tongue) to taste the air and stretching its wings to dry them off.
After a day to allow the butterfly to get accustomed to its new form, I would take Ian out into the backyard to release it. He would demand to hold the jar on the way out. I spotted him like a pipsqueak gymnast’s coach, making sure that the butterfly was not jostled too much in enthusiasm. For the first butterfly, we unscrewed the lid together and, after a few seconds, the butterfly flew out over Ian’s head. It lightly brushed his hair as it caught the wind, which he found more hilarious than a burp. A few days later, the second butterfly took off like a shot, circled our yard and quickly became camouflaged against the leaves high up in our walnut tree. The third butterfly was practically motionless at the bottom of the container, so, fearing that I’d have a screaming child on my hands if I opened the lid and it turned out the butterfly was “sleeping”, I surreptitiously released the last one myself.
As I watched it circle our house twice and then bounce off into the distance like a skimmed rock, I was genuinely sad. Sad to say goodbye to the butterfly, sad that summer was really over. The generation of monarchs we released were the final ones of the year. They’re heartier than the first generations earlier in the summer because these butterflies make the trip south for the winter, then return the next year to start the cycle again.
I could probably end here with a melancholy comparison of butterflies and children, but I’ll leave that to the experts: the people with way too much time on their hands who originate the cloying junk e-mails that are forwarded to me by people who really don’t know me at all. If you want to be amazed at how simple—yet complex—a miracle can be, go get yourself some milkweed next summer and watch and wait with your child. It’s free, and there’s no better show around.