I had the great pleasure and learning experience raising a Monarch butterfly from the magic moment of Monarch mating I observed in my front yard.
I got no photo of the mating since my jaw was scraping the lawn as I gaped at the flight of the two hooked-up butterflies. I read that they would stay connected overnight and I lost sight of them as they flew around the Foxtail pine in the front yard. I decided to look on my Showy Milkweed for eggs laid after the mating.
Two days later I found some tiny white bumps (about 10) and brought them inside, placing them gently on moist paper towels in a food container. I really did not think I had found Monarch eggs, because two years prior I had seen a real egg on a milkweed leaf outside and watched as it hatched outside. It had vertical grooves and a rather pointed top. That year I watched the little caterpillar for about three days before it disappeared, lost to one of the many dangers of growing up outside. It was at that moment, knowing that Monarch Butterfly numbers had plummeted by 90% over the past 20 years, and seeing the difficulty they were having first-hand, that I decided I had to bring in some to help them grow up in a protected environment. I purchased the mesh cage and twig/leaf holders I needed, but I saw no more Monarchs that year or all of the next year.
The white bumps I brought in this year did not have those grooves even when I searched for them with a magnifying glass. I brought them in anyway, because I knew I had seen the female hovering over and visiting Milkweed leaves, and I suspected she was laying eggs.
Then, SURPRISE, two tiny caterpillars emerged after about 5 days.
The one above is just one day old and looks pretty good, eating some and putting out frass. Please bear with me. I am just learning to use the macro settings on my DSLR...didn't even have the flash and diffuser set up at this time.
The one above was caterpillar #2. He died of what I assume may have been the Black Death only a few days in.
The scariest part about watching the little caterpillars is when they just stop moving for at least 24 hours. I found out from experience that that's common right before they molt from one phase or instar to the next. Some of the black above may be the exoskeleton this one just molted out of, but I can't distinguish it from frass in this picture and I didn't see it happen.
Here he looks bigger, antennaes getting bigger, eating more. I think he is now Instar #2.
Once again he went immobile for 24 hours and I was afraid he was dying. But then I caught him going from Instar #2 to Instar #3.
Above you can see the exoskeleton he has just crawled out of. Check out his slicked back antennae.
In short order, the little cat turns around and eats the nutritious skin he just left behind. Below, he has finished munching it down. In nature, very little is wasted.
I often observed the little cat eating on the veins of leaves. I imagined it provided some good moisture for him and, indeed, provided white toxin in the milk of the plant leaves that would leave him toxic himself to predators. As he gets bigger he is more and more colorful and when he's a butterfly you might wonder how that helps him survive in a world where birds regularly eat butterflies. Well, the toxins provided by the milkweed make him taste bitter and the beautiful colors he develop make him easily identifiable as non-desirable to hungry birds.
He gets bigger and bigger and I learn to tell which end is the front end by watching him eat. He has 3 pair of grabbing and holding feet in the front and 5 pairs of pro-feet in the back that are more followers, but do look cute with their new white spots.
Once again he gets too big for his skin and has to molt, this time from 3rd to 4th Instar.
Getting bigger and bigger, antennae getting bigger.
At this stage he is an eating monster. Every couple of days I need to bring in a new Milkweed twig, soak it for 20 min in Clorox water (1:9 solution) and double rinse it with plain water before putting it in his cage. I cleaned out the frass every couple of days also.
He got really big at some point.
I must have missed the 4th to 5th Instar molt, because it became clear that he was planning to pupate about 20 days after hatch.
He puts out some stickly white glue-like stuff from his mouth on the proximal end of a strong leaf, then turns around and sticks his back end into it and hangs in a J-shape.
Of course at this very moment I had to go to an appointment and missed the transformation into a Pupa. My hubby watched it, said it was quite fast, started with his skin cracked open on the outside of the J and the jade green pupa appearing from the inside. If you look carefully above, you can see some of the green even before his skin splits.
Below is the skin the caterpillar shed as it revealed its inner green self. He has a lovely "necklace"...watch it, it's going to change.
Under the leaf there is a segment that should demonstrate a vertical line if its a female. I took a gentle quick look and did not see that line. I did not want to disturb the pupa so I never looked again.
On the 10th day of being a Pupa, colors started to change, signaling the beginning of the end of the Pupa stage. Wings darken first.
Darker still. When it got to here, I went to bed knowing we would have a butterfly sometime the next day. The following is what I found at 7 am the next morning.
Now the chrysalis is becoming transparent and a "crack" is appearing.
And here he/she comes. I'm starting to wonder if those hindwings are signaling a female.
The chrysalis, now very thin and brittle, breaks open (but not at the crack) and she starts to just slide out.
It's important at this point that she is strong enough to hold on so that her wings have time to dry and hang out straight.
She makes a successful switch to holding on to the leaf with her forelegs.
She adjusts herself so her wings do not touch anything so they can properly develop.
Now I can plainly see that she is a female...no black bump in the hindwing vein.
Ooh she is so pretty.
Gradually her wings stretch out.
This is what she looks like in her mesh cage. I have the door open so I can take pictures.
It was too late for me to release her on this day, so the decision was made to keep her overnight. I read that new butterflies often don't eat the first day, so not to worry if you have to keep her overnight.
I put some asters in her cage anyway, in case she wanted to nectar.
She didn't. She just climbed up to hang from the mesh roof all night.
The next day, Day 31 after hatching, we put her cage outside near some flowering asters, coneflowers (very much over their prime) and sunflowers, put it on its side so the door was up, and unzipped the door.
She did not waste any time finding her way to the opening
Once out she flew straight up, very strongly and without hesitation..about 30 ft, then headed for our Foxtail Pine to rest for about 20 sec, then around the corner of our house and disappeared. I have no video or image of this because I was so enraptured by her flight, I couldn't waste the moment fiddling with my camera.
After about 10 min when I began putting chairs and things away, I saw that she had returned. I ran and got my camera and captured a few images of her sampling coneflowers and sunflowers.
It is interesting that she completely ignored my asters which have been attractive to Painted Ladies and other butterflies in the past.
Soon after this she flew again southward, around the corner of the house, and we never saw her again.
Godspeed, little one. You got some miles ahead of you...if she is of the Eastern Monarch persuasion, probably to the Oyamel fir forests in Central Mexico, nearly 2 miles above sea level. If she is of the Western persuasion, (usually west of the Rocky Mountains), she might overwinter in the coastal California forests.
This experience has been a significant one for me, one I got into almost by accident, just watching a Monarch in my binoculars two years ago, and then missing seeing them entirely the following year. I began reading about them, and realized they are headed for extinction. I thought I would do whatever I could to help and that amounted to raising a single Monarch. What a privilege.
Linda Stehlik says...
Wonderful series of photos, I learned a lot. Happy to know you are curious and active, since our Panama trip in 2019.
September 16, 2023
Richard S Cimino says...
So interesting to be able to photograph each stage of development. Indeed a month-long project. Outstanding accomplishment..
September 15, 2023
Leslee Waggener says...
Fascinating! Carol, your photography and explanation was epic! Thanks for sharing! PS. Did you name her?
Karen Palmunen says...
This is so fascinating. I was absolutely mesmerized.
And she is indeed beautiful.