It's a magical moment.
First an egg, then a caterpillar, then a chrysalis, and then a butterfly, Danaus plexippus.
We took some images of a monarch eclosing back on Sept. 10, 2016. It was late in the season. While other monarchs were migrating to coastal California, some were fluttering into our yard in Vacaville, Calif., nectaring on blossoms, mating, and laying eggs on milkweed, their host plant.
The caterpillar, from the first instar to the fifth instar, munches the milkweed like there's no tomorrow (maybe there isn't?), and then forms an emerald green chrysalis, dotted with gold that's reminiscent of royalty. When it turns transparent, you can see the familiar black and orange wings, a promise of what's to come.
It takes about two weeks for an adult butterfly to emerge from its chrysalis and then it slides out--swoosh!--and hangs upside down, pumping fluids into its expanding wings. When the wings dry, off it goes. Sometimes it soars high into the sky. Sometimes it just lingers.
If you're a butterfly aficionado, you never get tired of watching that magical moment when a monarch ecloses.
Here's to Independence Day and to America's favorite butterfly, the monarch.
It is not a good time to be a butterfly.
Especially if you're a monarch butterfly that eclosed on Jan. 5 in cold and rainy Vacaville, Calif. while all--or most--of your counterparts are overwintering along coastal California or in central Mexico. You don't even count; scientists and citizen scientists have already counted the overwintering monarch population and you're not there.
They do not know you exist.
You're nestled inside an indoor meshed butterfly habitat on a kitchen counter. Outside, a storm brews, not unlike the nearby coffee pot gurgling away. Inside, fingers of warmth comfort you. You sip a mixture of honey and water, and then orange juice. You sample the raspberries and blueberries. At night you perch on a rosemary branch. You wake up to the sounds of National Public Radio and the coffee pot gurgling. People come and go and look at you. "What are you doing here?" You ignore them.
You are alone. Your parents met and mated sometime in November. Your 11 siblings and cousins all eclosed on the last of the tropical milkweed, leaving you with basically nothing. You are the last one. A mid-life chrysalis if there ever was one. And now a maverick in the making. It's too cold and rainy to fly.
And then one of those humans comes by with a silkscreened garden flag and lifts you gently out of your zippered habitat. You eagerly investigate your new territory. You see a male monarch and a honey bee looking back at you. Life imitating art, or art imitating life?
Not all monarch butterflies that you rear will make it.
Such was this case this week with when two monarchs eclosed, both crippled and struggling to survive. The damage to their crumbled wings may have occurred when, as jade-green chrysalids, they fell to the floor of the mesh butterfly habitat. We gently picked them up, tied dental floss around each cremaster, and hung them back up again in a scene reminiscent of Christmas stockings hung by the fireplace.
No. 21 eclosed. Then No. 22. But these monarchs, the last of the season, needed names instead of numbers.
The first one we named "Tiny." The second one, "Tim." They were named after the fictional character, Tiny Tim, from the 1843 novel A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Tiny Tim couldn't walk but he brought joy to the Bob Cratchit family and he changed the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Life is as good as can be expected. We're rolling cotton balls in a sugar/water mixture (with a dash of soy sauce for vitamins and minerals) and they're eating. They're climbing on the lantana blossoms during the day. At night they scurry to a roost at the top of the habitat and remain there until morning.
Yesterday, we took them outside and placed them on the spokes of a miniature penny-farthing (big wheel bicycle). They soaked up the warmth of the afternoon sun and seemed energized. But when they tried to fly, they tumbled to the ground. Maybe due to Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE)?
Now they're back inside the house, cozy in their butterfly habitat with the fresh lantana and newly soaked cotton balls and Adele singing "Hello" on the CD.
They're not going to make it. We know that. They can flutter but they cannot fly. They can feel the warmth of the sun but they'll never migrate, overwinter and feel another warmth--the warmth of a cluster at the top of an 80-foot eucalyptus tree.
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, said it best: "Life is hard."
Yes, it is.
About 1 percent of caterpillars make it to adults, he said.
Have you ever seen a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) lay an egg on her host plant, the milkweed?
Have you ever seen a close-up of the egg? The larva or caterpillar? The chrysalis? The eclosure (when the adult emerges from the chrysalis)?
It's a fascinating sight.
Not all eggs will make it. Predators, such as lady beetles and their larvae, gobble up monarch eggs along with those tasty aphids. Birds, such as scrub jays, swoop down and make off with an occasional caterpillar. Then when the fifth instar finally starts to form a chrysalis, there's always the question of whether it will do so. Some are deformed and turn out to be half chrysalis and half caterpillar.
But once you've watched a complete metamorphosis, you'll never underappreciate monarchs again. In fact, you'll probably start rearing them every year. We just reared our first two this month.
It's easy to see why teachers and their students get so excited. We remember writing about Sal (Sally) Levinson's newly published book, Butterfly Papercrafts, which contains 21 indoor projects for outdoor learning. Levinson, who studied entomology at the graduate level at UC Riverside and UC Berkeley, wants to inspire youngsters to learn about our amazing world of butterflies through art and a little science.
It's intended for youngsters ages 5-12, but really, it's also a beginner's book for all ages and a teacher's treasure. And it's priced right--under $10 ($9.99). Readers can learn about the life cycle, from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult; and craft a butterfly paper airplane, a caterpillar flip book, and a monarch finger puppet.
Meanwhile, North America's monarchs are heading for their overwintering sites in two main areas: the mountains of central Mexico, and choice spots along the California coast, including Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz.
"The annual migration of North America's monarch butterfly is a unique and amazing phenomenon," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service website. "The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration as birds do. Unlike other butterflies that can overwinter as larvae, pupae, or even as adults in some species, monarchs cannot survive the cold winters of northern climates. Using environmental cues, the monarchs know when it is time to travel south for the winter. Monarchs use a combination of air currents and thermals to travel long distances. Some fly as far as 3,000 miles to reach their winter home."