Chloe Weingarten: Monarchs are my summer passion
Their life cycle is fascinating, and as a young girl and even today, I love to see them transform from minute caterpillars into beautiful butterflies.
I know that summer has arrived when I find my first tiny monarch egg hidden on the underside of a newly sprouted milkweed leaf. I spend early June days, once school is dismissed for summer, searching through young milkweed plants from out of our lawn bordering a prairie.
A monarch egg is very small, yellow-white, and has tiny ridges that lead up to a small point. Every time I find an egg, I uproot the plant and place it into a jar of water. The bouquet of milkweed goes into my monarch cage. Summer’s obsession has begun.
I reared my first monarch caterpillars when I was 4 years old. I remember finding my first monarch caterpillar hiking along the Zumbro with my parents and aunt, an entomologist.
Always curious about nature, we decided to raise this caterpillar, since all it needed was milkweed. The caterpillar actually survived, becoming a chrysalis and then emerge as a fully-fledged butterfly! We decided to do it again next summer, and the summer after and so on. The monarch population is crashing, so by raising them, I protect them from parasitic wasps or humans who mow down or spray milkweed plants.
The monarch life cycle is fascinating, and as a young girl and even today, I love to see them transform from minute caterpillars into beautiful butterflies.
When a caterpillar hatches, it is nearly translucent except for thin black stripes encircling a 2 millimeter-long body. It immediately begins to eat from its leaf, but its incisors are so small it cannot bite all the way through the leaf. All day long it eats, eats, eats, and grows, grows, grows.
Typically, I rear 15 caterpillars simultaneously, so fresh milkweed is needed daily as it is quickly devoured. The caterpillars grow longer than 60 millimeters in two weeks, becoming a montage of yellow, green, white, and black stripes sporting prolonged black antennae from their head and false smaller antennae from their rears. At this stage I can hear them chewing leaves from another room.
After an exhausting two weeks, it is time to make their chrysalides. They love to make their chrysalides on the cage ceiling, first climbing to the top and fixing a silk tether to the mesh. They then hang for a few hours, upside down in a ‘J’ shape. They slowly become translucent again, then split their skins, and wriggle circumferentially until the discarded skin falls to the ground. The new skin is jade green and hardens into the shell of the chrysalis.
The monarch chrysalis is one of the most beautiful things on Earth, or at least in my prairie patch. The worm-shaped caterpillar is now housed in an elegant vase of light green rimmed by a gold and black circumferential ridge located three quarters of the way up the chrysalis. The smaller portion above the ridge is a cone that attaches to the silk tether.
After another two weeks, the chrysalis shell also becomes translucent, and the folded, orange-black monarch wings can be viewed. The chrysalis splits open, and a monarch butterfly emerges with soaking wet, shrivelled wings.
For the next few hours, it pumps its wings out to their full length, allowing them to dry. When it flaps away from the spent chrysalis, I know it is time for release.
When I was younger, my parents made a big affair letting monarchs go. My siblings and I would rotate who got to hold the butterfly and let it fly away from our hands. Today, releases are subdued. I monitor the emerging monarchs, and when ready quickly take them outside and place them on flowers. Yet, I still smile at this amazing process of caterpillars growing into butterflies and congratulate myself on another monarch well raised. They are my babies in a weird way, and I am proud of every healthy monarch I raise.
Maybe my fascination makes a small difference in the grand scheme of this species helping them from them not becoming extinct. But then again maybe it is not enough; but raising them gives me so much joy, I am sure I help them.
Chloe Weingarten will be a senior at Mayo High School. Send comments on teen columns to Jeff Pieters, firstname.lastname@example.org.