For as far back as I can remember, my sister and I looked forward to the end of August/beginning of September. Not for the beginning of school, but for our family trip to our tree farm in Northern PA over Labor Day Weekend. Granted, we went to the farm many a weekend over the summer and throughout the year, but Labor Day weekend was special. It was the weekend that Monarch caterpillars were out in full force.
My dad loved insects of all shapes and sizes. When he was young, he collected them, and had an extremely large collection when he got married to my mom...only to have them blow away when they were moving once (it was always a sore subject with him). When he got older, he moved on to more specific "bugs." Like tarantulas. I was lucky enough never to meet any of his pet tarantulas (he even went to Mexico once to find some), but my mom was once greeted by one near the light switch when they first started dating. Talk about a shock.
He knew so much about bugs. If I found a caterpillar or butterfly I found interesting, he would tell me all about it. He had a special fondness for Monarchs...I never asked him why, but I think it had something to do with the amount we had up at the farm. Hundreds of thousands of them, if not more. And he passed that fondness on to his daughters.
My sister and I would go up and down the rows of trees looking at the milkweed, trying to find caterpillars. We could tell almost instantly if a caterpillar was on one of the plants, as we could see the places where they had eaten. We often liked to see who could find the smallest caterpillar, as we thought they were cute. :) We take the caterpillars off the milkweed (not at all squeamish with bugs, you see...and sometimes they even pooped or peed on us!) and stick them in our five gallon buckets, along with some milkweed for them to continue eating. That is really all the caterpillars do. Eat and eat and eat, until they get big enough to hang. One year, I made it my mission to find 100 caterpillars. And I did (100 caterpillars eating all at once makes quite a noise too).
My dad encouraged my sister and I to find these caterpillars (although he wasn't as excited about the 100 I found the one time), so we could bring them home and watch them transform to butterflies. He would make sure they had enough milkweed for the 6 hour trip home, and would continually bring home more milkweed throughout the weeks for us to feed them. And they needed new milkweed constantly, because it was either eaten quickly, or died from being broken off (imagine how much he had to get the year I brought home 100. See why he wasn't that excited?).
He would put them in a glass aquarium with sticks (for hanging) and of course, an escape-proof top (but we had escapees anyway...we'd be cleaning months later to find a used chrysalis on the bottom of a chair or under a table...and say oh, that's where that one came from...because yes, sometimes we'd come home and a butterfly would be flying around the house, waiting to be let outside). When a caterpillar would hang itself and eventually become a chrysalis, he would take them out and put them over a glass, so we could prepare for its hatching. The hatching was an incredible site. To see the butterfly break free from its shell - huge body and small wings - only to watch as it dried and the wings grew and the body became small, and as it took its first tentative flutters with its wings. It was incredible.
Some days, we would have 10-20 butterflies hatch. After their wings would dry we would put them outside the door to let them fly away as they were ready, or we would take them out and urge them to fly ourselves. Imagine the postman's surprise when he walked up to our door one day to see all the butterflies outside. He asked my mom "do you realize you have 8 butterflies outside your door?" She smiled and he enjoyed the sight.
My dad encouraged my sister and I to take some of the butterflies in to class with us so that other children could see the process of caterpillar to butterfly. My teachers and classmates always loved it (and I loved the fact that it was my family that brought in the cool experiment!).
I never grew sick of catching caterpillars, even as I grew up and moved on with my life. When I got too busy to go to the farm, I often asked my dad to bring me back some caterpillars once Labor Day arrived. He always told me I had to come in order to get any...his way of trying to get me to spend a weekend with him...
Those caterpillars and butterflies taught me so much...I wonder if my dad knew. It taught me to respect the life of an insect, especially butterflies (imagine what I did if I saw a kid on the playground messing with a butterfly!). It taught me about the circle of life, and also about death. Many of the Monarchs didn't make it. Some never hatched from the chrysalids because of bugs or other natural forces. Some died because my sister and I intervened when we shouldn't have. Some died because we picked up milkweed someone had sprayed with chemicals (it is a weed, afterall), and some died because they got out and we stepped on them. It taught me to recognize passion in my dad, and the things he loved and enjoyed so much...I didn't get to see a lot of that because he was always so busy.
What I loved the most about the process was the fact that it brought the family together. We all loved to watch as the caterpillars grew and changed, and eventually hatched into butterflies. It was a few small moments we all shared together.
To this day, whenever I see milkweed, I think of Monarchs. We are selling the tree farm and it pains me to think of the millions of butterflies up there that I could have collected with my children one day.(Ok, maybe not millions, but a couple hundred...). But, as luck would have it, I was riding through one of our fields yesterday and spotted an incredible amount of milkweed. I looked for caterpillars, but didn't find any...yet. I'm going to have to do some research to see when they hatch around here, or even if they do, but I am keeping my fingers crossed that I'll happen upon some. I want to show B the magic...pass on something that my dad passed on to me.
These butterflies have so much meaning to me. It is something I will always have with my dad. Which is why, even though he can't be at my wedding, butterflies will be entwined throughout the decor at the ceremony and the reception. I can't see a butterfly without thinking of what he taught me, and the love he had for them.
**I know this was a bit scattered...I just kinda wrote without organizing...**
The process of caterpillar to butterfly, as my sister and I got to see it...