When the first part of this blog was posted our caterpillar was still inside its chrysalis; and it stayed inside for about 14 days. I was starting to wonder if something went wrong – usually the chrysalis becomes translucent but the one hanging outside our door was still very green. Was the butterfly ever going to emerge? Like a doting parent, I checked on it several times a day hoping that I would catch the moment when it began to crawl out of the chrysalis. As luck would have it, I came in one morning to find a butterfly clinging to the remains of the chrysalis. It stayed there for about an hour drying its wings before it lifted off and flew away.
It is at this point that this tale becomes a fictional story – I do not know for certain that the events I am about to describe happened to our butterfly, but being the optimist that I am, I am going to believe that they did. Unlike most butterflies that transform earlier in the season, Monarchs that become butterflies late in the summer or early in the fall do not begin to look for a mate. Instead, as I like to say to the kids that I teach, they decide to go on vacation...to Mexico! Yes, these fragile insects with their very delicate wings embark on a journey all the way to the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico - a journey of over 2,000 miles for some! Scientists are still studying how the Monarchs navigate but many believe they use their relative position to the sun along with the earth's gravitational pull to guide them.
Once they arrive in Mexico, they settle on the branches and bark of the oyamel fir trees where they will roost for the winter. Tens of thousands of Monarchs congregate on one tree, a spectacular sight to see for sure!
After winter, the butterflies will begin to head north and will mate and lay eggs usually somewhere around Texas, where the milkweed begins to grow. It is at this point that the story of our caterpillar will come to an end. Once the butterflies mate and lay eggs, they will die, and the cycle will continue with the newly hatched caterpillars. The Monarchs will continue heading north, mating and laying eggs. It may take up to four or five generations of butterflies to reach the meadows of New Jersey once again.
Pretty remarkable isn't it? Next time you see a Monarch butterfly this time of year, take a minute to think about how it's probably on its way to Mexico. Having watched them on a windy day, I think it is quite a miracle they ever make it!