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Monarch Metamorphosis

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I have been busy this summer studying and documenting monarch butterflies on my little monarch ranch off the back patio. It became an all-consuming pursuit as I strove to position myself in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to document the dual transformation of the monarch caterpillar: first, from caterpillar to jade-green chrysalis; and second, from chrysalis to butterfly.

It is not as easy as it sounds. Well, maybe it doesn't sound easy, but I can assure you it's tricky. The caterpillars and chrysalides have a sneaky way of doing their magic when nobody's watching: early in the morning, right at breakfast and bus time. They wait until you're completely distracted, trying to take care of your family and wham! they transform into something entirely else while you're buttering toast or answering the phone or signing a planner or digging up lunch money or racing to Athens to record a piece.

I decided that if I was ever going to catch the caterpillars at it, I'd have to have a whole lot of 'em, to increase the chances that one might decide to metamorphose when I was available to document it. And of the 20 or so that I raised in a big glass vase on the kitchen table decided to cooperate. I set the camera up on a tripod against a neutral background and by gum I got it, the whole breathtaking thing, in over 600 exposures taken over about 10 hours.

National Public Radio solicited a submission to mark the first day of fall, so I wrote and recorded a piece about the whole experience. I sent hundreds of photos to their multimedia wizards and Mito Habe-Evans produced a wonderful video from them. I am grateful to her for all her work.

In the end, NPR decided not to air my commentary. But you can still find the video on the NPR website. It takes my breath away, just as sitting before a metamorphosing caterpillar always does.

Please go see how I spent my summer. I would be much obliged if you would comment and hit "Recommend." Since the commentary didn't air, sharing it on Facebook and Twitter and recommending it is one way to help it get seen by more eyes. For my part, I'll hope that it leads more people to my blog.

Thank you.

All photos in this post and on the NPR website are copyright2010 by Julie Zickefoose. Use without permission is expressly forbidden.


wonderful post and story on the npr site. Looks like a lot of prep work but fun. I love the video

You are my HERO for capturing the entire metamorphosis!!!

THAT is just the coolest thing ever Julie!

Wonderful telling of the amazing, artistically documented process! Thanks, beauty, for all that beauty.XOM.

Wonderful!! Can't wait to see the remaining photos. thanks for sharing.
Lynda in Michigan

Tweeted, FBed, and recommended! What a lovely critter, and what lovely pictures.

If you ever get the chance to go to the Monarchs' ultimate destination in Mexico not far from Morelia you gotta do it. During our first year in Mexico my husband and I took a weekend trip there and hooked up with one of the local guides at the butterfly reserve. With his help we were able to locate the butterflies. I don't have the words to describe what it's like to see these thousand upon thousand of fragile beings hanging from the trees and lazily fluttering about. It was one of the most spiritual things I've ever witnessed and I could stop crying, they were so beyond belief.

This is beautiful! I grew up in Athens - LOVE monarchs.

Outstanding, Julie. I managed to catch the same process with two different monarchs but my images are not nearly as good. The last monarch just took wing about 15 minutes ago, and it's amazing to think she'll fly all the way to Mexico. I just posted the NPR link on my Facebook page.

Hey Julie,

This is great!! I've been trying to do something similiar to this with the timelapse feature on my Wingscape Bird cam (results TBD). You are right, it's not as easy as one may think.

Hi Alan,

I hope you're able to get shots you like with the Wingscape camera. For me, being there pressing the shutter for each exposure, experiencing it firsthand and knowing I was capturing it at the same time was the big thrill. I learned so much about the subtle signs that something was about to happen--learned so much about the bugs and about was an amazing experience. I want to do it again. I have two worms in J position right now but I'm afraid I'll miss it--too much to do today. Bah! Next year!

Watching a monarch caterpillar turn into a monarch late one summer a few years ago was one of the most magical experiences of my life. Thanks for these photos and the link to your video--nature is wonderful!



I am new to milkweed...this is my first summer growing it to try to attract butterflies. I don't think I got any caterpillars but I sure got milkweed bugs in clumps (that was a new experience!) Are you saying (in the NPR piece) that cutting back the milkweed in July would help attract egg laying? (As well as tidy up my garden?) Thanks.

Yes, MusicMom, please go back to the post and click on the highlighted words, "monarch ranch." That will get you to a previous post about just how it's done and why. You cut it back right after blooms drop, and it sends up tender new shoots that the monarchs are mad for.

Holy Methuselah !!! (And I mean that literally.) Great pics. Thanks for sharing. The Monarchs in my yard always do their most dramatic things when my back is turned, dagnabit!

Awesome! I teach a Monarchs and Milkweed class every fall and really appreciate how much time and effort went into capturing this phase. I haven't looked at the NPR yet,'s my next stop. And you are oh, so right about these little buggers making changes when no one is looking.

Awsome. Going to the video right now.

I'm reading about Monarchs this week and just went out and found a couple of eggs and a few TINY caterpillars. Brought them in and hope to see them transform!


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