It's been Labor Day for the Monarchs here in Maine. If these insects could go into what we humans call "labor" they are emerging with great effort and poise. I watch one break free from its confining case this week. As some of you know there are clues to an imminent emerging...the green chrysalis becomes clear and you can see the newly formed wings inside. A close look reveals the case to separate from the butterfly inside. A crack down the side near the wings enables the insect to drop down, then hang by its legs as its wings enlarge and harden. (You can see this happening in the picture to the left. This chrysalis was formed by a caterpillar inside a plastic container. It is attached to the inside of the lid by a black stalk.)
There is a pumping action as the fluid within the abdomen circulates into the wings. Finally, wastes are ejected as the wings reach normal size. In the picture to the right, the butterfly has emerged and climbed up to hang on the empty case. Notice how small the wings are. The abdomen is large. You should be able to see the antenna and a piece of the curved tongue, already flexed. If you were to count the legs you might be surprised to find only 4. This is a curious discovery for an insect what should have 6. However, those two pointed appendages, looking like ears, are the 5th and 6th legs I believe. They are much reduced in size for a reason that is beyond my knowledge.
Finally, having witnessed this sequence of events, I carry the perfectly formed butterfly out to my garden of Black Eyes Susans to prepare for its first, unrehearsed flight. The weather has been cooperative - clear skies and soft breezes to lift the butterfly skyward. What a thrill to see the results of their labor!
Considering the Mexican destination of these butterflies, one can understand how easy it is to get caught up in the miracle of their migrational flight. Here are some thoughts from the book, "Chasing Monarchs", written by Robert Pyle, while observing them in their over wintering habitat.
"On a stump by the edge of
the footpath in the forest of El Rosario, I am
among the Mexican monarchs once more. Struggling in the dust, fluttering in
the bushes, unwinged by orioles or disembodied by grosbeaks, but mostly
whole and aloft or arrayed in the firs, they fill every space with their
orange bustle and dun repose. Their forms--deltoid across the green and
sunstruck distance--launch, drop, fall, rise, slip sideways through the
terpene-sweet air. Mesmerized by the black flitter in the dust and its
citrus shadows on the air, I perch as inert as the bundled butterflies
hanging from the still-shadowed boughs. Over my own heart, I hear the soft
whirr of millions of wings fanning the alpine air.
At Sierra Chincua, beyond the
Llano de Papos, where I first saw the winter
monarchs, the air seemed filled with monarchs until a cloud covers the sun,
the trees' burden explodes into flight, and the sky thickens with moving
wings. The scents of oyamel and yerba buena seem to ride on the satin
rustle of countless wings. Sounds of Velcro, zippers, nylon, and clicking,
buzzing cameras; soft voices; minutes of nothing but the breeze and the
susurrus of fanning wings and fastening tarsi.
Monarchs drop from the willowware
sky onto tough-leaved, scrubby oaks, onto
my limbs, my writing hand, my hot skin. The oak leaves shine red and green,
the monarchs against them shimmer with an almost inner light as of ancient
amber. Some have wings clipped by circumstance, truncated by encounter,
chipped, bitten, torn, scratched, rubbed, or lost altogether. Others are
perfect: I can make out their scale rows, as deep and rich as fox fur in
February. The stirring, flicking shadows pass over hypnotically, like
speeded-up cloudlets. And the sailing: overhead, out in front, down below
against the dark fir wall, every possible direction every second.
Feinting, falling, swooping and
soaring, flicking, hovering, floating;
lighting, lifting, yawing, gliding; volplaning, parachuting, and stalling.
Fine and swooping, like long Mexican lashes, butterfly tongues suck salt
from denim on my knee and thigh, from my shoulder, from my sweated page. And
as I lean back and cross my hands over my watering eyes to see the
butterflies against the sun, a pale monarch alights on my fingers and drinks
my very tears." (pp. 219-220)
I close with a picture of Liz setting some Monarchs out for their first flight.... 9/11/05 High flying Ronnie