Marie arrived at Grandma's and Grandpa's place on Cross Lake early Saturday evening with her family. She walked into the house carrying some sort of box covered with a white flour sack dishtowel. "Do you want to see our caterpillars?" asked the almost teen-ager.
She removed the dishtowel cover revealing a low-sided, clear, acrylic storage box. The bottom was lined with damp paper towel. Several wide and dark green leaves lay on top of the paper towel along with a few short lengths of sticks.
Sure enough, a black, white and yellow striped creature rested on one of the leaves. "Which end is his head?" someone asked after studying the two-inch insect.
"The end with the long antennae is his head. The shorter antennae are at the other end," the proud pet owner informed. She pointed to another leaf. "See, there's a smaller one, too."
"Where?" Grandma asked. "That tiny little thing?" she continued as she spotted the three-eighths-inch version of the bigger caterpillar. "Are you sure that's the same kind? How did you ever find it?!"
Marie explained that she had been looking for it, and that was how she'd found it. "And they grow really fast," she explained. "He was even smaller when we got him."
The tiny caterpillar hardly moved, but there were significant holes in the leaf under him, close to his head. "He's obviously been eating," someone commented. "They eat and poop," explained Marie's mom. The rest of us nodded in agreement as we noted the droppings on the paper towel. Some clearly were made by the full-grown caterpillar and other miniature droppings by his miniature cousin.
The caterpillar begins as quarter-inch larva emerging from an egg laid on the leaf of a milkweed plant. The larva goes through five molts, called instars, to become a mature caterpillar, and the caterpillar goes through several more molts.
Now Marie and her family are watching closely for the full-grown caterpillar to form a 'J' shape and, in a matter of minutes, begin to shed its skin. The pale green pupa takes the caterpillar's place, and the new jade green skin dries and hardens.
Over just a few short weeks, the monarch butterfly will go from tiny egg to larva to pupa, and finally to colorful butterfly. Then in August or September, this frail and beautiful "flying flower" will migrate toward Mexico. It will reproduce along the way, and its offspring will complete the journey.
Meanwhile, the milkweed leaves in the plastic container in Crosslake are looking rather worse for wear. Marie asked, "Grandma, do you have any milkweed here?"
"Look near the irises by the boat," Grandma suggested. When Marie didn't find the wide-leafed plant with the fine hairs that she's familiar with, Grandma went outside to help. There are roughly 2,400 species in the milkweed family, most of which are found in Africa and tropical America. Grandma found the pink flowered swamp milkweed growing just on the shore near the pontoon boat. This second of about 100 species found in America has much narrower leaves.
Marie looked the plant over closely, concerned that her caterpillars might not care for that variety. "I found another one!" she exclaimed. "It's maybe a little smaller than the little one," she confirmed as she placed the fresh milkweed and the third caterpillar carefully in the plastic container.
Soon the new roommate and the other two monarch caterpillars will begin their long journey, both in distance and in appearance. But first they begin with the van ride back to the Twin Cities after the adventurous and educational weekend at Grandma's and Grandpa's.
(Diane McCormack is a correspondent for The Brainerd Dispatch and a freelance writer living in north central Minnesota. Send comments or feedback to email@example.com.)
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