By Jenny Leigh Hodgins
All photos, music, video content © 2018 J. L. Hodgins
A couple of years ago, while leisurely checking on my plants in my Florida garden, I discovered 13 caterpillars on my tropical milkweed. New to the whole idea of gardening and unaware that these were Monarch caterpillars, I quickly did a Google search and found a Facebook group to consult.
The Race To Rescue Began
I didn’t know anything about Monarch butterflies. I learned from the Facebook group and online research that the Monarch’s numbers are drastically dwindling in our region and the world. I learned that due to pesticides (i.e., in Florida neighborhoods, regular trucks spray for mosquitos), only a few survive disease. Those that live face the threat of predators (like wasps and lizards) if left alone with mother nature.
Instead of killing these critters for eating my milkweed, instead, based on the advice of The Beautiful Monarch Facebook group and other friends with Monarch expertise, I actually decided to bring the caterpillars indoors.
This is how I began my first experience with ‘rescuing’ Monarchs from predators or harsh elements. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, as I tediously coaxed the hungry caterpillars onto fresh milkweed leaves and stems, to transfer into a mesh container.
For those who don’t know, mature Monarch caterpillars climb onto something where they sew an attachment from which they can hang upside down in a ‘J’ shape. They later shake a shimmy-like dance to shed their caterpillar skin and form a chrysalis which hardens. (Watch my video below showing that process.) During a period of time, they undergo a mystifying metamorphosis to emerge as an orange and black Monarch butterfly!
After a quick local internet search, I learned the importance of having a closed container so that I wouldn’t have caterpillars forming chrysalides everywhere inside my home. Since I have two real cats who would be driven mad from curiosity about these new indoor roommates, I knew I had to get the 13 caterpillars in a solidly closed container.
I had a race against time as these big fifth stage cats were already beginning to spin their silks before I could get them into a properly sealed container. At 9:30pm, I ran down to a local store to buy a pop-up, zippered laundry basket, only to discover holes for handles when I got home. Consulting with the Facebook group butterfly aficionados, I knew I needed to seal the holes to prevent escapes.
I called my mother in Kentucky, whose many artistic talents include being a seamstress. At 10pm, she taught me over the phone how to quickly sew tulle across the laundry handles to end escape routes. I am not a seamstress by any stretch of imagination, so dealing with tulle and a needle was a tortuous and annoying task. (I'm sure Mom could relay the cursing and grunting vividly.)
Once the containers were sealed securely, I transferred ten fat caterpillars and one chrysalis that had already formed on a milkweed stem propped through saran-wrap in a cup of water. Two chrysalides had already formed in separate mesh containers, so I put them under my patio table's umbrella netting, double-sealing the container openings with T-shirts, towels and rubberbands. What a botched job!
By the next day all but two caterpillars had morphed into solid green chrysalides hanging from the mesh at the top of the laundry basket. I discovered one green chrysalis had formed on my bedroom dresser top!
Coaxed carefully by my new Facebook group mentors, I managed to gently detach and transport it to join the others in the large mesh container. I pinned it to scotch tape across the top of the container. I felt like a doctor performing my first important surgery.
The final caterpillar finally shed its face to reveal its beautiful green and gold-rimmed chrysalis right in front of me just three days after I had rescued it. See my short video (below) of this remarkable transformation.
I barely had enough time to get these caterpillars into containers before they morphed into chrysalides. The fast-paced learning curve that was keeping me on my toes took another sharp turn when I discovered four chrysalides turning brown and one with long white strings hanging from it.
Again, my dear Facebook group butterfly mothers came to my aid. This was my first heartbreak; discovering I had to freeze these chrysalides due to the parasite fly that had infected them. It was important to quickly separate the infected ones from those remaining. (This also taught me to rescue earlier than later to avoid such infestation.)
Down to nine small, beautiful, dainty light-green chrysalides with sparkly gold bands around the top layers (see photos below), I began the countdown to see how many butterflies would survive to healthfully emerge.
Why Bother With Creeping Crawling Critters?
Some of my friends thought I’d gone off the deep end when they heard about this project. Especially considering I knew next to nothing about the Monarch Butterfly, am generally freaked out by insects of any kind, and already have too many irons in the fire, my singular focus must have seemed a bit bizarre. What compelled me to put so much effort into creeping, crawling things I knew little about?
The Preciousness of Each Life Mirrors Our Value As Individuals
I instinctively knew the value of this life-form. Rather, I was moved by the value of any and all life-forms, and wanted to protect it if I had the power to do so. (I'm that kind of person who scoots lizards and spiders out the door versus squishing them.)
I had no idea if my efforts would save even one Monarch. But since each caterpillar is a form of life, it struck me as precious and worth every effort. Something about these creatures pushed a button in me.
The experience showed me a deeper, philosophical and beautiful meaning. It opened my eyes to my challenge to see each person in my life through that same ‘life is precious’ filter. I knew that for me to be able to value the dignity of people around me, fundamentally I must value my own life.
Deepening my vision to see past differences and flaws to revere the positive potential of each individual life underlying these superficialities is my new determination. Wow, what a bunch of caterpillars have taught me about my life-view. Imagine what an emerging butterfly would accomplish!
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Click Here for a list of butterfly rescue supplies I use and recommend.
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Watch my video below to see a Monarch caterpillar shake a shimmy-like dance to shed his caterpillar skin and form a chrysalis which hardens into a green and gold gem.
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