By Monkey's Uncle | July 5, 2012
“I can’t believe my mind! … It’s glorious!” Now, I don’t know about you, but these are not words I typically hear from my six-year-old. They were prompted by the “birth” of our Monarch butterfly, which she promptly named Glory.
It’s not that The Pretender (she wants to play make-believe ALL THE TIME) isn’t impressed by nature. I’ve written before on this website about her lifelong love of being outside. But this was by far the most emotional reaction I’ve heard.
Maybe this was a mini version of what we all went through when our children were born. It involved patience, and watching, and waiting, and wondering. When would it happen? What would it look like? Will it like me? And so when Glory finally arrived, it prompted a smaller version of the emotional catharsis that I, for one, experienced when The Pretender was born.
So how did we arrive at this emotional moment? And how can you do the same with your kids? That’s what I’m here to tell you about.
So, the first thing you need to make this happen is a milkweed plant. These are the plants you may remember from your childhood as having pods of seeds that resemble a fish when they’re cracked open. I was told something about baby Moses in a basket that I can’t fully remember. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, go HERE.
Ideally, you’ll find a Monarch caterpillar on one of these plants. Or you can go to a mail-order place (teacher stores are good sources), but you’ll still need milkweed for the caterpillar to eat. And wow, do they! The Hungry Caterpillar book isn’t very far off the mark, lemme tell you. We’re talking about two or three leaves a day would be a good first guess. I brought home two whole plants and ours didn’t eat them all.
The fresher the leaves the better. My source said to wash the leaves but really, is the caterpillar going to do that in the wild? No. And try not to get the white “milk” on your skin—it’s sticky like pine sap and quite annoying.
We’ve looked for a long while, but it was Grandma that came through with our caterpillar.
We put ours in an unused fishbowl, but a large glass jar would be fine. It’s not like the caterpillar wants to do gymnastics. Just eat leaves. Just make it big enough that when it becomes a butterfly, there will be room to stretch out its wings to dry—and a clear way out. (This is why a soda bottle, etc. won’t work, although with plastic, you could just slice open the top when it’s time, so maybe it would work quite well!)
So, after a few days, which will depend on just how old she or he is when you acquire them, they will start to think about becoming a cocoon (aka chrysalis or pupa). How, you might be asking, do you know what they’re thinking? Well, they start to make a distinct “J” shape. I’m not sure why, but it’s a certain sign that they’re about to go into the cocoon. They’ll attach themselves to the side of whatever you’ve given them with a strand of … something, and then something happens that I didn’t see. I honestly don’t know where the cocoon comes from, but my unscientific observations suggest that it happened too fast and fit too tightly to be woven, like so many of us were taught. I think it’s a final layer of skin that comes from within the caterpillar. Whatever it is, you will be surprised by how pretty the cocoon is. Light green with brilliant gold highlights, and a shape somewhere between a pill capsule and sports car but unlike either one.
Ours greatly valued privacy and waited until we left to perform both this step and the next.
Now the waiting game begins. You will wonder if you’ve done something wrong. If that’s even possible once it is in this state. If it should be kept in sun, or shade, or … or … Deep breath. Relax. Everything is fine. You might want to make a note on your calendar when the little bugger makes the chrysalis, because it will be anywhere from 10 days to 2 weeks before you have a butterfly. Trust me—you’ll forget when it went in there. No matter how exciting it seems to you the day it happens, you’ll forget.
When the cocoon turns black, you are getting very close. It’s time to start thinking about cleaning out the jar, making sure there’s room to stretch wings, maybe stick some fresh flowers in there if you’ve got ’em.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see the butterfly emerge. But don’t plan on it. I’m tellin’ ya, they’re tricky, private little creatures!
Metaphorically, this process is so rich with meaning, and so often referenced, that your child will obviously gain an intimate interaction with nature, but it’s worth remembering that they will also be given a vivid mental picture that will likely stick with them for their whole life.
There’s no overstating the point: seeing a hungry, striped little fat worm turn into a flying stained glass window is amazing.