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The Magic of Metamorphosis

September 9, 2019

nectaring monarchOne of the things I love about gardening is that it connects me to the wonders and beauty of the natural world. This summer, I have had a front-row seat for one of nature’s magical processes, metamorphosis.

Metamorphosis is a process of development in which an organism takes on dramatically different forms over the course of its life. Metamorphosis is quite common in the insect world, where many types of insects undergo a four-stage process in which an egg (stage 1) is deposited by an adult; a larva (stage 2) hatches out from the egg; after a period of growth, the larva encloses itself in a pupa (stage 3), and eventually emerges as an adult (stage 4).

We can see this process in such insect groups as flies, beetles and bees, but we are most aware of it in butterflies and moths. Butterfly and moth eggs are deposited on host plants, and caterpillars (larval stage) that hatch from the eggs feed on these plants. Caterpillars go through a process of growth through successive instars, where they shed their old skin and grow a new larger one. When they reach the largest instar, they form a pupa (chrysalis or cocoon). Inside that chrysalis or cocoon, the molecules of the caterpillar are rearranged to form the adult winged butterfly or moth that emerges at the end of the pupal stage.

My front-row view of the process this summer was provided by monarch butterflies. Monarch populations have declined dramatically in recent decades, and just seeing one in my garden has become a rare treat. Last year, after not seeing any for at least six years, I saw two in my garden. At least one of these deposited eggs on milkweed plants, where I saw as many as five monarch caterpillars feeding. I was thrilled.

But that turned out to be the merest preview to this year’s monarch show. Although Monarch Watch has reported that monarch populations are down in the United States Northeast region this summer, that report does not match the observations of gardeners on the ground in Maine. Throughout the state, gardeners have been reporting larger numbers of monarchs than they have seen in many years, with abundant eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and adult butterflies. I have seen as many as three dozen caterpillars feeding on a single morning, and I have seen more than two dozen chrysalises in my garden.

By the second half of July, I was seeing adult butterflies depositing eggs and caterpillars feeding on the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in my front garden. In late July, a few days after I saw my first-ever jade-green monarch chrysalis in the butterfly house at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, I spotted two hanging on low-growing foliage by my driveway.


fresh butterfly on butterfly weed butterfly weed caterpillars

In the weeks that followed, I got better at seeing the chrysalises hiding in plain sight on the foliage of plants. It got easier when monarch caterpillars feeding on the milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) by my back door began to pupate on the side of the house, leaving the house looking bejeweled.

pupating monarch house siding chrysalis

Since early August, I have seen a dozen and a half monarch butterflies emerge from their chrysalises, including four newborn butterflies yesterday and ten in the past eight days. And there are still six more chrysalises that I am watching. I never get tired of the wonderful process by which a fat striped caterpillar curls itself up and wraps itself in a case that seems too small to hold that much caterpillar and then transforms itself into a butterfly that unfurls from that same too-small case ten to fourteen days later.

Transparent chrysalisFor most of its life, the chrysalis is jade green. Then, a day or two before the butterfly will emerge, the chrysalis darkens, turning black and then becoming translucent so that you can see the butterfly wings folded up inside. When the butterfly emerges, it hangs onto the outside of the empty chrysalis case while it unfolds and dries its wings. Then it will open and close the wings to pump fluid into them and prepare to fly. Often, the new butterflies fly first to some nearby foliage where they continue to hang, alternately drying and pumping their wings. Eventually, they will flutter somewhat unsteadily off to more distant plants.

monarch emerging

The butterflies that emerged in my garden in the early weeks of August were short-lived insects focused on mating and depositing eggs. The ones emerging now, however, are the long-lived super-generation that will fly to Mexico, overwinter there, and then mate and lay eggs in the spring. Their offspring and their offspring’s offspring will make the trip north next year.

These butterflies are intent on finding nectar and ingesting calories to fuel their long migration. The flowers of fall sedum, with their nice big, flat “landing pad” blossoms are popular nectaring plants. I have also seen them nectaring on flowers of Liatris, Echinacea and Monarda. I’ve noticed, however, that the butterflies seem to disappear from my garden a day or two after they emerge. This may mean that there are not enough nectar sources for them and that they are flying off to better nectaring opportunities elsewhere in my neighborhood.

nectaring monarchs

I don’t know whether this year’s monarch abundance is a fluke or a sign of recovery for this species. I hope we will see a repeat performance next year. For now, I am enjoying the wonder and magic of metamorphosis.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2019 8:30 pm

    What a joy, Jean! We had a huge migration of painted ladies pass through SoCal on their way north from Mexico at the tail end of our rainy season but they didn’t lay eggs here and butterflies in general seemed in short supply this summer. There was a flurry of cloudless sulphurs here for a time but I’ve yet to see signs of the next generation munching on my Senna, a host plant. (I check periodically!) In the past week, I’ve seen a mass of marine blue butterflies (Leptotes marina) in my garden, which I’m taking as a positive sign. I just did a quick on-line search and found a single photo of the larval form of that tiny butterfly so I can be on the look-out for its progeny on my Plumbagos, one of its favorite host plants.

    • September 12, 2019 12:13 pm

      Kris, I had quite a few painted ladies in my garden a few years ago, but so only a couple of them this year. We have quite a few eastern tiger swallowtails here, but they have many host plants, including several tree species that grow on my property, so I’ve never seen their caterpillars feeding. The adults just fly down from the trees to nectar on a wide variety of plants in my garden and then fly up to the treetops again. The monarchs are such a treat because they have such a limited range of host plants and so are easy to keep an eye out for (and also because they’re big and beautiful).

  2. Claire Dick permalink
    September 10, 2019 7:48 am

    We now around the milkweed in our fields of Empire Rd, but the Monarchs have loved the Joe Pye weed. While in the garden, they may munch on Monarda or Echinacea but JPW is their favorite!

    • September 12, 2019 12:16 pm

      Claire, I’m amazed that you can grow Joe Pye weed. I consider it a swoon-worthy plant, but it likes more moisture than my sandy soil can provide. Do you have a moist spot where it thrives? I suspect my monarchs are flying off to nectar on the big swath of Japanese knotweed currently blooming along Lane Road.

  3. September 12, 2019 3:01 am

    Bonjour Jean
    I’am retired professor also…My english…is not very good…
    Now, I look the gardens blogs …in the world. I discovered your blog by the blog ” Late to the garden party ”
    I like yours photos…
    Good journey

    • September 12, 2019 4:50 pm

      Bonjour, Jacqueline. Bienvenue a mon jardin (et mon blog). J’espere que vous visiterer encore. (Votre anglais est meilleur que mon francais.)

  4. GARY permalink
    September 12, 2019 11:38 am

    I’m glad you’ve had success this year. Like I’ve stated before to you. This has been a banner year for me also. With the help of The wild Seed Project and Maine Audubon, after three years my yard was loaded with Monarch caterpillars and a few emerging Monarchs. I’m not sure if all the cats survived, (I heard the success rate is low) but I did see a few. I am happy that I can contribute to the revival of these beautiful butterflies. I have been documenting my sightings on the “Journey North” website. I heard UMaine is starting a record keeping database also that I plan on joining. Cheers!

    • September 14, 2019 12:27 pm

      Gary, Thanks for introducing me to the Journey North website. I’ll probably join it next year so that I can log my sightings there. If next year has anything like the monarch presence of this year, I will probably also register my garden with Monarch Watch as a “monarch waystation.”

      Two days ago, I came home from doing errands to find a new butterfly pumping up its wings near an empty chrysalis case that I had never even noticed hanging from the rhododendron near my back door. I still have four more chrysalises that I’m watching. If all four of those are successful, it will bring me to a total of 26 monarchs that have emerged in my garden this year!

      • GARY permalink
        September 14, 2019 1:16 pm

        That’s great Jean! I have registered my garden as a “monarch waystation.” I just have to post the sign now. Very cool.

  5. September 12, 2019 4:03 pm

    Great photographs. Anecdotally it does seem that there are more Monarchs this year. Let’s hope that the count in Mexico bears this out, and that next year’s numbers go even higher.

    • September 14, 2019 12:29 pm

      Jason, This is what I am also hoping for. But I am puzzled by the disparity between Monarch Watch’s report and what gardeners are observing.

      • September 18, 2019 3:18 pm

        Which report are you referring to? Their August newsletter says that numbers have been good through summer – though more in the midwest than in the northeast.

        • September 30, 2019 10:55 am

          Hi Jason, I have the report of Aug. 1 which said that “The exception is the northeast (east of Toronto in Canada, and most of eastern New York, Pennsylvania and north through New England). The colonization of those areas by first generation monarchs was scanty with low temperatures for the first half of June. Further, a colder than normal summer is predicted for most of that region which will retard population development. The migration in the east this fall will be on the low side relative to good years.” All I can assume is that those low numbers of first generation monarchs managed to reproduce more successfully than normal so that the numbers quickly increased in our gardens.

  6. September 13, 2019 8:41 pm

    Wow, what an exciting summer. Great photos!

  7. September 14, 2019 4:44 am

    Those monarch butterflies are so beautiful with their contrasting black and orange, like an exquisite stained-glass. We just seem to have cabbage whites and dull moths about the garden. I hope these bounties of butterflies are not a rare one-off event for you.

    • September 14, 2019 12:32 pm

      Sunil, They are beautiful, and I have also noticed the similarity to stained-glass windows. It’s easy to see why these beautiful creatures, with their amazing 3000-mile migration, have become such an icon of environmental degradation and species loss. I think we are all fervently hoping that this year’s bounty will be repeated.

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