HAND-REARING MONARCHS

JESSICA HILT

 
 

Monarch butterfly eggs are notoriously difficult to find in the wild. To capture one for hand rearing, you’ll need to follow a female monarch. The difference between a male and female are subtle. A female monarch’s lines will be thick, like they were drawn with a Sharpie, rather than a fine-tipped pen.
 
Stalk the female. Talk in a soft voice.
 
Make your hands a hammock. Cradle the monarch. If you’re successful, she’ll lay a grooved, cloudy bubble in your palm. It will be heavier than you imagined. Fight the urge to pop it between your teeth.
 
Hold the egg. Rock it, for three to five days. When the egg appears dark on the top, like necrotic rot, your larva is ready to emerge. She won’t crawl, only suckle milkweed. Her crying will cause you heart palpitations.
 
It’s best not to handle her when she molts. She will remain very still as her black head capsule comes off. Just after molting, her tentacles (they are not antennas but tentacles in larva form) will droop. Once she eats her old skin she’ll perk up.
 
As larvae grow, so do their appetites. Be sure to check her food supply regularly. Is it thick and substantial? Do you feel tingly and euphoric as you feed her? Does she reach for you or struggle against you? These are the signs. There are no right answers.
 
During the fourth instar (you don’t understand what that means and it’s too late to ask now) you will need to give her more room to grow. Make your hands a roof. Keep it flat for easy attachment.
 
When she is ready to pupate, she will attach herself to your palm with silken thread. Her tentacles will hang limply, and then from the bottom her skin will split, burst with an unrecognizable and too large body. It will horrify and repulse you. You will want to shake it off your hands (How dare you? She is never an “it”!) but you will not. Because you were told this was so beautiful, so miraculous.
 
In five days, the light-green chrysalis will change. A dark line will appear and you’ll squeal with delight. It happened so slowly that it was instantaneous; you didn’t notice until it was there.
 
Around day ten, you will see her form. The chrysalis acting as a white wrapper. It will become cloudy, then clear like plastic wrap. Do not pick at the film.
 
After two weeks of keeping your hand very still and flat, the chrysalis will crack and you will gasp because it is almost over. You will want to pull her out under the guise of helping. Patience.
 
You may set your monarch free after she emerges. You will feel guilty. You may keep your monarch after she emerges. You will feel guilty. But you will have to do both.
 

 

 
 

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