In early fall I remember a very special Monarch butterfly. We met in the fall a number of years ago, when Vicki complained that two large caterpillars had eaten the leaves off her wild butterfly weed.
Her description sounded like caterpillars of the Monarch butterfly that I had plucked from milkweed plants long ago. And so they were.
She never experienced the thrill of watching a caterpillar pupate and emerge as a butterfly, so we put the two caterpillars in a large jar with tall twigs on which they could pupate, and some fresh leaves and a few drops of water for nourishment.
Sure enough, within a day or so, each caterpillar transformed into a pale green chrysalis hanging from a twig. One chrysalis turned black the next day, presumably dead. The other changed color after about a week when the newly formed adult wings showed through.
Soon after, a magnificent Monarch butterfly emerged. We removed the twigs, and placed the butterfly in an open jar on its side in the garden. After a day, the butterfly crept out and flew to a nearby tree. An hour later, the butterfly flew over our home, and was gone.
Monarch butterflies from North Carolina spend the winter in mountains in Mexico. This Monarch butterfly presumably flew 2,500 miles to Mexico to join hundreds of thousands of its kind.
The following spring, Vicki and I looked for the return of our butterfly. Unfortunately, no Monarch butterflies appeared.
I recall a startling experience with a similar creature when I was about 12-years-old. The previous fall, I had collected some unfamiliar, very large cocoons from local trees. The cocoon size were big, and I envisioned a monster inside, so I placed them on a window sill between the window and the outside screen. I locked and taped the window so whatever emerged couldn’t escape.
In the spring, several beautiful Cecropia moths emerged from the cocoons. Cecropia moths are the largest moths in North America with about a seven inch wingspan. They are often confused with bats at dusk.
About a week later, when returning home, I noticed several Cecropia moths about four blocks from my house. I was used to seeing about one a week, so two in the same block was an event. The next block I saw five. The closer to home, the more I saw. In my block, there were dozens, About twenty people were looking into the driveway next to my home where the air was thick with Cecropia moths, some of whom were hurling themselves against my window screen.
One of my Cecropia moths was a female ready to mate. She attracted males with a scent they can detect miles away. Since the female was behind a screen, no male could mate with her, so the scent persisted, drawing males from many miles. Once the screen was opened she mated, the scent vanished, and the other males dispersed within minutes.
A few days later, she laid eggs which hatched into small black caterpillars the following spring, and which I dutifully fed with leaves from the tree from which I had collected the cocoons.
The Praying Mantis
Another time I collected the walnut-like egg cases of the praying mantis, and the little critters that hatched were all over the house, and my mother responded….. but that’s another story. Suffice to say that was an eerie experience.
I wonder if people still collect large cocoons from trees in my old neighborhood, and delight in the wonderful giant butterfly harvest the next spring.
And I wonder if that Monarch butterfly ever made it from our town to Mexico. That’s 2,500 miles for that small critter to fly. I hope it made it.
Ed Glassman is a retired professor from the University Of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and a former columnist for the Chapel Hill Herald and the (Raleigh, North Carolina) Triangle Business Journal.