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.
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...
The Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis, has butterflies in its gift shop that will never leave you, never migrate and never die.
Think stuffed animal/puppet in a zippered pouch that resembles a chrysalis. Unzip one section and out pops the familiar black, yellow and white caterpillar. Unzip another section and out pops the iconic monarch butterfly.
Monarchs are just part of the animal menagerie in the Bohart Museum gift shop. Besides the monarchs, you'll see stuffed animals resembling bed bugs, lice, tardigrades and mosquitoes. You'll find t-shirts, sweatshirts, books, posters, jewelry, insect collecting equipment and insect-themed candy, all ready for gift-giving. Proceeds benefit the Bohart's many educational and public outreach activities.
And now, mark you calendar! In keeping with the widespread interest in monarchs and other butterflies, the Bohart Museum is hosting a special open house, "Eggs to Wings: Backyard Butterfly Gardening," on Sunday, March 19. The event, free and open to the public, takes place from 1 to 4 p.m.
Meanwhile, other open houses, all scheduled from 1 to 4 p.m., will share the spotlight:
Sunday, Jan. 22: 1 to 4 p.m.: “Parasite Palooza: Botflies, Fleas and Mites, Oh, My”
Saturday, Feb. 18: (varying times throughout campus): Biodiversity Museum Day, an opportunity to explore 11 UC Davis collections
And toward the end of the academic year is the campuswide UC Davis Picnic Day, an annual open house set Saturday, April 22. The Bohart Museum will greet thousands of visitors from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The insect museum's regular hours are from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. The gift shop is open year around. The museum is closed to the public on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and on major holidays. Admission is free.
So here's this newly eclosed male monarch trying to sip a little nectar from a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).
A female longhorned bee, probably Melissodes agilis, seeks to claim it. There's no such thing as sharing, especially when nectar is at stake and it's first-come, first-served. However, the monarch is well positioned. There's no room for both a butterfly and a bee. Not at the same time.
Then a male longhorned bee (probably Melissodes agilis) targets the monarch. Shoo, monarch! Outta here! I'm saving that flower for my girl!
If you look closely at the male bee/male monarch photo, you can see the monarch's wings don't seem quite right. They're not. Greg Kareofelas, associate at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, points out that "the wings are deformed; they did not fully expand and dry straight."
As for the longhorned bee, Melissodes agilis is one of more than 1600 species of undomesticated bees that populate California.
To learn more about bees in California, get a copy of the landmark California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday), the work of bee experts Gordon W. Frankie of UC Berkeley and Robbin W. Thorp of UC Davis, photographer/entomologist Rollin E. Coville, and UC Berkeley botany expert Barbara Ertter.
All have UC Berkeley connections. Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, received his doctorate in entomology from UC Berkeley. Coville, who took the amazing, incredibly detailed photos for the book, also received his doctorate in entomology from UC Berkeley.
The book also includes information on 53 bee friendly plants--like Tithonia!--and how to grow them.
Tithonia, a member of the sunflower family Asteraceae, is a favorite of insects. Pull up a chair at a Tithonia patch near you and observe the diversity of foraging insects. Among them: honey bees, bumble bees, sweat bees, longhorned bees, and assorted butterflies, including monarchs, Western tiger swallowtails, Gulf Fritillaries, skippers, California buckeyes, mournful duskywings, painted ladies, and cabbage whites. And oh, some predators, too, including praying mantids and wasps (insects) and crab spiders and orb weavers (spiders).
There's never a dull moment in the Tithonia patch.
For the last several months, we've seen monarchs laying eggs on our narrow-leafed milkweed.
A daily check yielded "zero" caterpillars. Zero. Nada. Zilch. One reason is apparent: two nearby nests of Western scrub jays filled with chirping babies. Birds aren't known for eating a large quantity of monarch caterpillars--they don't taste good--but they will still eat a few.
They didn't eat this one.
It was tucked away, hidden from sight. Then we found another caterpillar, also hidden.
In the interests of conservation--and to prevent predation--we placed them inside our indoor butterfly habitat, purchased last year from the gift shop at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, the University of California, Davis.
The rest, as they say, is history and herstory. A male eclosed from the first chrysalis, and a female from the second.
It's one of Nature's miracles. From an egg, to a caterpillar to a chrysalis to an adult Danaus plexippus.
One week, it's a hungry fifth-instar caterpillar...then it's a gold-dotted, jade-green chrysalis, a joy to see. When the chrysalis turns transparent, you can make out the colorful butterfly inside--Nature's gift that's soon to eclose.
From chrysalis to adult, the male took 10 days.
From chrysalis to adult, the female took 9 days.
We've already released the male. He soared high into the sky, at least 80 feet, and headed for an oak tree as a Western scrub jay eyed him. Whew! The predator did not pursue him.
The second monarch, the female, just eclosed this afternoon. It's Freedom Day tomorrow.