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...
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.”
Last Dec. 27 at the Natural Bridges State Park, we saw dozens of monarchs about 80 feet up in the eucalyptus trees. When the sun broke through the trees, assorted birds targeted them, scattering them like mosaic paper kites, much to the awe and aahs of the crowd below.
"Monarch butterflies are among the largest members of the family Nymphalidae in North America. Their caterpillars store toxic chemicals called cardiac glycosides in their bodies from the milkweed they eat. Cardiac glycosides make vertebrates like us quite sick, so don't eat a monarch butterfly or caterpillar if you can help it. The chemicals remain in the adult butterfly bodies as well but tend to be concentrated more in the wings than in the body. Interestingly, cardiac glycosides seem to have very little effect on insect predators and parasites."
"The annual North American migration begins as early as August. Populations west of the Rockies migrate to the Pacific Coast with overwintering roosts along the central California coast. One of the best known of these is in Pacific Grove, California. Populations east of the Rockies migrate to central Mexico. Adult monarchs typically only live a couple of months, although they can live up to 5 or 6 months so the individuals that emerge in early summer do not migrate. Each generation takes between 5 and 6 weeks from egg to adult. The last generation of the summer goes into migratory mode. They stop reproducing and fly in a linear fashion to one of the overwintering sites. These individuals generally do not begin reproducing until the following spring in February or March when they leave these sites and move north from the Mexican site or north and east from the Pacific Coast."
Welcome back, monarchs! You're now fueling up for mass migration.