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Monarchs and Mother-wisdom

My parents visited last week. They live in Boston, and it was the first time I’d seen them in 15 months. In recent years, with the exception of 2020, they’ve made annual pilgrimages to join us during the last week of May for the fairy flights of the blue ghost fireflies.

Just before my parents arrived, I found two tiny monarch caterpillars in the patch of milkweed I have passively cultivated for the past several years. I showed them to my mom, who was delighted. She encouraged me to bring them in and raise them, protected from predators and other fatal impediments to their life’s journey. She tells me that she’s had a lot of success raising caterpillars to maturity.

I was skeptical, so I checked my trusted internet sources. The Xerces Society (world renown defenders of invertebrates) recommends against mass rearing, with good reasons. That was good enough advice for me, so I resisted my mom’s urging and left the baby monarch “cats” to their own defenses. Over a few days, I watched them grow into healthy-looking caterpillar children. A couple days after my parents departed, I checked on the milkweed patch. The monarchs were gone, leaving behind only ragged scars on the milkweed leaves and a tiny pile of frass (caterpillar turds). Perhaps they were stolen away by hungry ants or sucked dry by an assassin bug. In any case, they were gone, without a chance to travel the continent as orange butterfly royalty.

Baby monarch caterpillar
Baby monarch caterpillar, growing itself on milkweed.

As I continued to search the milkweed leaves, I found a brand new caterpillar, millimeters from its split egg. I thought about what my mom said. And I thought about what I’d just been saying to a documentary filmmaker about humans being a keystone species. When you are a keystone species, you are compelled to go above and beyond to bolster your fellow earth-citizens. I pledge not to disrupt the strength of the wild population by captively raising thousands of immune-weakened monarchs, but I will read up on how to responsibly raise monarchs. And this one I’ll take under my wing (beyond simply encouraging the milkweed patch). My mother, like any good mom, thinks it best to tend young critters into maturity. Like a good son, I’ll heed her wisdom.

Common milkweed leaf node (stem joint)
I recently noticed that the leaf nodes of common milkweed feature a row of tiny black dots, a pattern very reminiscent of baby monarch caterpillars. Though it must be the other way around...

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