May 1, 2011
The white spot near the center of this photo is proof of a successful journey. It is an egg. The female that laid it flew some 1500 miles to get to the meadow behind my house, where she and at least one other monarch butterfly have been fluttering around for a week or two depositing eggs, one at a time, on butterfly weed and common milkweed plants.
Their earliest eggs have already hatched. This weekend I saw caterpillars so small they must have just hatched and a couple that looked like they've had a few good meals. They will eat for several weeks, molt several times, and eventually attach themselves to a leaf or stem with silk, form a hard shell over their bodies and begin metamorphosis into a gorgeous orange, black and white butterfly.
The monarchs flitting about my meadow right now are not so gorgeous. The wear and tear of their flight to and from the mountains of Mexico clearly shows.
Not only are the wing edges tattered, the scales are worn or absent, leaving dull colors. Though monarchs are talented enough flyers to glide on a breeze, she has undoubtedly flapped those wings millions of times. Her abdomen is bare. Despite her appearance, her attitude is pure butterfly: exuberant, whimsical and sunny.
Here she is laying the egg pictured above:
Her offspring with be beautiful and richly colored, and they will seek mates in the meadows of Blount county, lay eggs on the same milkweed plants, and their offspring will grow big, pupate, emerge gorgeous and undertake the journey to Mexico before freezing temperatures arrive. One or two will return next spring, as they have for millions of years.
It all starts with an egg and a tiny caterpillar that will probably never wander from its natal milkweed until it grows wings.