I love butterflies: I love taking photos of butterflies, I love seeing them flit and flutter as they fly from flower to flower, I love the science and magic of their transformation from egg to caterpillar to butterfly. In college, my sorority’s sister name was Butterflie (-ie ending to match my family tree), due to my social butterfly personality.
I have visited butterfly gardens, houses, sanctuaries, and exhibits around the world, including in St. Maarten, Niagara Falls, St. Louis, and Orlando. Local exhibits where you can be immersed in butterflies include the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago, Butterflies & Blooms at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Butterflies! at Brookfield Zoo, and the butterfly exhibit at Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens in Rockford.
My love of all things butterfly-related made it an easy decision for me to join Cook County Farm Bureau’s newest group: the Monarch Club. During our first meeting in July, the club discussed the importance of butterflies and all pollinators, and planned our first outing, a tour of Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens in Palos Heights at 10 a.m. September 7.
During our July meeting, members of the Monarch Club toured the Cook County Farm Bureau’s pollinator garden, where we found three Monarch butterfly eggs on leaves of milkweed. I volunteered to take care of them, and I placed the leaves with eggs on them in a plastic container in my office. After two days, the caterpillars hatched from their eggs. However, one died the first day, and another died a few days later. The remaining caterpillar ate and ate (Monarch butterfly caterpillars only eat leaves from the milkweed plant), and a few weeks later, it found a position, hung into a “J” shape, and formed its chrysalis.
Eleven days later, on August 18, our butterfly emerged! After letting its wings dry and harden, our butterfly – a boy! – was released back into our pollinator garden. A butterfly’s gender is determined by pheromone sacks on its wings. If it has small black spots on its lower wings, it’s a male; if not, it’s a female. Our butterfly will mate, and his offspring will be the generation that will fly to Michoacán, Mexico, where they overwinter in Oyamel fir trees. In the spring, our butterflies’ children and grandchildren will return north.
Taking care of our baby butterfly and seeing his transformation was exciting and educational. Although I raised and released monarch butterflies last year, they were caterpillars, not eggs, when I found them. Over the past month and a half, I was able to see and document every stage of the butterfly’s lifecycle. I was able to watch as a tiny egg (the size of a pencil’s tip) grew into a chubby striped caterpillar and transformed into a beautiful butterfly. The experience made me appreciate the beauty and fragility of nature and in awe of God and the science behind it.
I’d love to hear your butterfly stories and experiences, so please email me at [email protected]!
More about a Butterfly’s Lifecycle
The female butterfly stores the male's sperm in a bursa, or sac, until she is ready to lay eggs. Depending on the species, females lay eggs one at a time, in clusters, or in batches of hundreds. Monarch butterfly females lay one egg at a time on a milkweed plant’s leaf, and she will lay 100 to 300 eggs during her lifetime. The eggs will hatch about four days after they are laid, and the baby caterpillars are also known as larva. After hatching, the larva eats its egg for nutrition.
During its larva stage, an insect eats and grows, molting and shedding its skin multiple times. Molting is when an insect sheds its exoskeleton and grows a new one. The stages between larval molts are called instars, and Monarch butterflies have five instars. After the fifth instar, a butterfly will form a chrysalis, which is a hardened layer of skin over its body. Moths, on the other hand, form a cocoon, which is a protective wrapping of silk made from its saliva. Both chrysalises and cocoons are known as the insect’s pupa stage and protect the caterpillars as they transform. After seven to 14 days, depending on the species of insect and other factors, including climate and temperature, the pupa emerges as an adult, spreads and dries its wings, and flies away. An adult butterfly’s lifespan is two to six weeks, except the last generation of the year, which travels to Mexico and can live eight to nine months.
To read more about Monarch butterflies, I recommend the books “Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery” by Meeg Pincus and “Butterflies Belong Here: A Story of One Idea, Thirty Kids, and a World of Butterflies” by Deborah Hopkinson.