We first saw her at 10 a.m. on Oct. 27, 2017.
She was eating. That's what monarch caterpillars do best. They eat. A lot.
"Where have you been?" I asked. "Where have you been hiding? Your siblings have long gone. Your buddies passed through here in late August and September on their way to their overwintering sites in Santa Cruz and beyond."
How could I have missed her? This one was a fifth in-star and almost ready to pupate.
"Let's see. When your mama laid the egg, you hatched in about three to four days. You'll be a caterpillar for 10 to 14 days. Then you'll be in the pupa stage for 10 to 14 days. But that's all under normal conditions, summer conditions. This is fall, not normal conditions, little buddy."
The chubby black, yellow and white monarch caterpillar kept eating. "YOU could have been eaten, little buddy," I told her, glancing at the hungry California scrub jays vocalizing in the cherry laurels. True, milkweed contains a poisonous toxin that protects monarchs from predators, but birds do eat them. "Just not as much," says Louie Yang, associate professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis.
Then there are the other deadly encounters. Tachinid flies and braconid wasps parasitize the caterpillars and chrysalids. And some fall victim to that dreaded disease, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, caused by an obligate, protozoan parasite.
Give her a chance, just a chance...
So, awed by her unexpected appearance, we prepared the indoor butterfly habitat for its last tenant of the season. Our monarch-rearing kit features a Patron tequila bottle; the narrow neck prevents the 'cats from drowning, and the broad, heavy base assures stability (this is one bottle that doesn't get tipsy!). Just add water, milkweed stems and the caterpillar, and center the bottle in the zippered habitat. Then you wait for the caterpillar to create a silk button and form a J. And then a chrysalis. And then an adult ready to generate more generations.
This November tenant, however, chose the most fragile, overhanging milkweed stem in the bottle to pupate. No mesh ceiling for her!
When the jade-green chrysalis formed on Nov. 4, it looked like a jeweled ornament dangling from a Christmas tree. Or a mid-life chrysalis.
Now, "hurry up and wait." In ideal conditions, a monarch ecloses in 10 to 14 days. In ideal conditions.
Nothing happened for 10 days. Then 12. Then 14. Then 18.
On Day 19, Nov. 22 (the day before Thanksgiving), the chrysalis darkened, revealing the orange, black and white wings in all its transparency. The chrysalis bulged, throbbed and swayed. Out slipped the butterfly, wings flat, wings pumping. She clung to the pupal case as her wings expanded. A big, strong and healthy girl.
On Thanksgiving Day, four adults, two dogs and one butterfly celebrated in Casa de la Garvey. At least we think the butterfly celebrated. She dropped to the floor of her habitat and sipped orange juice and a honey/water mixture. Then, sustained, she fluttered up to her perch, and began searching for an opening, an escape.
She. Wanted. Out.
Hmm...No way would she be able to fly three hours to the overwintering site in Santa Cruz in the cold and rain. And then there are those hungry California scrub jays hanging out in the cherry laurels...Just waiting...
It just so happened that a friend and pollinator advocate, Rita LeRoy, the self-described "farm keeper" at the Vallejo School District's Loma Vista Farm, Vallejo, was heading to Santa Cruz on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, to show her out-of-town relatives the overwintering migratory butterfly sanctuary at the Natural Bridges State Beach Park. That's about a 100-mile trip from Vallejo.
Could Ms. Monarch hitch a ride?
She could. And she did.
Rita, who delights in showing area schoolchildren the monarchs that frequent Loma Vista Farm--she's also a Monarch Mom who rears and releases monarchs and is active in the Bay Area Pollinator Posse--unzipped the mesh habitat at the butterfly sanctuary.
Her sister-in-law captured an image of Miss Monarch in freedom's hands.
Wow! Just wow! From a caterpillar to a chrysalis to an adult. And there she was! In Rita's hands. In Santa Cruz. In the migratory butterfly sanctuary. With her buddies. Or soon-to-be buddies.
"She flew so fast that we didn't get a picture of her flying away," Rita lamented. "She was anxious to join her new friends."
"It was a beautiful day," Rita said, adding "Thank you for allowing me the pleasure of setting her free. I was so sad that my last ones (monarchs) didn't survive. It was really nice to have this happy experience."
Once upon a monarch...thanks to Rita, the ending could not have been better...
Migrating monarchs are fluttering daily into our yard in Vacaville, Calif., one by one, two by two, three by three, and four by four, for a little flight fuel. They're sipping nectar from the Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifolia, and tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica.
They're on their way to overwintering sites, such as the Natural Bridges State Park's Monarch Grove Butterfly Natural Preserve, Santa Cruz.
The park's monarch sanctuary "provides a temporary home for thousands of monarchs," according to the website. "In 2016, 8,000 monarch butterflies overwintered at Natural Bridges. From late fall into winter, the monarchs form a 'city in the trees.' The area's mild seaside climate and eucalyptus grove provide a safe place for monarchs to roost until spring."
The numbers typically peak between late October to mid-November. It's an awe-inspiring place, especially if you rear monarchs. And admission is free. The preserve is open to the public from 8 a.m. to sunset daily, or visitors can participate in a free one-hour tour on Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Meanwhile, scores of monarchs are on their way. Some won't make it. Predators, especially birds, will nail many of them. The weather will deter many others.
We know of at least one that probably won't make it. On Friday, Oct. 27, while we were gathering mllkweed seeds from the Asclepias curassavica, we noticed two lady beetles feasting on aphids.
Wait, what's that beneath that leaf?
Could it be? It was. A monarch caterpillar! Talk about late!
The 'cat is now tucked inside our indoor butterfly habitat, munching on milkweed leaves. With any luck, it will become a mid-life chrysalis and then an adult monarch.
It will take a lot of luck, however, for it to join its buddies in Santa Cruz. Its late start will be exacerbated by the cold, the wind, the rain, the predators....
On a wing and a prayer...
It all started in mid-to-late November when 12 caterpillars surfaced in our pollinator garden in Vacaville. What! What are you doing here? Didn't you get the memo?
We'd just reared and released 54 monarchs. We'd just winterized the garden, pruning back the plants except for one flowering tropical milkweed. We'd leave that for the pollinators, and then, it, too, would freeze.
Well, so would the 12 monarch caterpillars.
Twelve! A dozen hungry, hunkered-down striped ‘cats. Talk about challenges! Too cold, too rainy, too little food and too many predators to survive.
Without a second thought, we brought them inside, tucked them into two zippered, meshed butterfly habitats (from the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis) and fed them milkweed. There they munched away, at times appearing to “sway” to soft classical music or “shake” to the harsh political news on National Public Radio. Friends and relatives came and went, glancing quizzically at us and the 'cats. “What are you going to do with them?”
A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.
“She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can't save all these starfish. You can't begin to make a difference!”
The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”
The old man looked at the girl inquisitively and thought about what she had done and said. Inspired, he joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.
Could these monarchs be starfish?
It was the holiday season and it was beginning to look a lot like chrysalids. The ‘cats, all 12 of them, each formed a “J.” Then came the chrysalids, those gorgeous gold-studded jadelike jewels--Mother Nature's magic, Father Time's gift, and humanity's treasure. The chrysalids held their own, in belligerent testimony to the monarch butterflies that didn't get the memo: “Reproduction is over!”
Despite the severity of the season outside, the monarchs thrived on the care and warmth inside. They fluttered around, dined on raspberries, orange juice and sugar-water, and roosted on the sides and ceiling of the butterfly habitat while National Public Radio “entertained” them.
What to do? Consider them “starfish” and drive “The Monarch Eight” to an overwintering spot along coastal California? (We'd just been to Santa Cruz, a 226-mile round trip, on Nov. 14.) Release them in Vacaville on a wing and a prayer? Or transport them to the Bohart Museum for “bed and breakfast” and public observation?
A friend who's an educator, a naturalist, a photographer, and an insect and gardening enthusiast came up with the ahh-so-perfect plan. Rita LeRoy, the 26-year “farm keeper” at the Vallejo City Unified School District's Loma Vista Farm, (a 5-acre outdoor classroom that provides hands-on educational activities involving plants and animals for children of all ages and abilities), told us of her pending trip to the monarch overwintering sites in Santa Cruz and said she'd be delighted to take them there.
So off the Vacaville-bred and reared monarchs went on Wednesday morning, Dec. 28 with the Good Monarcharians from Vallejo. Unlike Rita and Walter, however, the monarchs didn't know where they were going. One minute they're listening to NPR on a kitchen counter in Vacaville, and the next thing they know, an hour-and-a-half later, they're joining their buddies in Santa Cruz. Whoa! How did that happen? How'd we migrate that fast?
Rita LeRoy, known as "Farmer Rita" at Loma Vista Farm, released them, one by one, starting at 1 p.m. at the Lighthouse Field State Park. Flight! Freedom! Friends! One monarch lingered on her finger--probably the one that had eclosed the day before. The others did not linger. “The rest flew away to meet their new friends,” she related.
The overwintering site proved breathtaking, with the sun showcasing the hundreds of the iconic orange, black and white butterflies dancing in the warm breeze. “There were so many butterflies,” she marveled. “It was amazing.”
What a happy ending to a story about a small-scale conservation project that began in Vacaville and took flight in Santa Cruz. First we humans gave them roots; then we gave them wings.
Now this story has legs. “I enjoy learning about the interconnections in nature so I can share this information with the students,” said Rita-the-teacher (and a 25-year 4-H leader). “Monarchs are excellent example of the interconnection between plants and animals and the need for people to assist with the conservation of this beautiful creature.”
Yes, monarchs can be starfish, too.
It was about a Sacramento, Calif., family with eight children. The journalist/father, Tom Bradford, wrote a column for the fictitious Sacramento Register.
"Eight Is Enough!" the father declared.
He was wrong.
Eight is not nearly enough--that is, when it comes to rearing monarchs. Like a growing number of folks, we set out to do our part--a small scale-conservation project--to help the declining monarch population.
All season long, monarchs showed up to lay their eggs on the four species of milkweed in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
- Asclepias tuberosa
- Asclepias speciosa
- Asclepias curassavica
- Asclepias fascicularis
So to protect them from predators and diseases, we'd bring the caterpillars indoors and place them in a meshed, zippered butterfly habitat, purchased from the Bohart Museum of Entomology. There they munched away on milkweed, pupated, and voila! Adult monarchs ready to stretch their wings. Off they fluttered: to sip nectar, to mate, to migrate.
Fast-forward to mid-November. We walk out in the garden and spot something we shouldn't be seeing. Monarch caterpillars, munching away on the remaining tropical milkweed.
Just when we thought the season was over in November, it wasn't. Just when we thought the final count was 54 monarchs reared and released, it wasn't.
The November 'cat population: 12. We brought them indoors and began feeding them the last of the milkweed.
Of the 12 caterpillars, eight are now beautiful monarch butterflies.
The most recent three to join the monarch menagerie: one eclosed on Saturday, Dec. 24 (Christmas Eve); one on Sunday, Dec. 25 (Christmas Day), and one today, Tuesday, Dec. 27.
More monarchs to come...eight is not nearly enough!
Next: decision time for the eight monarchs.
Then it happened. The three monarchs caterpillars that we'd been rearing in our indoor butterfly habitat, pupated, forming those familiar, awe-inspiring jade-green chrysalids. Soon three monarchs--two males and a female--eclosed.
Should they go? Or should they stay?
The first monarch, a male, eclosed on Tuesday, Nov. 8, Election Day. What to do? Wait for the other two to eclose and drive them all to Santa Cruz—since we're going there any way on Monday, Nov. 14-- or release him now? Decisions, decisions, decisions.
An inner voice argued with me.
Me: “Release him. Let him be a butterfly.”
Inner Voice: “If we transport him there, he'll have a better chance of survival. It's November and pretty late in the migratory season for him to make that 113-mile journey. He can join the cluster of 800 to 1000 already there, overwintering high and happily in the eucalyptus trees, and then next February, he'll head inland.”
Me: “No. Release him. He's antsy. He wants out. Besides, how do you know if wants to go to Santa Cruz? Maybe that's not on his itinerary!”
So off went Butterfly No. 1, soaring 80 feet high into the air. He never looked back.
Then a female eclosed on Thursday, Nov. 10 and a male on Friday, Nov. 11, Veterans' Day. The weather report indicated rain within the next few days. Release them or drive them to Santa Cruz?
Me: “Well, since we're going there any way on Nov. 14, and the monarch population is declining, why not take these two to Santa Cruz?”
Inner Voice: “Yes! Why not?”
So off we went, Don, Marilyn, Jim, yours truly and the two monarchs, Danaus plexippus, well fed and roosting comfortably in their mesh butterfly habitat.
We left Fairfield mid-morning on Nov. 14, and after a 90-minute trip, arrived at Natural Bridges around noon. It was a picture-perfect autumn day, a day to treasure, with temperatures at 60 degrees and rising. And, there we were, standing in the monarch sanctuary, in awe of a thousand tiny butterflies silently clustering in the towering eucalyptus trees. From 80 feet below, the drab-graylike clusters looked ever so much like dead leaves. When the clusters broke in the warmth of the sun, the sanctuary took on a life—and color--of its own. The iconic orange, black and white butterflies glided and soared above us in numbers that folks rarely see.
There is strength in numbers. Color, too.
We found a secure place, away from the crowd, to release the Vacaville born-and-reared monarchs. The female went first, fluttering delicately out of Marilyn's hand to join the others. The male lingered several minutes on her finger, and then he, too, departed, soaring high.
Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose…
Poet Gertrude Stein once described Oakland as: “There is no there there.”
But in monarch overwintering sites in Santa Cruz, there is. There is a "there" when “they're there.”