September 4, 2011

The Patterns of the Monarch

There are many beautiful caterpillars, brightly colored or marvelously fuzzy, and the caterpillar of the Monarch butterfly is one. I spotted this brilliantly striped insect a couple of days ago, on the leaf of a milkweed plant, and was surprised to see one so late in the season. I watched it feed on the edge of a leaf, moving its mouth quickly down its edge – chomp, chomp, chomp – then up again, just like I eat an ear of corn. The pattern of movement also sent me back to the days of the manual typewriter: at the end of each line of type a "ka-ching" with the pressing of the return lever.

Nearby a monarch butterfly was hanging quietly from some grass, its wings closed. I assumed that it was newly hatched from its chrysalis and was drying its wings, but I might be wrong. Its bold patterning of orange and black, with white spots on body and wing edges, is eye-catching and unmistakable when we see them flying about. I find it fascinating that there is no relationship in color or type of pattern from the caterpillar to the butterfly, except that the caterpillar has small white spots on its little black legs, not visible in the photo above. The most remarkable pattern of this butterfly are its patterns of migration: spanning 3 or 4 generations, the monarchs migrate many hundreds of miles each year; our Northeastern Monarchs will journey all the way to Mexico during winter.

In the fragility of lovely butterflies, their floating through air, their metamorphic life cycles and short life spans, we find metaphor, as in Emily Dickinson's poem:
From cocoon forth a butterfly
As lady from her door
Emerged – a summer afternoon –
Repairing everywhere,

Without design, that I could trace,
Except to stray abroad
On miscellaneous enterprise
The clovers understood.

Her pretty parasol was seen
Contracting in a field
Where men made hay, then struggling hard
With an opposing cloud,

Where parties, phantom as herself,
To Nowhere seemed to go
In purposeless circumference,
As 't were a tropic show.

And notwithstanding bee that worked,
And flower that zealous blew,
This audience of idleness
Disdained them, from the sky,

Till sundown crept, a steady tide,
And men that made the hay,
And afternoon, and butterfly,
Extinguished in its sea.


  1. So interesting re timing of your post as i just came across 2 of these caterpillars on some milkweed and i thought the same thing re being late-also they were on some very young-small-plants!

    I don't know if you are familiar with Jane Urquhart, a Canadian author, but I think you might enjoy her new book; 'Sanctuary Line'-(monarch migration, farming) beautifully written...

  2. It's all such an amazing process. I've been lucky enough to watch a load of caterpillars from hatchlings through various stages to chrysalis and then emergence and it really is such a magical, awe-inspiring thing. Your observations are beautiful, thank you.

  3. the caterpillar looks positively wearable...

  4. Jan, thanks for the book recommendation; I'll take a look.
    Alice, I agree that the life cycle of the Monarch is quite amazing. I've never seen the entire process, which must be fascinating.
    rappel, the colors and pattern of that caterpillar would be quite a gorgeous outfit; your comment made me think about a coat of those colors, maybe not as many as Joseph's, but still quite stunning.

  5. Here in Chicago we've had so few Monarchs this year that my friend who raises eggs into butterflies for a hospice project has found virtually none. Some people have speculated that due to the rising use off GMO crops that can tolerate routine spraying of Round-up, the Monarchs food source of milkweed has been highly diminished. Monsanto, of course, pooh-poohs this theory.

  6. Julie, that's a terrible thing to hear about the lack of eggs. I've read about the controversy regarding Roundup and butterflies; of course the industry downplays the ill effects of their supposedly benign herbicide.