Monarch Butterfly Migration

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AL RUSCELLI - WRITER AND PHOTOGRAPHER
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League City Elementary School Tracks
Texas Monarch Butterfly Migration

Story and photos copyright Al Ruscelli
 

Monarch caterpillar, copyright Al Ruscelli Photography     Monarch chrysalis, copyright Al Ruscelli Photography     Monarch butterfly and caterpillar, copyright Al Ruscelli Photography

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. 

The "study" tank, copyright Al Ruscelli PhotographyFumbling around 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. 

Caterpillar just before chrysalis stage, copyright Al Ruscelli Photography 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 blinked. 

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. 

The caterpillar was gone. 

Minutes into the chrysalis stage, copyright Al Ruscelli PhotographyIn 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 . . .

The solidifying, smoothed out chrysalis, copyright Al Ruscelli PhotographyAll 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?

The chrysalis fully set, copyright Al Ruscelli PhotographyBah humbug.  (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 attract monarchs. 

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 butterflies. 

From beasts to beauties with a quick stop in between as giant, writhing, green jellybeans. 

The students, 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. 

The participants 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. 

Holding cage for caperpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly, copyright Al Ruscelli PhotographyAfter the butterflies emerge from the chrysalis, the tricky part (for the humans, anyway) takes place. 

Whenever possible, 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 postage stamps. 

Tagging the monarch butterfly, copyright Al Ruscelli PhotographyTagging the 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 Grande.) 

When the 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. 

The tagged monarch, still in the drying stage, copyright Al Ruscelli PhotographyVia 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. 

Dottie laughs. 

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:

http://www.monarchwatch.org/

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. 

A voracious caterpillar, copyright Al Ruscelli PhotographyAs 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.  One chrysalis, one empty chrysalis, copyright Al Ruscelli PhotographyEggs 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.

Caterpillar, left, and monarch butterfly, right, copyright Al Ruscelli Photography

 

 

 

Story and Photographs by Al Ruscelli .

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