Monarch Butterfly Migration
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Photographer and Writer Serving Houston, Galveston,
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1912 Triple Mast Circle
League City, Texas
Phone: (281) 538-0579
Fax: (281) 538-0579
All Photographs Al Ruscelli, Photographer
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League City Elementary
Texas Monarch Butterfly Migration
photos copyright Al Ruscelli
Well, dang . . .
I'm pretty sure
that's what I mumbled to myself. Or, perhaps it was Imagine that . .
. or Well, Ill be . . . Or, it might have even been a
phrase unrepeatable in this publication.
Whatever it was
that I said to myself, if was definitely an expression of astonishment.
I'm pretty sure I had to consciously go about closing my mouth, since my
jaw had dropped (I'm certain) nearly to the floor.
I reached for my
camera, but I realized that I was already too late. Dottie Bishop had
not been kidding me when she said the whole process would take only
about 20 minutes.
Blink you're eyes
and you'll miss it, I believe is what Dottie told me. Right, Dottie.
Sure. Blink my eyes and Ill miss it. Uh huh.
with a macro lens, trying to quickly attach it to my camera without
dropping the whole unit on the kitchen floor, I stared into the
10-gallon terrarium on the table. Inside the gravel-bottomed tank were
two glass containers with enough water to keep the milkweed stems
jutting up out of them at least somewhat healthy for a few days.
Hanging from the
bottom side of a milkweed leaf was a writhing, green, cocoon-like
creature. The creature had been, only moments before (I swear to you,
ladies and gentlemen of the jury), a black-and-yellow striped
caterpillar -- one of those that eventually turns into a monarch
butterfly. Just a short time earlier, I had looked into the terrarium
and verified that the caterpillar was still hanging from the bottom the
leaf to which he/she/it had attached him-/her-/itself the day before.
For about a day,
the caterpillar had been hanging upside down in a j shape somewhat
similar to a candy cane suspended wrong-side-up from a Christmas tree.
After 24 hours of hanging like this, the caterpillar was looking none
too well, I thought. It would twitch once in a while, but I could see
this only if I looked very closely and for a very long time. The
caterpillars antennae hung downwards, looking rather unhealthy, and no
longer stood up in their previous attentive manner.
A half hour
earlier, I had tried to call Dottie and ask her opinion of the
caterpillars condition. I hadn't been able to get through to her and
was forced into a wait-and-see mode. In another half hour, I had
friends coming by for some holiday portrait work, and I was trying to
get ready for their arrival. I had taken the camera that I was using to
get photographs of the caterpillar and set it aside. I needed to use
the tripod for the portraits. So, I was in the middle of taking a few
minutes to set up for the family photos.
And I apparently
As I was passing
though the kitchen for some little odd or end that I needed (cant even
remember what it was now), I happened to glance into the terrarium.
In its place was
the green cocoon. Well, more accurately, in its place was a chrysalis.
(I learned that word from the students at League City Elementary
School.) The chrysalis looked something like a miniature, light green
jalapeņo pepper. Or, perhaps a something like one of the old, screw-in
Christmas tree lights they used to make before they invented the
itsy-bitsy, twinkly ones they have these days. Or maybe the chrysalis
looked more like a green jelly bean brought to life by some mad
scientist. Well, something like that anyway . . .
All of my hopes of
catching on camera the brief period of metamorphosis from caterpillar to
chrysalis had come crashing down. My plan had been to capture on film
the thrilling, moment-to-moment change from caterpillar to cocoon.
Audiences would marvel at the timing it took to catch this incredible
wonder of nature in action, frame by frame. National Geographic, I
heard myself saying, here I come.
Ha, ha. Now, the
best I could potentially manage would be a picture of a caterpillar
followed by a picture of a cocoon (sorry, I mean chrysalis). Maybe,
if I got lucky, Id eventually end up with a picture of a monarch
butterfly, too. Then I could point at the three photos say to the
National Geographic talent agents, Caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly.
You see, its all very simple. Any questions?
(Whatever a humbug is. I probably couldn't get a photo of one of
those either. At least, not if a transformation into a chrysalis stage
had anything to do with it.)
Well, enough of my
failures as a documentary-level photographer. I missed my Kodak moment
in the sun.
So, let's move on
to the real success story here: that of the teachers (Dottie Bishop, et
al) at League City Elementary, the students, and their schools Outdoor
Habitat. For the second year in a row, these students (pre-K through
5th grade) and teachers have been successfully attracting monarch
butterflies via smart planning and planting of things like milkweed that
The monarchs laid
their eggs, which eventually hatched into tiny yellow-and-black striped
caterpillars that ate and ate and ate milkweed and grew into giant
yellow-and-black striped caterpillars. After the caterpillars ate their
fill of milkweed over the period of a couple of weeks, they entered
their pupal phase and performed their quick transformation into the
chrysalis. Then, they sat for a couple of more weeks before emerging as
From beasts to
beauties with a quick stop in between as giant, writhing, green
teachers, and other volunteers at League City Elementary dutifully
catalog the arrival of the butterflies, the hatching of their eggs into
caterpillars, the transformation of the caterpillars into the chrysalis
stage, and the emergence of the monarchs.
at League City Elementary are tagging the butterflies as part of the
Texas Monarch Watch. The Texas Monarch Watch is part of a larger
international effort to find out more about the migratory patterns of
the butterflies. In Texas, the southern migration is tracked mainly
during September and October, with some stragglers moving through (or
hatching out) as late as November. A northern migration takes place in
the spring, during March, April, and May.
butterflies emerge from the chrysalis, the tricky part (for the humans,
anyway) takes place.
tiny, sticky, paper identification tags are affixed to the butterflies
wings to help chart their 3000-mile southern migration (from as far
north as Canada to as far south as Mexico City). The identification
tags used by the League City Elementary students are supplied by the
Department of Entomology at the University of Kansas, where researchers
gather data on the monarch migrations.
Dottie has fielded
all kinds of questions about how you go about tagging butterflies.
People ask me,
How would you band the leg of a little butterfly? Of course, then Id
have to explain to them that its not really banding the leg, rather
its tagging them. The first time we had to use glue and that was kind
of messy, but we managed. Then they came up with the little, round,
stick-on tags. That worked so much better, like the new self-adhesive
butterflies is perhaps not as dangerous or involved a process as, for
instance, tagging a bear or a whale, but it is a very delicate operation
to say the least. (Not to worry -- if done carefully it doesn't harm
the butterflies at all. In fact, they are evidently able to travel
unhindered for thousands of miles with these tags attached, as evidenced
by the later capture of some of their numbers far south of the Rio
butterflies emerge from the chrysalis, they are somewhat sluggish and
moist for a while. It takes them a couple of hours or so to orient
themselves to the world outside of the chrysalis. During this time,
their wings are not as delicate and powdery as they eventually become,
and it is safe to carefully handle them for long enough to attach a
sticky tag to one of the wings. The tags are circular (about
three-eighths inches in diameter) and contain a mailing address and
tracking number. If a tagged butterfly is later spotted and caught by
one of the volunteers in the migration watch, the tag information is
copied and relayed to researchers who compile the data.
Via this data, the
researchers can track when, where, and by whom the butterfly was tagged
and when, where, and by whom the tag information was retrieved. Data on
migratory patterns is thus gathered and documented.
The first spring
season that the League City Elementary team tried to attract
butterflies, they did everything right except for recognizing the
monarchs in their caterpillar stage.
When we first set
up our Outdoor Habitat, Dottie says, we set up a butterfly garden that
was about 50 feet long and about 10 feet wide. We had planted beautiful
butterfly plants in there and flowers that were all in bloom and green.
We went out there later on and there were these worms (caterpillars)
all over the place.
We said, These
worms are eating up all of our plants. How dare they! So one of the
teachers, Theresa Wenzel, got a book out and looked through it and she
found out that those worms were monarch caterpillars that would each
form a chrysalis and become monarch butterflies. So, we all felt a
little better about that.
As of the present
date, this years monarch migration south has just about come to a
close. A few late-hatching caterpillars (like the ones I am studying)
are metamorphosing into their chrysalis states, and (with a little luck)
they might have a shot at beating the winter weather south. But, with a
12-day period in the chrysalis stage, that puts my last guy (gal?) at
emerging from his (her?) cocoon on roughly December 1. (Yikes! Maybe
he/she can hail a cab or something)
For anyone who
would like to know more about the monarch butterfly migration, there are
a couple of avenues to explore.
Those who have an
Internet connection can check out the Monarch Watch
web page at the following location:
This web page
lists many details associated with this project, such as when, where,
why, and how to get involved in tracking the butterfly migration.
Additionally, detailed migratory maps are shown, and the processes for
collecting monarch eggs and tagging the butterflies are explained.
Links to other monarch and wildlife web sites can also be found there.
As an alternative
Internet method for locating information on the monarchs, a search may
be performed on monarch or monarch butterfly or Monarch
Butterfly Project using one of the many search engines available
on the Internet.
As for my own
participation in this years monarch migration, I've been limited to a
couple of trips to the League City Elementary Outdoor Habitat, as well
as studying the caterpillars supplied to me by Dottie Bishop.
On the surface,
all of the activities of the caterpillars appear to be very slow and
methodical. They seem to be part of a life that
takes place at about one-tenth normal speed, if one judges by
appearances and slow movement alone. In reality, however, the
stages in the life cycle of these creatures move very rapidly.
hatch within about three days. The caterpillars, nearly
microscopic in size when they hatch out, grow to the thickness of a
pencil and nearly two inches long in 15 days.
Even though they
move slowly, they eat ravenously and grow quickly. The
transformation into the chrysalis, as I have said, takes only minutes.
The chrysalis stage lasts about 10 to 12 days, before the emergence of
the butterfly. After a little drying time, the monarchs might
linger in the garden for a bit, but it wont be long before they're off
into the winds and south to
Mexico . . . or north to Canada, depending on the season.
As to morals of
this story? I've learned one or two lessons, thus far. Ill share one:
If you ever want
to catch the amazing metamorphosis of the monarch caterpillar into a
chrysalis (and eventually
into a monarch butterfly), I have two words of caution: Don't blink.
Thanks for the
warning, Dottie. Ill pay closer attention next season.
Story and Photographs by
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