August 15, 2008

Tickles

Tickles

On a summer afternoon at Red-haired Sister and Tie-dye Brother-in-law's, you can find all kinds of creatures, mostly running around in bathing suits and leaping into the pool, some of them barking like crazy. But inside a small tent, hanging quietly from the mesh, are some of the quietest but most spectacular creatures in the household: monarch butterflies.

The monarchs begin as tiny eggs clinging to the underside of milkweed plants. Then they hatch into caterpillars which eat the milkweed like crazy. The caterpillars pupate into these beautiful little cocoon things that hang from the sides of the tent. Eventually, a butterfly emerges from each chrysalis, flapping his or her wings until the wings are dry.

Then at some point, the butterflies mate like crazy. Yes, butterflies have sex. I guess I should have known that, but I'd never thought about it. I never actually pictured them having sex. Now of course, I can.

The monarch caterpillars are truly picky eaters. Milkweed is pretty much all they eat. And contrary to what your mother might have told you, being a picky eater isn't so bad. All that milkweed apparently makes monarchs taste bad to predators. I guess once you've eaten a monarch, you gag and swear off them for life.

While I was visiting Red-haired Sister, she would pick elaborate bouquets of flowers to put in with the butterflies. And she knew pretty much where every patch of milkweed in the county was. We'd be driving to the grocery store and she'd head down a side road, "Hey, I just need to pick some milkweed for the butterflies."

One morning, when she had pulled the vases of flowers and milkweeds out of the little mesh tent to add water and such, I folded myself up as small as I could and crawled into the tent. Inches from my face, the monarchs flapped their orange and black wings. One landed on my knee, a strange ticklish feeling, and another on my bare toes. The newest one was still flapping her wet wings, flying sluggishly because they weren't yet dry. Others hung quietly, unfolding with flashes of color whenever I moved. As I sat there watching, I couldn't help but feel envious of those bright and fragile wings.

10 comments:

Lilian said...

Wow... very cool indeed (both the thought of having wings, and having butterflies at home). How does it work, does your sister have them year round or only in the summer when she can find milkweed?

Fascinating...

Lilian said...

oh, and how big is the tent? Does it sit on the floor? Maybe you could post a picture for us to be able to visualize it?

Gawdess said...

a tentful is very cool and I am impressed at the animal(insect?) husbandry skills involved...we did only two or three caterpillars to butterfly and were somewhat traumatized when not all of them could successfully fly off into the sunset - of course, it wasn't monarchs and that might be the rub....
hmmm
great shot!

jo(e) said...

The tent looks like the kind of dome tent people take camping, except it's only about three feet high, and it just sits on the floor. I don't think I have a picture of it.

Once the adults have laid eggs, my sister releases them. I didn't write about the release because I wasn't there for it, but I imagine it's quite spectacular. She did a release at a memorial service for a friend earlier this summer.

Seeking Solace said...

Coolest .Shot. EVER!

Meredith Leigh Knight said...

Have you read Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver? The protagonist studied moth love.

jo(e) said...

Meredith: Oh, I'd forgotten that.

I just finished Kingsolver's book about food, which inspired a trip to the farmers' market this morning.

Dandelion niece said...

The Monarchs don't really flap their wings dry...they just hang there and don't move till their wings are dry...Lilian:we just started with the Monarchs this year, for a memorial.

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

WOW! You always have the coolest experiences! I know you seek them out. Good for you! And some of them find you! That's cool too! Fantastic.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

You mentioned this earlier and I have been thinking about it all summer.

In our previous house we had very few deciduous trees and so I never saw caterpillars. In this new house, I found caterpillars cocooned in an aspen leaf, a mtn ash leaf and in one other leaf, I don't remember the name ... and then we had a lot of butterflies. They flew a circuit between our house & two of our neighbors'. They seemed to like our flowers. I was going to rip out some of the flowers in order to plant vegetables, but now I worry I'll starve the butterflies!