Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: The miracle of monarch butterfly metamorphosis

By CHERYL KIMBALL September 01. 2017 10:17PM

After years of searching her farm, our columnist finally discovered three monarch caterpillars munching on milkweed. (Courtesy/Cheryl Kimball)

I’VE TALKED ABOUT monarch butterflies before in this column, but a couple of things happened recently that inspired me to talk about them again. Plus monarchs always make me think of grammar school, which many kids are starting back to this week or next, so it seems doubly fitting.

The jumping off point for my lifelong fascination with nature started with the classic schoolkid project of bringing a caterpillar into the classroom, putting it and some milkweed plant in an aquarium container, and watching the caterpillar transform into a spectacularly gorgeous butterfly. I can’t imagine there is anyone not stunned by this metamorphosis. I would do it at home for several years to come. But even though I stopped bringing caterpillars in the house, a patch of milkweed would forever make me think of grammar school and get me to pause and look for those beautiful black, white and yellow caterpillars.

I have been disappointed year after year at the farm where I have lived for the past 24 years when examination of the patches of milkweed around has not produced any monarch caterpillars. Maybe I am too early, I would think. Or maybe I am too late, or maybe this isn’t the right kind of milkweed or maybe they need a patch of a certain minimum size to use it for hatching grounds. Imagine my jealousy when good friends just over the border in Maine recently started posting photos on Facebook of their constant stream of freshly unfolded Monarchs. My jealousy only increased when I learned that they were getting this remarkable number of caterpillars from a relatively small patch of milkweed plants next to their hot tub. Maybe I need to get a hot tub, I’m thinking.

One thing, among many, that I love about these friends is that they are beyond doubt fascinated with the natural world. Which means I can call them on a Sunday evening just after 9 p.m and either of them are ready and willing to talk about something like monarch butterflies. Those are the best kind of friends!

I had another topic in mind to write about this week and wouldn’t have made that late evening call, but a discovery put me over the edge. The dogs and I walked past a small patch of milkweed in the early evening. Thinking of my friends and their envious supply of caterpillars, I went to examine these milkweeds. Lo and behold, a monarch caterpillar! And another! Three in all that I saw. We finished our walk, I grabbed my camera, and in the fading light I took a few pictures, one of which accompanies this column.

It is unlikely that anyone reading this column does not know about the monarch metamorphosis, but just in case here is a brief rundown: The caterpillar, known as the larvae, transforms into the chrysalis, which houses the metamorphosis of the caterpillar body parts into the butterfly body parts; the butterfly emerges, mates, and lays eggs, and the cycle starts over. Total miracle.

My friends in Maine spent lots of time researching the best practices for bringing in the caterpillars — how to house them, how often to freshen their supply of milkweed leaves, how to recognize when there is a problem. They have released a dozen fully emerged monarch butterflies.

And my friends keep tabs on MonarchWatch ( which is a nonprofit that does education, research, and promotes the creation, conservation and protection of monarch habitat.

I, for one, am hopeful that this first monarch caterpillar sighting at our farm after 24 years of looking is a positive sign for the monarch butterfly population.

Reader notes

• I was pleased to hear from a reader about a bullfrog, the seemingly sole occupant of a nearby pond, whom she has named Bartholomew. She feels he croaks only on exceptionally hot, humid days, which made her wonder if that is normal behavior for a bullfrog.

• After my column that started out talking about Alan Eaton and his incredible knowledge of ticks, another reader told me a simple but fun joke: What are the most dangerous ticks in the world? Politics! Thanks for the laugh, Bob!

• A loyal reader and writer from Canterbury whose stories I always enjoy wrote to talk about how my column on great blue herons reminded her of a huge heron that used to visit their small pond on a regular basis. She called him Henry.

How fun that we like to name the regular wildlife visitors we have in our backyards. I would love to hear about your Henry or Bartholomew!

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at

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