Roadside Caterpillar

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By Kelly Madigan

After you search a hundred milkweed plants or so for caterpillars, you begin to pick up on the telltale signs that they are occupying a particular stem. Frass, primarily. Which is just another word for poop, which itself is another word for excrement. Caterpillars are voracious, and all that input means there must be some output, which looks like miniature kibble, dry and squareish, and it tends to collect on the leaf or leaves below the place where the fellow is munching. While the cat’ herself might be on the underside of the leaf, the frass is always on the top side, easily seen, and gives her location away.

I’ve spent a few hours today wading through wet roadsides to examine milkweed plants, grasping in one hand a glass jar with a screw-on screen top, using my free hand to tip the plants to one side and then the other to peek at the underside of leaves. As a result, I have about ten caterpillars to add to the six already housed in an aquarium.

The season is turning here, and monarchs are heavy into fall migration, pointed toward their overwintering grounds in Mexico. These caterpillars are the late season crop, unlikely to mature fast enough to join the winged adults before a hard freeze. In the aquarium they’ll be hand-fed milkweed and make their chrysalises on the screened cover. When they emerge as adult monarchs, decisions will be made based on the weather. A slow, warm fall might see them joining the others in Mexico. Harsher conditions will make them an indoor curiosity, fed orange slices and nectar and given as much room as possible to utilize their newly formed wings with their iconic orange and black design.

Unless that unusually warm fall season materializes, what I am doing here is unlikely to bolster the dwindled numbers of monarchs whatsoever. These guys would die in the roadside ditches with the freeze and now might die in captivity, unable to breed in either scenario. So why am I here, wet to the knees from the rain-washed grasses, dodging the deep webbed tunnels of wolf spiders, and the arched daddy longlegs, and the biting flies and mosquitoes that seem more vicious than usual as fall approaches?

It’s hard to say, exactly. I fell for my first monarch as a child, one injured in some way that left it healthy but unable to fly. She lived on my shoulder and was fed sugar water, and I called her Mona Lisa. Her appearance felt charmed—a butterfly landing in my life, unexpected and fascinating. Much later, learning the monarch’s eastern migration was in peril from a variety of setbacks, and that the overall numbers had reduced by a sobering amount, people began to call into question whether generations to come would know the monarch in the ways most US residents take for granted.

My response to news that concerns me is often to step in deeper, so a few years ago I learned how to raise a caterpillar after plucking one from a milkweed plant that was in the path of a crop-dusting plane. She grew and thrived and eventually formed a chrysalis at the top of her glass container, and one rainy morning just before dawn, she emerged and uncrumpled, clearly now a “he” and not a “she.” (The sex of monarch butterflies is easy to discern. Not so much caterpillars.) With the help of a dedicated monarch researcher, I learned how to tag her, how to store her peacefully and alive in an envelope until the rain stopped, and released her.

I’ve been cheering the efforts being made to improve conditions for monarchs, knowing those actions support other insects, many of them pollinators, and therefore the entire food chain. Last year I suggested we plant milkweed in graveyards—along the fence lines, in memorial gardens, and on the gravesites themselves where possible—to build a checkerboard of stations across the country where monarchs might safely nectar and breed. Individuals responded, and cemetery board members responded, and milkweed was planted in graveyards, in fields, along roadsides, and in personal gardens. A little victory.

Rearing monarchs in captivity, ones that would die before coming into adulthood otherwise, brings me back to the wonder of the little girl who had a butterfly on her shoulder. Peering into the aquarium, listening to the audible sound of a caterpillar chewing, admiring the green chrysalis dangling from its sturdy but delicate stem, and then awakening to a butterfly carefully extending herself for the first time engages my senses. Our own transformations aren’t always so visible. I’m glad to be in the roadside ditches today, happy to find milkweed growing, delighted to find caterpillars on them, and grateful to be offering them a little help, a shelter from the cold snap, a chance.

Image Credits: All photos are provided by the author.

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