I mentioned in a recent column that one of my granddaughters caught fireflies by the dozens one evening and put them into a butterfly net cage temporarily while she ran off to catch more.
She released the fireflies after an evening of chasing and catching the glowing beetles, while inside that temporarily lighted net cage was a caterpillar that would eventually turn into a butterfly.
I thought I'd revisit the butterfly container here to explain its purpose and use. They can be found in stores such as United Art and Education and Hobby Lobby. Their purpose is to observe how caterpillars become butterflies, then release the new creatures into the wild.
A story by News-Sentinel reporter Kevin Kilbane this week was about the Little River Wetlands Project staff and volunteers who monitor monarch butterflies.
Metro editor Lisa Esquivel Long, is, in fact, one of those volunteers who find larvae that feed on milkweed before spinning their chrysalises and going through the miraculous change into monarch butterflies. She has often brought some of her own into the office so our staff could observe the metamorphosis first hand.
Butterflies have four distinct stages. They start as an egg, hatch into a caterpillar, turn into pupae during metamorphosis and finally emerge as a butterfly.
The orange-and-black monarch that migrates south each fall for winters in Mexico, may be the most familiar American butterfly. The tiger-striped caterpillars they come from are found exclusively on milkweed plants.
As our newspaper story pointed out this week, the monarch butterfly experienced a population decline last year, possibly from an ice and wind storm as they began their migration north from Mexico. That's one of the reasons for the Little River Wetlands Project in which volunteers walked nature preserves to check milkweed plants for monarch butterfly eggs and caterpillars and count any they found.
“This generation is headed to Canada,” Lisa said of the mid-summer monarchs. “Later this summer that generation will be going to Mexico.”
While adult monarchs feed on nectar from a variety of flowers, their caterpillars eat only milkweed plant leaves. The volunteers also look for chrysalises, then report their findings, which are sent to the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.
On my wife's dill plants each summer are larvae that she originally thought were harmful worms because they ate the plants in her herb garden. But once she realized the green caterpillars with black stripes transform into black swallowtail butterflies, she began to seek them out to contribute to the grandkids' education.
The black swallowtail larva that formed its chrysalis overnight last week in my granddaughter's net cage could emerge in the next several days — the length of time inside a cocoon varies with different species and depends on other factors as well.
“It's amazing to watch how a butterfly emerges as a completely different creature from before it made its chrysalis,” Lisa told me. “And once emerged, it is extremely eager to get on its way.”
Kerry Hubartt is editor of The News-Sentinel