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Selected Podpieces


Monarch butterfly chrysalis

Someone has been eating my caterpillars.


After a native plant sale last spring, I ended up with scads of minuscule Asclepias tuberosa seedlings. This is familiarly known as butterfly weed, and in mid-to late summer it bursts forth in gorgeous bright orange flowers. It's a member of the milkweed family (as you can tell by the name Asclepias), and therefore it meets the nutritional needs of the larvae of the Danaus plexippus, known to most Cape Codders as the Monarch butterfly caterpillar.

The little seedlings hadn't sold at the sale because they'd been woken up from the winter too early, and they shivered and shrank and their weensy little leaves and stems blackened and died in the frigid May weather. I brought them home and put them in pots around my deck and yard in hopes they'd survive for next year's sale.

They grew, and prospered; and in July, Monarch butterflies began visiting my yard. They'd flutter around sipping nectar from my coneflowers, and then they'd flutter purposefully toward my deck and land on my baby butterfly weeds. After a second or two, away they'd go.


And time after time, I found infinitesimal eggs, tiny white dots smaller than a 12-point New Times Roman period, on the underside of a leaf.


But time after time, when I came outside the next morning, the little eggs had disappeared.


The Monarch Predators had struck. Ants. Praying mantises. Wasps. Spiders. Any or all of them voraciously creeping through my baby butterfly weeds, stripping out the eggs.


Now and then, though, an egg or two got lucky, and I'd come outside to find a pinprick of a hole in a leaf, or a nibbled edge, and somewhere in the plant was the tiniest little monarch caterpillar you ever saw, wee-er than an eyelash. As I watched, it would chomp away at the butterfly weed leaf; if I'd had enough patience, I could have seen it grow before my very eyes. According to some website, the typical monarch increases in mass by 2,000 times while it's a caterpillar.


But just because it's a caterpillar now, with those scary green and yellow and black strips that are supposed to scare away predators, doesn't mean it's safe. No matter how big the little caterpillar was at the end of a day, whether ten or a thousand times the size it had been that morning, it would be gone when I came outside the next day. Someone had eaten it. A spider, a lizard, a mouse. Some big bug.


Finally, one lucky caterpillar grew to be two inches long and very fat and juicy-looking. I had high hopes for his fate.
And he disappeared.

Well, I thought, he might have formed his chrysalis; he might be dangling in mid-air somewhere, slowly turning into a monarch butterfly. I searchewd all over. The edge of the flower pot, the bottom side of the deck, nearby chairs and tables, the bottom of the old charcoal grill that is now a flower pot. And suddenly, a smooth green cylindrical shape caught my eye.


Sure enough, a beautiful monarch chrysalis, pale green with a row of glistening golden dots, was dangling from the leaf of a canna lily.


I hurriedly took pictures to send to my friends and relations, and I proudly showed it to unsuspecting visitors who pretended to be delighted. I would soon have my own monarch butterfly!


Now, I suspect that you suspect that a dire fate befell my chrysalis. And you may be right. When I came out this morning, the chrysalis had been dislodged. It was still hanging from the canna lily leaf, but it was dangling lower, attached by what look like spider silk.


I carefully brought the pot inside. It's on my sunporch now, between the snake plant and a ceramic horseshoe crab. I don't have too much hope for its long-term survival and development, but I'm giving it a chance. I'm hoping to get up some morning and wander bleary-eyed onto the sunporch with my cup of coffee, and see a beautiful monarch butterfly drying its newly-emerged wings on the edge of the breakfast table.


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