Once a Caregiver, Always a Caregiver

I’m glad to say that my daughter has experienced some progress in her condition this fall so she hasn’t needed my help quite as much as usual. Instead, beginning on September 4th, much of my time was involved with small, striped, non-stop eating machines: Monarch butterfly caterpillars.

Years ago I collected milkweed seeds from the plants growing alongside the roads near my house and spread them around my property in order to attract Monarch butterflies. As the plants thrived and spread the Monarchs started arriving. Some years they were plentiful, other years I was lucky if I saw one butterfly. This year, for whatever reasons, many Monarchs visited and the females apparently laid many eggs because I had a bumper crop of caterpillars. Unfortunately, I also seemed to have more predators than in the past. I saw more praying mantises than usual, and this was the first year I’ve ever seen milkweed tussock moth caterpillars on many of my milkweed leaves. (They are also called milkweed tiger moths because their caterpillars look like fuzzy orange, black, and white toothbrush bristles.) Because the female moths lay hundreds of eggs on a milkweed leaf rather than the one egg a female Monarch lays on a milkweed leaf, the Monarch caterpillar was often, quite literally, eaten out of house and home.

Because I teach at an elementary school and the Monarch butterfly life cycle is taught in the curriculum I bring in caterpillars for the teachers that haven’t found their own. In the past the most I had brought in one fall was fifteen caterpillars, which I had thought was impressive. This year as I found more and more caterpillars I kept bringing them in even after most of the teachers had at least one or two because it was depressing to see ten or more Monarch caterpillars munching happily away on their milkweed leaves one day, yet only a few of them would still be alive the next day. (Survival rate for Monarch caterpillars in the wild is only five percent.) I quickly lost track of how many caterpillars I had brought to school because I also helped the teachers by supplying fresh milkweed leaves for all of the caterpillars to eat. Sometimes there were eggs and/or caterpillars unseen on the leaves. By September 19th the teachers didn’t want any more caterpillars and all but three of those I brought in had survived and were in their next life cycle of a chrysalis (or pupa). As they began hatching out of their chrysalises I tallied them up. I had delivered (and fed) 42 hungry Monarch caterpillars!

Meanwhile, I was still finding lots of Monarch caterpillars around my house, so I bought one of those “cages” made of netting and brought in the twenty caterpillars that were still alive. I live alone in an extremely small house (my daughter can’t live with me) so these munching machines became my noisy house guests. I often heard them chewing and could also hear their poop (frass) hitting the bottom of the cage – especially during the quiet of the night. I was kept busy cleaning the frass out from the bottom of the cage and supplying them with fresh milkweed plants as they devoured the leaves. Invariably, more caterpillars arrived along with the new plants. (Just as some women rush to have a baby to beat their biological clock, the female Monarchs must have hurried to lay all of their eggs before they died.) I actually ran out of milkweed on my property so I had to cut plants from the sides of the roads to keep my hungry little guests fed.

By October 11th I had twenty-five chrysalises hanging from the top of my cage and I was worried because the temperatures were dropping as the fall progressed and these Monarchs should have been on their way to Mexico already. The last one didn’t hatch out until November 11th and probably won’t survive the trip south, but I tried my best, which is what I have always done as a caregiver.

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