A Mom’s Adventure in Butterflies

Louise's daughter with butterflies all over her arms.

Words by Louise Casini Hollis.
Images by Louise Casini Hollis and family.

We raised Monarchs!  No, not the kind that graduate from ODU, but Monarch butterflies. Our butterfly adventures began in 2004 when my daughter was 3 and I saw a suggestion on a parenting blog that raising butterflies was, “a great thing to do with your kids.” It sounded like a really cool opportunity (I never got to raise butterflies when I was a child), and it might earn me a bit of “Earth Mother cred”, a quality I severely lack. Never mind that she was only 3 – she’d still get into it!

So we ordered some Painted Lady caterpillars, and watched them grow, form their chrysalises, hatch, and then we released them in the backyard. It was a nice science experiment for the whole family and our eldest cat, Kokopelli, was fascinated by them.  His fascination inspired my first children’s book, Kokopelli and the Butterfly, which led to other children’s stories about Koko’s adventures. And thankfully, our daughter was intrigued.

caterpillars chomping on milkweed in their indoor habitat

Side-note: When my husband Brian and I were first married, I planted a little herb garden of basil, cilantro and sage on our apartment balcony. He loves to cook, so it was my way of showing my appreciation and encouraging his culinary talent. (I’m no fool!) Well, he thought it was such a great idea that he took over and cultivated a garden Julia Child would envy. A few years later we moved into our house and he tried to grow one of his favorite herbs: fennel. Well, novice gardeners that we were, we were appalled when large green hookah-smoking caterpillars colonized our beautiful fennel and ate it down to the nub. Those hookah smokers turned out to be Swallowtail caterpillars.

Well, that was a disappointment!  Fast-forward to the next year when I decided to beautify our yard, and bought some Lantana and Hyssop. I had seen Hummingbirds and butterflies feasting on those plants when we were out-and-about and wanted to attract them to our yard. Well, it worked and we had some very happy hummingbirds and butterflies visit us. Brian was pleased too, and found watching the bees and butterflies after a long day at work very relaxing. So what happened?  He started buying more plants. And MORE plants! He went plant crazy! And as a result, his green thumb has turned our yard into a pollinator sanctuary. “It’s really relaxing to just sit and watch the bees after a long day of work.  And I like helping our pollinators,” he’ll tell you. Now he plants fennel for the giant hookah smoking caterpillars, and has added Cinderella Swamp Milkweed for the Monarchs.  

Back to 2020: We ordered our Painted Ladies and some Ladybugs in June, and then late July Brian and our daughter noticed some caterpillars were happily gorging themselves on the milkweed. We’d already seen several Monarchs, but it was exciting to find 8 caterpillars on our milkweed! 

And then Hurricane Isaias came to town. Part of our “battening down the hatches” meant we got out the caterpillar habitat and brought our daughter’s precious Monarch caterpillars inside to make sure they didn’t get blown away. (They are under investigation as a possible endangered species, after all.) After Isaias blew through, I said we needed to let them back out. “Oh please Mommy,” my daughter begged, “can’t we raise the Monarchs?”

A caterpillar on the bottom of a milkweed leaf.

“No, they’re wild animals. We shouldn’t,” and I took the caterpillars out and released them back onto the milkweed. This was Mom Fail #1.

That night I saw a post on the Wild Birds group I follow on Facebook saying, “leave caterpillars on plants. It takes between 3,000-6,000 caterpillars to feed baby Carolina Chickadees.” I panicked. The next morning we checked the milkweed and there were only 2 caterpillars.  

What had I done!?!  My daughter’s beloved caterpillars could be in the belly of a baby bird! Little did I know that birds are actually not a problem for Monarch caterpillars. The Milkweed they eat acts as a toxin, so most birds tend to leave the caterpillars alone – Orioles and Grosbeaks are the only birds that have been observed to eat Monarch butterflies. According to Monarch Joint Venture, wasps, ants and spiders are dangerous to Monarch eggs and caterpillars, so one of those was probably the culprit. Nonetheless, before she could get upset, I said, “Hey Honey, if you really want to raise the caterpillars, let’s do it!”

“Yeah Mommy!  Thank you!”  (Hey, and I got some Mom cred as well!)  

“Well, this will be an adventure,” I thought. We loaded up the caterpillars and some milkweed and brought them inside, put them in the caterpillar habitat and hung it high up because our Delilah cat has bad manners when it comes to caterpillars. They make her CRAZY. She glowers at them. She HATES bugs in her house. She jumps and has tried to climb a habitat once. In short, she’s a cat.

Delilah, Louise's grey cat, sits on the edge of a table watching the caterpillars.

Let’s just say it was a long 2 weeks for Delilah.

Meanwhile our excited daughter became a Butterfly Expert Extraordinaire or B.E.E. She googled and researched and found out everything she could about Monarch Butterflies. She found that the different stages of caterpillar’s development are labeled as “instars”.

Watching the instars, it quickly became quite clear to me that Eric Carle’s children’s classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar wasn’t the fanciful tale I had romanticized it as, but rather a factual documentation of the destructive carnage just one caterpillar’s appetite could inflict. Milkweed was being ingested at an alarming rate – in just hours it was stripped bare to the stem. These caterpillars grew and Grew and GREW (and then grew some more). My husband and I took to pleading with them, “Please go into your chrysalis!  We’re running out of milkweed!” But they just kept eating and creating loads of frass. What is frass you ask? It’s the fancy name for insect poop. And no, they do not have the training or dignity of cats. There’s no covering up their frass. (Score one for Delilah cat.)

So, our sunroom was slowly becoming filled with gigantic green worms and their refuse. Oh butterflies, you are so charming. And our little B.E.E. does love you so.

So onward we went. They were fascinating little guys. The first time we saw one make his chrysalis was amazing. Brian took a video of it! Our little B.E.E. went to work researching every aspect of the butterfly’s life cycle and existence. She found that caterpillars actually shed their skins and then reconfigure themselves with enzymes called caspases over a 10-14 day period. How fascinating… and disturbing! 

Our B.E.E. also found that once butterflies emerge from their chrysalises, they hang from them for a while. While they are hanging, they pump fluid from their abdomen throughout their wings to strengthen them. They need at least an hour to do this, but we found if we give them at least three hours after emerging their wings will be stiffer and they are more confident to fly. We learned this when we tried to release one just an hour after it had emerged, but her wings seemed flimsy, so we put her back into the enclosure for another couple of hours. She was nice and strong when we released her later.

A female monarch being held by Louise's daughter.
Female Monarchs have thicker black lines than the males.  

She you say?  Yes, you can tell if a Monarch butterfly is male or female by its markings. The females have thicker black lines than the males. Males have thinner lines and two small dots on their lower wings.  

A male monarch being held by Louise's daughter
Male Monarchs have two small dots on their lower wings.

One morning we had the awesome opportunity to watch a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. I told our B.E.E. to quickly run upstairs and grab my phone so I could film it, and then I went and stood at the foot of the stairs and yelled at her to hurry up. We both missed it! It was that fast.  Somehow I imagined it would take time to arrive much like a chick pecking away at its shell, but nope! Butterflies are efficient. So that was Mom Fail #2.

Mom Fail #3 occurred when we found a chrysalis in the wild, on our very own milkweed. “How exciting!” I thought. “We can study it in the wild and it will be a mini-science lesson.” (I could feel that Earth Mother Energy rising!)  Our little B.E.E. had read about how you can move a chrysalis if a caterpillar makes it in an unfortunate spot, but I insisted that we had already sponsored enough caterpillars, and we should leave this one in its natural habitat. So we left it out there, all green and glowing.  

A monarch butterfly sitting on the edge of the habitat, just before it flys off.

The next day we went to check on our wild charge, and found what could best be described as “there appears to have been a struggle.” The milkweed was tramped. There was no sign whatsoever of the chrysalis. We searched the ground and all around. Nothing. There were some tears shed by our B.E.E., and I relinquished my hopes of ever having any Earth Mother credentials. In all, we raised and hatched 7 butterflies: Flutterby Girl, Crinkle Wing, Flutterby Boy, Prince Butterfly, Queen Butterfly, King Butterfly, and Princess Butterfly.  “Crinkle Wing”, as you may have guessed, came out with its wings crinkled and was never able to fully extend them. We put Crinkle Wing on the Butterfly bush flower that overhangs our porch to give it a fighting chance.  

But STOP THE PRESSES! (Yes, I literally wrote that to our illustrious editor B.A.!) As I was talking with her about this story our B.E.E. came running in the house shouting, “We found more caterpillars!”  And found some they did indeed: we wound up raising 39 Monarch Butterflies to adulthood and 1 very grumpy Swallowtail.  

In addition to more Monarch caterpillars, our B.E.E. had found a Swallowtail caterpillar on our Rue plant and puzzled over it, because they are slightly different from the Monarchs.  Swallowtail caterpillars have dots and stripes. Frankly, after all this caterpillar observation, I’ve learned that a lot of caterpillars look exactly like what I’d draw as a cartoon version of a caterpillar.  

A Swallowtail caterpillar on some leaves
A Swallowtail caterpillar.

Swallowtails have a whole different disposition from Monarchs.  Apparently when “angered” they unfurl their orange horns and waggle them at you and release a foul stench. Our B.E.E. got our Swallowtail to do this while “petting” him. This delighted her to no end and caused the phrase, “don’t anger the Swallowtail” to enter our vocabulary. He took a while to make his chrysalis, and  I’m thoroughly convinced that he finally made it because he was fed up with hanging out in the butterfly enclosure and being “petted”.  He just grumpily said, “Well fine,” and shed himself into a chrysalis to be done with us.  

In all, it was an exciting time. We helped the creatures in our garden. We helped out our environment. And we did it as a family. Will we do it next year? Of course. But first we plant more milkweed!

A Swallowtail butterfly, black with yellow stripes at the back of the wings.
The Swallowtail Butterfly.

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