Save the monarchs!
No, not that one.
Most Americans are familiar with the monarch, the most photogenic of the butterflies.
The caterpillar is distinctive:
The monarch chrysalis looks like jewelry, complete with droplets of gold. (It’s not really gold, it’s a cool illusion—possibly one that makes other creatures think it’s a dew-covered leaf.) The monarch’s annual, multigenerational migration from Mexico to Canada and back again is a staggering achievement for such a small creature.
There are two groups of monarch butterflies: the eastern monarch and the western monarch. There might be some comingling at the Mexican wintering grounds, but mostly each group stays on its side of the continental divide.
I didn’t think much about monarchs until my niece in the east did a Boy Scout project giving out milkweed seeds to help increase the population. Monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on the milkweed plant (though there many, many types of milkweed). Once the eggs hatch, the monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed leaves. Milkweed is, according to most other species, nasty. Toxic, even. It makes monarchs more vibrantly orange, as well as unappetizing to predators.
The milkweed seeds my niece distributed probably wouldn’t thrive in Southern California, but her project got me googling. I learned that a) SoCal is part of the overwintering grounds for western monarchs, and b) western monarchs aren’t doing so well, either.
Since my husband’s garden had taken over the center of our backyard, I suggested we put a butterfly garden in next to the garage, where the vegetable garden used to be. Andy agreed and ordered some native milkweed.
Milkweed is known as a weed for a reason. Milkweed cannot be contained. Milkweed popped up all over our back and front yard. I potted extra plants and gave them away.
But it wasn’t until Christmas a few years ago that I found chrysalises all over our back patio. Chrysalises on our planters, our table, our bench, and even under the back step. Why so many? Why then?
Maybe it was because that particular Christmas was very cold, with snowstorms closing the freeways around Los Angeles. The tachinid flies, parasitoids who prey on monarch caterpillars, survive best in temperate weather; cold might have wiped them out before they could lay eggs on the milkweed.
Or it could have been because we had lost our remaining dog that fall (I’ll write that post when I can do it without crying so probably never). Without a big dog with big paws running around, the caterpillars could safely cross the patio and find more visible spots for their metamorphosis.
And so began my life as a caterpillar wrangler. I put wooden trellises in on the edges of the butterfly garden. From December to March, if I spotted a caterpillar motoring across The Patio of Death, I put the caterpillar on the trellis, lecturing said caterpillar: “The trellis is a safe place! Make your chrysalis HERE.” I often saved the same damned caterpillar repeatedly.
Sometimes I wondered if saving terminally stupid caterpillars would be detrimental to the species as a whole. Unfortunately, the western monarch population was decreasing precipitously. In the 1980s 4.5 million monarchs overwintered on the California coast. Overwintering monarchs declined to 1.2 million in 1997, which dropped to 293,000 in 2015. In 2019, the numbers fell to 30,000.
In 2020, less than 2,000 monarchs were counted.
So yeah, every caterpillar mattered. Even the idiots.
Despite my wrangling, I still found caterpillars building chrysalises in Very Bad Places.
I learned how to carefully scrape off the silk holding the chrysalis to the rocker (or the door, or the bench). The silk is incredibly strong; if I could scrape off enough, I could run a needle and thread through the silk and tie the chrysalis to a trellis. My sewing kit became a chrysalis-transplanting kit.
Not every monarch could be saved. Some caterpillars got stepped on. Some chrysalis stems or silk broke. Parasites were always a problem. Butterflies often fell while their wings were drying—either into a spiderweb, or on their backs where they were helpless. If I spotted them in time, I might be able to help them safely to a flower or trellis. Sometimes butterflies emerged with deformities. Then all I could do was get them to a patch of milkweed or a marigold and hope they enjoyed their short lives.
In December 2021, the western monarch overwintering population rebounded to an astounding count of 250,000. It’s not possible for the 2,000 butterflies counted in 2020 to have created such a population explosion; biologists speculate that uncounted monarchs must have found many different overwintering sites, perhaps created deliberately by newly aware, backyard conservationists (and some created accidentally by milkweed doing its weed on speed thing).
I like to think some of those monarchs had ancestors that survived The Patio of Death and emerged from a chrysalis in my backyard.