Monarch Madness: Summing Up

We first started looking for monarch caterpillars in early August. I’ve posted on our experience as it has unfolded, and as the adventure draws to a close I want to sum up and link to the Outdoor Hour Challenge on September 30.

The adventure began with fruitless searching, as I wrote about here. Poking around online, I learned that monarchs produce four generations of butterflies each year, and this encouraged me not to lose hope. Soon after that, we were pleased to find three caterpillars in a nearby park — two more than I was really interested in having, but no big deal.

It was only the beginning. We’ve had varying numbers of caterpillars on the counter since then, first in jars and then, when we reached 15, in a 10-gallon aquarium. I’d become anxious that the Village would mow the milkweed field, and then I stumbled upon this site with its information about both the dwindling monarch population and how to raise them in larger numbers.

So we tried it.

Nobody mowed that park. As it turned out, I’m glad we got carried away, because Tropical Storm Lee dumped so much rain on our upstate New York region that we had a record-breaking flood. Along with all the human and economic costs, the park where we got all the caterpillars was completely covered with water. It felt good that we had saved some of them.

It was fun having the caterpillars; none of us could walk through the kitchen without pausing to observe. We kept track of their size, measuring them each day and noting when they molted. I posted my 10-year-old’s caterpillar journal here. (It features some clay art work, written observations, and sketches with some of my photos interspersed.) I’ll admit that supplying them with milkweed and cleaning the aquarium each day got old, and I was glad when they were all safely in their chrysalises. Here’s a repost of the video I took of a chrysalis formation, a process we’ve gotten to see a number of times without losing the wonder of it:

Then after a bit, we got to see them all emerge. The first two hatched last week, and a steady stream of them has been emerging this week. Here’s a video of a butterfly coming out of the chrysalis.

It’s always amazing to me to see how those potato-chip-like wings expand and flatten, and those huge abdomens slim down, in such a short time.

We’ve released them by setting them on a geranium I have in a pot out front. I don’t think monarchs are especially fond of geraniums, but it happens to be what I have. Next year I’m going to plant a butterfly garden, but this year the geranium has been logging many hours as a roost and launch pad.

My daughter is our resident butterfly whisperer, getting them to step onto her finger and placing them on the plant. One flew up into my hair once, but it apparently seemed no more promising than the geranium, and the butterfly moved on.

At first I was a hovering, overprotective butterfly shepherd. (?) Often they sit/hang for quite a long time on the plant — sometimes even overnight — before they take off. We always wait for two or three hours before putting them out there, and I have the plant in a sheltered spot where they won’t get wet if it rains. But I’ve gotten used to their slow acclimatization.

Most of the butterflies emerge in the late morning or early afternoon, but one — we named him Tardy Timothy — waited till around 6:30 at night. I figured he’d overnight inside, but by 10:00 he was pacing and flapping around on the top of the aquarium. I transferred him to the geranium and he hung out there till the following afternoon.

Only two chrysalises remain, and it will be another day or two before they hatch. The whole experience has been fun. I remember going through it as a child with a caterpillar, but this has been much more involved. Getting to observe the chrysalis formation, measuring their growth, noting their molts, and seeing them emerge has been really wonderful. We’ve learned to tell males from females, gleaned quite a bit of information about monarch migration, and accumulated some new vocabulary. Best of all, we’ve acquired a new sense of wonder and appreciation for this one tiny piece of the intricate, incredible creation we inhabit. It may sound silly, but it’s impossible to see one of these winged beauties floating by without some sense of awe. And this is just one species of insect!

Up till this year, I’ve used packaged science curriculum (Real Science-4-Kids and encyclopedias), and I really have no complaints about it. But the depth and extent of learning taking place as we simply tune into the world around us — much of it self-motivated — exceeds immeasurably what we’ve accomplished in science before. Add to that the personal investment of caring for an aspect of creation, and an ecological ethic begins to develop. I couldn’t be more pleased with how it’s going.

This is Peeper, the one my 10-year-old took care of.
This is Goliath, the one my 7-year-old has taken care of. His will be the last chrysalis to open.

For a roundup of my previous posts on our monarch adventures, feel free to browse the monarch butterflies entries. To view the other posts in the Outdoor Hour Challenge, click the button below on September 30.

“Watching Peeper”: A 10-year-old’s nature journal

I don’t often post my daughters’ work online, for various reasons. But I’m making an exception for my 10-year-old’s “Watching Peeper” journal pages about her monarch caterpillar. As you can see, she enjoys designing reusable pages for recording her observations. I’m interspersing photos I’ve taken with her pages — the equivalent of sketching for me, I’m coming to realize.

She also made a beautiful series of clay figures representing the life cycle of her caterpillar — and looking forward to Peeper’s emergence.

I’m so pleased with both daughters for their powers of observation, their sense of wonder, and the creative ways they find to express it. Watching the butterfly metamorphosis is a great parallel to watching our children growing wings.

Nature Notes: Mystery Solved

Caractacus the mystery caterpillar has revealed his true identity at last. As a caterpillar, he puzzled us by varying the usual coloration of a monarch:

But in every other respect he acted like a monarch. He ate milkweed, grew, spun a silk button, hung in a J, and formed a green chrysalis that gradually became more transparent until this morning it looked like this.

This afternoon, we observed him emerging from the chrysalis. It was exciting for me! — I’ve never been able to see a butterfly in that moment before. The rim of the bottle hides some of the action, but I took a video that captures the basics (as well as the excited whispers of my entire family):

(I hope to improve on this… I should have some more opportunities to film emerging butterflies in our aquarium.)

After a few hours of drying and hardening his wings, and a few experimental wing fans…

we put him outside and wished him well. He’s a male monarch, as the two black swellings/spots on the wing veins reveals.

Best wishes on your journey south, Caractacus!

In other news, Goliath, our smallest caterpillar, formed his chrysalis today. He was only 4 mm long when we brought him home.

But since 8/30 he grew to just over an inch and a half. We put another caterpillar roughly his size in the jar with him, and the two became buds. They ate milkweed together. They dozed together. They spun their silk buttons together…

Then hung out together:

Then went into their chrysalises together.

My daughter is convinced that they’re a male and a female, in love.

That ends the era of replenishing our milkweed stock every day (which I am very glad about); these were the last two caterpillars to go into the pupa stage. Now we sit back and wait. Two butterflies — thirteen more to go.


Last but not least, we went back to the flooded park where we found all the caterpillars, and it had dried up some. We saw hardly any caterpillars, but there were a few. And we saw a couple of butterflies looking fresh against the muddy water. A few is better than none.

Flood Pics

Everything is shut down today, we’re boiling water, and waiting to see the final verdict on the damage. Lots of folks are at evacuation centers. We are very fortunate to have a house on high ground and a supply of water. My husband suspected on Tuesday that we might be getting flooding, and he suggested I get some supplies. We’re very fortunate to have him, too!

We took a little drive on such roads as are open this morning, trying to get a sense of the damage. This is the airport where my husband worked in 2006, the year of the last “100-year flood.” He had a foot of water swirling through his business. It took months to recover, and the economy was then in good shape. It’s expected to be worse this time because of higher water levels, and of course the economy is in terrible shape.

Here’s a close-up of a hangar.

Then we visited the river. I’ve had a shot of this view in my header before. Here’s how it looks today.

It’s hard to comprehend a phrase like “cleansing flood” when you see it.

No one will be going anywhere on the adjacent highway any time soon.

Then we drove a little farther…

…to the park so loaded with monarch caterpillars.

It made me very sad. Yet I also felt vindicated for getting a little carried away with our monarch study. Currently we have 9 chrysalises, 3 hanging “J’s,” and two caterpillars in an aquarium on the counter. That much defenseless beauty, at least, has been rescued from the mud.

When we returned home, we discovered that the fifteenth chrysalis, Houdini’s, had opened.

This morning at breakfast
Now -- Welcome, Houdini

Butterflies are such symbols of hope — it’s a cliche, I suppose. But today it’s a welcome one.

Chrysalis Formation

I took some video of a monarch caterpillar’s chrysalis forming today. The caterpillar had spun its silk button and attached itself to the underside of a milkweed leaf — not the ideal spot, as the leaf will dry out, or another caterpillar may decide to eat it. After the chrysalis was finished we removed the leaf and positioned it in a safer, more stable spot.

This video is of the first five minutes or so, as the caterpillar’s old skin is pushed off. It takes another 45 minutes or longer for the chrysalis to be completely finished, but it’s in these first eventful five minutes that the process is visible. It’s fascinating to watch, though not at all comfortable for the caterpillar, from the looks of it; transformation is definitely not a passive thing. I’m always amazed at the strength of the silk button, too, which looks so gossamer but withstands so much twisting and turning.

Often when something grand is going on, there’s an indifferent bystander, and in this case it’s another caterpillar, munching relentlessly in the left foreground…

Read Aloud Thursday: It’s a Butterfly’s Life

Believe it or not, we’ve been reading The Burgess Bird Book faithfully every day since I posted on it on July 28. We’ve also made a few forays into others works as well, including Parables from Nature, A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls, The Blue Fairy Book, and an assortment of picture books. It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s stopped by this blog lately that one of them features caterpillars!

We’ve enjoyed Irene Kelly’s It’s a Hummingbird’s Life for the past year or two. This week we read It’s a Butterfly’s Life, which shares all the same appealing qualities:

  • detailed information about a variety of butterflies
  • engaging writing
  • gorgeous, delicate watercolor illustrations
  • a sense of wonder

We happen to be in the process of observing some monarch caterpillars undergoing metamorphosis, and this book adds momentum to the excitement by making us realize how many other kinds of butterflies there are out there, and how their life histories reflect an amazing diversity. So many different styles of pupae. So many unique adaptations. So many host plants, patterns of coloration, and ways of dealing with predators.

We’ve added some words to our vocabulary list from this book, as Older Daughter’s list makes plain. I think we got “dodge,” “honeydew,” and “frass” from It’s a Butterfly’s Life. There aren’t many occasions in life when a word like “frass” is relevant, but this week it is, and we’ve been making the most of it.

(I see the misspellings, by the way. But I’m following Anna Botsford Comstock’s advice in the Handbook of Nature Study. About the keeping of a nature journal, she writes,

The book should be considered the personal property of the child and should never be criticized by the teacher except as a matter of encouragement; for the spirit in which the notes are made is more important than the information they cover… The notebook should not be regarded as a part of the work of English. The spelling, language, and writing of the notes should all be exempt from criticism…

I have to say that I see some very positive results from taking this approach with the nature journal. The girls are beginning to have fun with their notebooks, and to take some real ownership of them.)

It’s a Butterfly’s Life is a must-read if you’re looking for an attractive, informative resource for studying butterflies with young children.

To see what others are reading this week, click on the button to visit Read Aloud Thursday. Below the button, I’m going to post the latest progress report in our butterfly observation here at home. Feel free to stay and look at the pics if you’re interested. Otherwise enjoy the reading roundup!

Here’s the latest on Goliath, Peeper, and Caractacus, our three caterpillars who remain caterpillars. (Posts here and here give some details of how we acquired them.)

Goliath has grown from 5mm to 7 or 8mm between yesterday and today.


Peeper too has grown, and has lost his burden of old skin dangling by an antenna.


I’ve read that caterpillars increase in size 27,000 times in their few weeks as caterpillars, and though it sounds extreme I certainly see rapid growth.

But Caractacus the mystery caterpillar has made the most dramatic changes.


Yesterday he crawled restlessly around his jar, escaping twice, and clearly not happy with the accommodations. Finally he settled for the screen at the top to spin himself a button.

Since last night, he’s been just hanging around.

What will his chrysalis look like? Like Houdini’s, now around 72 hours along?

Houdini's chrysalis, 9/1. I've read that the gold "buttons" have to do with wing color.

Is he a monarch with variant markings, or some other species of caterpillar altogether? Hopefully the process will run to its conclusion without a hitch, and we’ll find out when he emerges with wings. Otherwise I’ll take my pictures to one of the local nature centers and see if they can help us out.

For now it’s a little like Christmas Eve.


We started school yesterday. We layered in a few subjects and “met” the books for the others. Then today, we layered in the rest.

I’m struck by how much our concept of “school” is in constant metamorphosis. When I first started home schooling, it was a very big deal to go from “vacation” to “school.” I had big plans, new books — and daughters who were quite happy with “vacation,” thank you.

This year, it feels just… normal. We’ve been continuing with a few subjects throughout the summer in a very low-key way, and easing into the full menu this week seems to be happening seamlessly. The girls seem ready and have good attitudes. I’ve made some adjustments and streamlined some things, working to emphasize the priorities I consider to be the most important. But I don’t know as I have “big plans” in the same way I have in years past.

I kind of miss that feeling. It was a big blast of wind in my sails in the first week of school. But I won’t miss the dead calm that always and inevitably followed — the one that came when my big plans collided with the reality of day to day life and personalities around here. Big plans are more dramatic, but realism is better.

Anyway, speaking of metamorphosis… The story of our butterfly farm continues to develop new twists.

Houdini went into the pupa stage on Sunday afternoon. I posted some day 1 chrysalis pics in this post. On day 2, he looked like this:

And today, on day 3, we can already see his butterfly wings forming:

I think the most striking thing to me is the way the chrysalis is actually within the caterpillar — rather than being manufactured from without, the way we envision a cocoon forming. A monarch molts 4 or 5 times, and in one of these routine events, something altogether new is revealed underneath the old skin… something the exact color of the single food the caterpillar has been eating for its entire (short) life. I don’t know about you, but I find that to be fascinating “food” for thought. What am I feeding my soul? What is forming in the depths of my character, waiting to be revealed in the next seemingly routine moment of transformation? Such moments of growth and adjustment come all the time.

Peeper, who was the smallest of our caterpillars — one of the ones I “rescued” from wind and rain — is about half an inch long, and yesterday he molted.

All seemed to have gone well; his old skin is beside him, and his antennae are in a curl next to him. I like this photo because it reveals his three kinds of feet (which we learned about from the Handbook of Nature Study) really well: three pairs of true feet (nearest his head as he hangs there upside down), four pairs of profeet, and the prop feet at the back.

As I said, all seemed to have gone well with his molt. But somehow a super-fine strand of… something attached his old skin to his antenna, so he’s having to drag it around with him as he goes about his business.

Poor little fellow… He reminds me of Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress. Hopefully the next molt will complete the job. Meanwhile, he has a nifty new sign on his jar, made by his primary caregiver, Older Daughter:

(As you can see, she’s renamed him. But he remains Peeper to my aging brain cells.)

This little fellow is no longer the smallest caterpillar on the counter. Oh no. This morning we returned from the milkweed patch with…

…who is by far the smallest.

What happened was this: we went for milkweed and counted around 15 monarch caterpillars of varying sizes in the small patch where we found our original three. We worked hard to find caterpillar-free plants to refresh our supply. One milkweed stood alone a little away from the rest, and I commented that it looked like a good possibility. But Younger Daughter went over to it and exclaimed, “Look! This is the tiniest caterpillar yet!!”

I only agreed to bring it home on condition that we return some of the ones we already had, so we brought Philip and Cinderella (now quite large), as well as Billy, back to the field and let them go. Younger Daughter prayed that God would take care of them. Then we watched them crawl happily along their respective plants.

So we now have Goliath, Peeper, Houdini in his chrysalis, and my caterpillar mutant, Caractacus.

I’m utterly mystified as to what Caractacus is, but it looks like a monarch minus the white. Surely it will pass into the pupa stage soon, and we’ll have more clues about its identity. It eats with unswerving dedication and sometimes falls asleep mid-bite.

Several caterpillars at several different stages give us plenty to write about in our nature journals. And as for sketching, well, it doesn’t get much easier than a caterpillar.

We even have a caterpillar bookmark.


Butterfly Farm

The last few weeks have seen several posts here about monarch butterflies. I wrote about our unsuccessful search for monarchs in Milkweed Adventures. Then I followed it up with Monarch Musings, about the discovery that each season there are four generations of monarchs, only the last of which migrates to Mexico and lives the longest. Finally, I exulted over finding some caterpillars.

I don’t plan to keep a daily monarch journal (I promise!), but I did want to offer some thoughts on the first few days with future butterflies in jars on my kitchen counter.

First, I worry about them. I don’t like the idea of bringing a wild creature home and killing it; the idea is to usher them safely into their next phase. The other night we brought home two inch-long caterpillars and one 1 1/2 to 2 incher. One of the “inchers” was so torpid I worried that it was dying. Yesterday I resolved to give it some fresh milkweed in the morning, and if it didn’t revive I’d take it back to its home field.

It did revive — after shedding its skin in the afternoon.

Its old suit of clothes is that shriveled black thing on the leaf above; its antennae are the little curl on the floor of the jar. Today, he’s an inch and a half long and eats as voraciously as an adolescent boy.

The big guy we’ve named Houdini. On Friday, his first full day with us, my youngest found him twice outside the jar, curled in placid distress (yes, there is such a thing) on the screen covering the jar. I closed all the gaps with blobs of poster putty. Then last night, he wove the silken “hanger” and dropped into J-position.

“Why does he hang in a J?” asked Younger Daughter.

“Because my name is Janet, and I feed him,” I replied.

This afternoon he began the writhy, shrinky, uncomfortable looking process of shedding his caterpillar garb for the last time. Such an amazing process to watch, so rich with significance as a parable of new life.

It took about 40 minutes, once the skin split and the green chrysalis began to spread around Houdini. We look forward to his final escape in 10 days or so!

Ah, but there’s still more… This morning when I went for fresh milkweed, Irene was blowing through. We haven’t been hit nearly as badly here in Upstate New York as everyone predicted, but the wind and rain were blowing the milkweed flat. All the undersides of the leaves were exposed, and there were two tiny little monarch caterpillars clinging for dear life. I brought them home, planning to release them tomorrow after the wind and rain are past… but the girls have named one of them. I fear we’re running a monarch farm.

Peeper — so named because the first thing he did was chew a window in his milkweed leaf — is about half an inch long.

Ah, but there’s still more. (I’m almost done, though…)

Yesterday I saw several monarchs on a walk through the woods. Then I saw a caterpillar on milkweed that looked very like a monarch, but… not quite.

Here’s one of the monarchs I saw.

And here’s the mystery caterpillar.

At first I thought it might be a queen butterfly caterpillar, but it doesn’t have the third set of filaments that characterize the queen. Nevertheless, after my whole family accompanied me excitedly into the woods after I told them about it… we brought it home, too. Can’t wait to see what it turns into.

Till then, my kitchen counter has 3 large jars and a fishbowl full of quiet munching.