The Butterfly Effect

The butterfly effect is a theory that suggests that the simple act of a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world can affect weather patterns somewhere else. Whether that is literally the case might be open to question (I don’t understand the science of chaos theory, which is apparently where this idea came from), but I believe it’s true that small acts can have large ripple effects that we can’t predict.

I’ve been thinking about the butterfly effect over the last few weeks while we’ve been raising monarch butterflies. Twenty-five years ago, the population of monarch butterflies was about one billion; according to scientists, there are now only 33 million left – a staggering loss of these exquisitely beautiful creatures. The monarch’s winter habitat in the oyamel fir trees in the mountains of Mexico is endangered for a variety of reasons. The amount of milkweed, on which monarch caterpillars exclusively feed, has significantly decreased largely due to the indiscriminate use of pesticides, and encroaching development threatens the loss of wildflowers on which the adult butterflies feed. Fortunately, after the population reached a new low in 2013, it is now rebounding. One reason for the rebound, I’d like to think, is that in addition to well-organized institutional efforts to save the monarch, ordinary people like us are also helping. (Find out about the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and about efforts to monitor and increase the monarch butterfly population).

A few years ago, when we hired someone to help us redo our landscaping, we specifically requested that butterfly-friendly plants be included in the plan. In addition, as we were hearing about the serious decline in the monarch population, Dale gathered some milkweed seed pods from the wild and planted them in the backyard. I’ll admit that I wasn’t enthusiastic about planting something as invasive as milkweed, which I don’t think is particularly beautiful. And the reality is that each spring and summer, Dale pulls out many milkweed plants to keep them from completely taking over our small garden where we also like to plant tomatoes and other vegetables. For the first few years, we didn’t see many monarch caterpillars on the milkweed; in fact, if I’m remembering correctly, we didn’t see any until last year when there were just a couple. This summer, Dale started seeing more, but then he also found a couple dead ones. That’s when the rescue plan kicked into high gear.

Languishing in our basement for many years has been a small aquarium with a screen cover that our kids used for a variety of small pets. Having seen those caterpillar casualties in the backyard, Dale brought in several live ones and helped them set up residence in the aquarium. He supplied them with fresh milkweed each day, while we watched and waited for their transformation into chrysalises. When each beautiful yellow, black, and white-ringed caterpillar was ready, it first made its way to the screen at the top of the aquarium, and then it created silk with which to attach itself to the screen. Once it was attached, it hung head down from the silk in a J shape.

Monarch caterpillar into chrysalis

The middle caterpillar splitting and transforming into chrysalis; another is still in J-mode, and the other is a fully-formed chrysalis.

We missed the actual transformation to chrysalis for the first few caterpillars – we’d check, see that nothing was happening, come back ten minutes later, and there was the chrysalis and we had missed it again. But with perseverance and patience (more on Dale’s part than mine), we were finally able to watch and photograph the process. It took just a couple minutes from when the caterpillar swelled up and his head split open to when the skin dropped to the floor of the aquarium and the chrysalis was fully formed. And then we waited again – this time for the transformation into a butterfly, during which time, as Dale described in a poem he wrote, “[e]nzymes digest much of what was a caterpillar into a nutrient soup/that’s used by embryonic cells to form wings, antennae, legs,/eyes, genitals, and all the other parts of an adult butterfly” form inside the chrysalis. This final process takes about 10 days. Watch the caterpillar transform into a chrysalis.

Again, it was easy to miss the metamorphosis of the chrysalis into a butterfly, even though you can tell when it is about ready to happen because gradually over the course of one day the chrysalis begins to darken, then it turns black and transparent, and you can see the butterfly’s wings folded up inside. But the actual moment is hard to predict. We’d check, walk away, come back and look again, and there was the butterfly, on its way out. Again, with perseverance and patience, we finally saw the whole process. The tissue-paper-thin shell of the chrysalis splits open and what appears to be a small wrinkled butterfly starts coming out. At first, the body seems huge compared to the wings because they are still folded and curled, but within minutes, the wings unfurl like a flag and flatten out, and there’s a full-size adult butterfly! Watch the butterfly emerge from the chrysalis.

Newly emerged monarch butterfly

Newly emerged butterfly, still with wrinkled wings

Monarch butterfly emerging

Newly emerged and soon-to-emerge butterflies

Of course, our plan all along has been to release the butterflies into our backyard when they seem ready to fly. That moment is also hard to determine. We don’t want to keep them inside too long, but we also don’t want to release them before they’re ready. We’ve now released 12 butterflies, hoping they’ll be okay. Some stayed for a long time on the butterfly bush where we placed them, while some flew off into the nearby sweet gum tree. Sometimes Dale helped them out of the aquarium, and sometimes I did.

Newly released monarch

Newly released monarch on butterfly bush

Newly released butterfly in sweet gum tree

Newly released butterfly in sweet gum tree

We’ve “raised” a baker’s dozen. Twelve have successfully emerged into full-grown monarch butterflies and been released, and one remains in chrysalis stage and will probably emerge late this week. We don’t know how many of them would have survived if we had left them outside, but besides ensuring their survival to the butterfly stage, we have enjoyed watching this amazing process of “death” and rebirth, metamorphosis and transformation, and reflecting on its significance in the great scheme of things.

The life cycle of monarch butterflies illustrates the fragility of life and of the earth’s ecosystem, and how important it is to protect both. There are at least four generations each year, the first generation starting in Mexico and migrating northward in the spring, laying eggs and beginning the cycle. First, second and third generation butterflies live two to six weeks, while the fourth generation lives about seven months. Fourth generation butterflies are the ones that fly back to Mexico, winter there, lay their eggs, and produce the first generation that starts the annual cycle all over again. We’re hoping “our” butterflies are those fourth generation ones, and we imagine them flying all the way from Pennsylvania to the mountains of Mexico and, if all goes well, perhaps seeing their offspring back in our yard again next year. At any point along the way, however, something could happen to interrupt the cycle – the winter habitat isn’t large enough to accommodate all the butterflies, eggs don’t hatch, there isn’t enough milkweed to sustain the caterpillars, predators zoom in to destroy, and so on.

I don’t know whether a butterfly flapping its wings in our backyard affects weather patterns or anything else, and I don’t know whether our small effort to help 13 monarch caterpillars on their journey toward becoming butterflies will have much effect on the world’s population of butterflies. It might be tempting to wonder why we should even care about butterflies, when there are so many much larger human problems in the world. While raising butterflies is fun, educational, and contributes to a healthy planet, perhaps there’s a larger point as well. So often we feel helpless to do anything that will really make a difference, when sometimes all it might take are a few small acts of kindness and generosity that will have ripple effects of transformation and rebirth. We do what we can, and let the butterfly effect take care of itself.

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2 thoughts on “The Butterfly Effect

  1. Harriet, As always,I enjoyed your column on butterflies. I finally bought myself a butterfly bush this year. It has done well. However, when I went looking for one @ the Farm Show’s Flea Market, the fellow there told me that these bushes are actually not good for butterflies. I don’t know why. I haven’t had time to research this. Do you know anything about this?
    Thanks again for your thoughts.

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