Two weeks ago, I set out in search of milkweed hoping to find an egg laid by a Monarch butterfly. With no previous egg-hunting experience, I was armed only with what I had read in the terrific book “My Monarch Journal” by Connie Muther and Anita Bibeau. The book gives step-by-step instructions, accompanied by detailed, close-up photos, of how to raise a Monarch butterfly whether from a kit or from nature. It also includes space on nearly every page for children to write or sketch their own observations about the butterfly's life cycle.
I came home from my expedition with what looked like a wart on a leaf. I was only 50 percent sure that what I had was in fact a Monarch egg, but we decided to watch and wait. Among a Monarch egg's distinguishing features are tiny vertical ribs. At first I couldn't see them, but then my daughter spotted them by holding the egg at just the right angle while looking through a magnifying glass.
Since then, we’ve gotten to see the egg hatch, a green, barely visible, wiggly speck emerge and grow with shocking speed into a fat, yellow, black and white-striped caterpillar.
The rearing process can be a little nerve-wracking. Monarch caterpillars, unlike Tussock Moth caterpillars, which we have also raised, eat only milkweed, and there's no milkweed near our house. I drive to a nearby patch each week and cut fresh stalks that I keep in a vase of water. We give our caterpillar a fresh leaf just about every day and clean out its ever-larger amounts of poop, known in the caterpillar world as frass. Once the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, we plan to tag and release it to help researchers track the annual Monarch migration from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico and back.
In October, look out for the IMAX documentary "Flight of the Butterflies," which follows the Monarch migration in 3D and tells the story of zoologist and Monarch Watch founder Fred Urquhart.