One summer a few years ago I went caterpillar-hunting on the Iowa farm where I grew up, and where my mother was still living. I was hunting the kind of striped caterpillars that turn into monarch butterflies. Since they eat only milkweed leaves, all I had to do is find some.
Behind the shed were a few. Underneath the leaf of one was a one-incher–tiny stripes of green, black, white. It was alert, its head moving purposefully, waving thread-like antennae.
A leaf on another plant had a tiny white dot underneath. Probably a newly hatched larva.
My plan was to find one or two that I could bring home at the end of the summer and watch them turn into butterflies.
As a girl on the farm, I’d found a monarch’s chrysalis in an empty shed. Instead of the off-white hairy cocoon of a woolly worm, this jeweled chrysalis was a luminescent soft green studded with gold.
But I had not seen that butterfly emerge, and that was my goal–to get in on that event.
The next time I was at the farm, I hiked to where I’d noticed milkweed at the south end of the soybean patch. Where was it? Gone. Mom’s renter had just done what farmers were supposed to do with milkweed.
Gone–a whole crop of monarch larvae.
There was one more plant to check near the barn. Eurkea! It was being grazed by a two-incher. I harvested the entire plant plus its diner.
“Do you have a jar or something I can have?” I asked my mother.
“I found a pre-chrysalis monarch.”
“A worm? You’re kidding!” she said.
“Nope. I’m taking him home so I can watch him hatch.”
Mom found a small bucket. I tucked in the weed with the worm, and added another chunk of milkweed so he’d have plenty to eat. The plump striped fellow rode back to town chewing on a leaf, which was sticking out of a bucket just below the glove box.
It was a docile traveler nearly all the way home. But when we were close to the city, it decided to explore. It started to crawl onto the console of the car. I swiveled the plant away, but it began to swing his front half around, swaying, searching.
I tried to rotate the weed at stoplights, between shifting gears. This was the first time I’d ever taken a loose larva anywhere. As a child, I’d always dealt with such wild creatures by transporting them in jars with holes in the lid.
This was going to be hard to explain if I got stopped for erratic driving.
When I pulled into the driveway, the caterpillar was still safely on the milkweed. I carried the precious cargo to an old table behind the house.
I rested a piece of driftwood against the milkweed. I hoped he’d form the chrysalis right on that piece of wood. A green and gold chrysalis. And I could watch my monarch butterfly emerge.
My husband shook his head.
Before going to bed, I check on the worm. All was well. He was resting, tucked underneath a large leaf.
Early the next day, caterpillar was up and at ’em, already at breakfast. But when I checked an hour later, it was gone. I hunted and hunted, under and around the table.
“A bird probably ate it,” my husband offered.
“The book says they have no enemies because they taste so awful,” I replied. “He’s probably at work on his chrysalis somewhere right now.”
“How far could it get in an hour?” he asked.
A caterpillar with a purpose, he’d left the only food around. It was obviously chrysalis time. I searched every piece of wood I could find. Nothing.
Later that year I wondered whether “my” monarch got the chance to become a butterfly. Whether it joined the migration south in the fall. And did it indeed get to spend the winter in the moist highlands of Mexico, awaiting spring?
Published in The Christian Science Monitor, January 26, 1998.