Life Lessons from Lepidopterans

by Susan Cheatham

When we began homeschooling our four young daughters, my husband and I couldn’t wait to impart our wealth of knowledge about the world around us. We’d spent years in classrooms, after all, as students of biology and chemistry, anatomy and physiology. We would knock this homeschooling thing out of the park!

One of our first family science projects was designing a butterfly garden around the girls’ playhouse. Armed with trowels and our trusty butterfly guidebook, we planted orange-tufted milkweed, pink and red pentas, and fragrant yellow lantana in the hope of enticing monarchs. As I mentally planned lessons on host and nectar plants and dreamed about colorful charts of the four stages of complete metamorphosis, our girls dug in the dirt (using fingers, not trowels), diligently watered their garden (and each other), and watched anxiously for visitors. While I made a mental note to teach Linnaean taxonomy with an emphasis on Phylum Arthropoda, Class Insecta, and Order Lepidoptera, the girls decorated a butterfly house my husband had built with thumbprint caterpillars and butterflies. We were ready. 

When the first monarch discovered our tasty offerings, dancing among the blossoms and alighting on one after another, our children were delighted, reveling in their role as hostesses to such an enchanting guest. Their enthusiasm was contagious: surrounded by giggling girls chasing after the graceful, elusive monarch, I marveled right along with them at the miracle of this tiny life with its delicate stained-glass wings. What beauty it brought as it dipped and glided in a joyful ballet! The classification of living things was important, certainly, but nothing could compare with the wonder of nature we were experiencing right in our own backyard.  

Eventually, after visits from many monarchs, we spotted tiny chewed holes on our milkweed and discovered yellow, black, and white striped caterpillars lurking on the hidden undersides, gorging on the leaves. Our children’s curiosity was endless. Where did the caterpillars come from? Did these awkward-looking creatures really turn into beautiful orange and black butterflies? How did it all happen? I realized (with a pang, I admit) that my colorful diagrams of metamorphosis would never satisfy our girls’ need to learn about the butterfly life cycle for themselves. It was time to study our monarchs, from eggs to adulthood, up close.

The next time we saw a female monarch (discernible, we had learned, by the absence of black spots on her hindwings), we followed her progress. She considered each plant in the garden but lingered only among the milkweed, giving no consideration to vegetation that would not nourish her offspring. After she drifted off, we checked the leaves she had visited for pinhead-sized pearlescent eggs. Success! We plucked those on which she had deposited eggs, placed them on moist paper towels, and watched closely. 

Within days, the telltale black dots of tiny chomping jaws appeared, followed by miniscule striped caterpillars. Studying them through magnifying glasses, our daughters were amazed at their enormous appetites and rapid growth. Many a math lesson was interrupted by the urgent need for additional milkweed leaves from the garden to feed our babies. 

At this point, we quickly learned, transferring the larvae to a screened habitat containing plenty of fresh milkweed was essential, as they were not only voracious eaters but also intrepid explorers. All six of us watched, entranced, as the caterpillars grew and grew and grew (and pooped and shed their skins). Their endless feasting necessitated several trips to the local nursery when our milkweed plants were stripped, although we eventually grew our own milkweed from the pods that appeared at the end of the growing season. 

Finally, when each caterpillar had fattened itself to the diameter of a pencil, it attached to the underside of a horizontal surface such as a twig or the top of the habitat (or, in the case of one of our escapees, a picture frame). It hung, unmoving, in a J shape for hours. Then, very quickly, the caterpillar shed its skin one last time and transformed into a light-green chrysalis with a shiny gold rim, an amazing but brief process we somehow never managed to witness.

Now I could pull out my diagram of metamorphosis (which even I recognized was far less intriguing than watching the process unfold before our eyes). There was time for a discussion of the importance of pollinators and an overview of the classification of living things. The long, seemingly inactive pupal stage of the monarch life cycle tried the patience of even our oldest lepidopterist. Fortunately, we soon discovered that, in our climate, the adult butterfly would emerge exactly nine days after the caterpillar disappeared into its chrysalis. This observation led to multiple trips to examine the darkening chrysalis beginning on day 8 and impromptu invitations to friends and neighbors to join us for the adult butterfly’s anticipated emergence. 

This last step in metamorphosis began with the splitting of the now-translucent chrysalis. The monarch wriggled its way out, wings crumpled like wet tissues, and perched on the empty sac. It immediately pumped blood into its wings to inflate them and then held them open to dry and harden. Our children competed to most quickly identify the thickened veins of the female or the telltale black spot on the hindwings of the male. Then, of course, our beloved butterfly friend received a name–Milky and Carlos and Dot come to mind–as we transported it to the butterfly garden for release. Cheers of encouragement followed it as it winged its way high in the air or settled, to our daughters’ delight, among the blossoms in our garden.

But what of death in the universe of these beautiful, fragile creatures? We had learned, of course, that butterfly behavior was guided by instinct. A mother’s responsibility for her young ended with her choice of the optimal milkweed leaf on which to deposit her egg, a fact that struck me as inexpressibly sad. Worse still was our discovery that a monarch’s brief lifespan of about a month meant he or she would likely never flutter by descendants in the wild, as offspring might still be pupating at the time of the parent’s demise. Although we rarely encountered dead butterflies, we’d occasionally find a monarch hopping around our garden with a wing shredded by some unknown predator. We’d pick it up gently, place it on a plant with an ample supply of nectar, and hope for the best. Rarely, one of the monarchs we raised would not develop as expected. A fallen chrysalis, we discovered, could be successfully reattached to an overlying surface to permit its inhabitant to emerge later, but there was no solution for the caterpillar that inexplicably pupated before it was full-grown or the darkened chrysalis from which no butterfly ever emerged.

Our daughters mourned these losses just as they would a dead baby bird or a squirrel by the roadside. Every life, they knew, was precious.


Years after our homeschooling adventures, as our youngest daughter prepares to wing her way out into the world with the love and support of her parents, I tend a different butterfly garden in a different yard. This one is a colorful jumble of periwinkle plumbago, yellow popcorn cassia, Dutchman’s pipevine with its variegated maroon blooms, and red passion flower in addition to milkweed, lantana, and pentas. We enjoy visits from swallowtails, zebra longwings, fritillaries, and other species. But the monarch will always hold a special place in my heart. What joy our family found in observing each stage of its miraculous life cycle! Experiencing the wonders of nature through the eyes of our children transformed this teacher into a pupil–of far more than butterflies.     

photo credit: Istel Bustamante, Unsplash