Witness to First Flight

Monarch chrysalis on butterfly weed

Monarch chrysalis on butterfly weed

Today is the continuation of the story I began in my last post, about raising my first Monarch butterfly.  On the evening of August 18, I noticed that I could see the butterfly’s wings through the chrysalis, so I knew it would probably emerge, or eclose, in the next 24 hours. I woke up early the next morning hoping to be able to watch the big moment when the adult butterfly would break free of the pupal case and spread its wings. But by the time I needed to leave for work it still hadn’t come out, so I reluctantly drove to the office.

As I walked in, my boss practically chased me back out the door, saying that I absolutely must be home to watch my first monarch come out of the chrysalis. She had told me the previous evening that waiting for a butterfly to emerge was a legitimate excuse for being late for work, but I’d thought she was joking. So I jumped back in the car and retraced my path as quickly as I could. (“Honestly, officer, I’m racing home to watch a butterfly!”)

Female Monarch ready to emerge - MY FIRST ONE (1024x683)

Monarch on the night before it would emerge. The wings are now visible inside!

I rushed into the house, straight over to the kitchen table…where the monarch was already out of the chrysalis. I was disappointed that I’d apparently just missed the moment of emergence, but also thrilled to see a moist, fresh butterfly just stretching its wings for the very first time.

When they emerge from the chrysalis their wings are all crumpled up and they have to hang motionless for a while to pump blood through the veins to inflate the wings. You can actually see them slowly straightening over the first few minutes until finally the butterfly looks fully “inflated.”

I watched in awe for a while after that. Even though she wasn’t moving at all, I just couldn’t get over the transformation I’d witnessed. I’d watched her evolve from a little microscopic egg on a milkweed leaf to a tiny little caterpillar, and then to a larger and larger caterpillar. And then she hung upside down and shed her skin, exposing the exquisite jade green chrysalis. And eventually–through some magic of biology that I can only comprehend very vaguely–out popped a butterfly so beautiful that I was speechless.

Victoria just after emerging from chrysalis (932x1024)After about three hours she began to flutter her wings, and not long afterward she let go of the remains of the chrysalis and dropped to the bottom of the aquarium. I’d been concerned about having to release her into a rainy day, and was considering keeping her overnight to give her a better chance the next morning. But she was suddenly getting very active, fluttering around on the floor and trying to climb up the sides. I put a slice of watermelon down for her so she could feed if she needed to. I placed her on the watermelon but she crawled off of it and kept crawling around the edges of the aquarium trying to get out.

First time she spread her wings

On the floor of the aquarium — isn’t she gorgeous?!

I worried that she’d injure herself if I kept her in there much longer. I consulted with a friend who has much more experience with butterflies, and she advised me to go ahead and release her. And since it looked like we had a good break in between rain showers, I decided it would be okay to let her go.

Monarch newly emerged, ready for flight

Monarch preparing to take flight for the first time!

So I took her aquarium out on my patio and tried to figure out how I could get some photos of this big moment. I got a stem of butterfly weed from my garden and gently placed her on the flowers. Then I held the stem out with my left hand while trying to snap photos with my call phone as fast as I could, knowing that she could fly away at any moment.

As I stood there watching this delicate creature feel the wind for the very first time, I marveled at the idea that she was capable of flying all the way to Mexico on those paper-thin wings. After about two minutes I noticed her little head turn to the left and then to the right, as if she’d just noticed her surroundings. And a second or two after that she took flight! She flew about 15 feet straight up into the nearest tree.

Monarch after her first flight, in a tree beside my patio

Monarch after her first brief flight, to a tree beside my patio

And I stood there and wept like a baby. I was surprised at how emotional the moment was. I was exhilarated by the joy of watching her fly for the first time, but I was also sad to see her leave. I know her life will be full of danger, and it’s very possible that she might not survive the journey and make it back next spring. But I’d done all I could for her, keeping her safe from predators in her larval stage (the caterpillar, remember?), so I had to accept that nature would take its course at this point.

I watched her as she sat in the tree for probably 20 minutes or so. There was a fairly brisk breeze knocking her around up there, but she had a good grip and hung on through it all. Then I was distracted for a few minutes by a phone call, and when I turned back to look at her she was gone. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t see which way she went, because I might have felt compelled to chase her around like some sort of lunatic, reluctant to let her out of my sight. #MonarchMama

Monarch number 4 preparing for her first flight

Monarch number 4 preparing for her first flight, September 7, 2015

Since that day I’ve released four more monarchs into the beautiful blue skies of Ohio. And today I still have a few more chrysalises in my aquarium. (Yes, I know that the plural of chrysalis is really “chrysalides” but I find that word awkward so I just use “chrysalises.”) A couple of the big caterpillars have managed to escape the aquarium when they’re ready to pupate. I’ve spent some panicked moments searching my sunroom for missing caterpillars, only to find them hanging under the table or on the bottom edge of the aquarium. The first thing I do each morning and each evening when I return from work is do a head count to make sure nobody is running loose where I might step on them. I guess I should get a better lid on the aquarium, huh?

I’ll end with a couple more pictures from the past few weeks. I hope you enjoy learning this stuff as much as I do. And don’t forget to plant milkweed in your yard — it’s the only plant these beauties can eat.

Monarch caterpillar escapee, searching for a spot to pupate into chrysalis form

Monarch caterpillar escapee, searching for a spot to pupate into chrysalis form

Caterpillar in "hanging J" preparation for pupating into chrysalis form.

Caterpillar in “hanging J” preparation for pupating into chrysalis form.

A very fresh chrysalis. I only missed the transformation by moments!

A very fresh chrysalis. I only missed the transformation by moments!

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13 Responses to Witness to First Flight

  1. Wow, I didn’t know that this was a thing! How beautiful and fascinating, Kim. 🙂

  2. Jane says:

    Another beautiful post. I love rearing monarchs. I have very fond memories of helping my entomologist partner to do this many years ago. Beautiful pictures. 🙂

  3. wandena clair says:

    Very nice write-up on the butterflies, Kim. Enjoyed the pictures of the process. Mom

  4. QuietKeepers says:

    What an inspiring post, Kim, and such beautiful photos, too. I think you’ve convinced me to let more milkweed grow in my garden!

  5. Sharee says:

    Heartfelt! This brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing. What a special human being your boss is.

  6. Littlesundog says:

    I felt like I was right there alongside you, Kim! What a wonderful day… thank you for sharing this amazing experience. 🙂

    • I bet you would love doing this too, Lori. It’s a lot easier than caring for some of the mammals you’ve taken in! You just need access to a reliable supply of milkweed that hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals. I can just imagine the wonderful blog posts you would write about this experience!

  7. Oh Kim thank you for sharing this wonderful experience, I have seen it happen in the wild and was in awe, just like you. So delicate and beautiful. Tell your boss she is so very cool. Life is precious, you only have to watch a butterfly to realise this. Thanks for the stunning images, its a great way to start my Tuesday.

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