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My Almost-Butterfly Stole His Own Show

Right now, "my" monarch butterfly might be in the humid highland forests of Mexico with a colony of butterflies.

Or did my scientific experiment meet with disaster?

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Last summer I went caterpillar-hunting on the Iowa farm where I grew up, and where my mother still lives. I was hunting the kind of striped caterpillars that turn into monarch butterflies. Since they eat only milkweed leaves, all I had to do was find some.

Behind the shed were a few. Underneath the leaf of one was a one-inch caterpillar: tiny stripes of green, black, white. It was alert; its head moving purposefully, waving thread-like antennae.

A leaf on another plant had a tiny white dot underneath - probably a newly hatched larva.

My plan was to find one or two that I could bring home at the end of the summer and watch them turn into butterflies.

As a girl on the farm, I'd found a monarch's cocoon in an empty shed. Instead of the off-white, hairy cocoon of a woolly worm, this jeweled chrysalis was a luminescent soft green studded with gold.

But I had not seen the butterfly emerge, and that was my goal last summer - to see that event.

The next time I was at the farm, I hiked to where I'd noticed milkweed at the south end of the soybean patch. Where was it? Gone. Mom's renter had just done what farmers are supposed to do with milkweed. Gone: a whole crop of monarch larvae.

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There was one more plant to check near the barn. Eureka! It was being grazed by a two-incher. I harvested the entire plant plus its diner.

"Do you have a jar I can have?" I asked my mother.

"What for?" she asked.

"I found a pre-chrysalis monarch."

"A worm? You're kidding!" she said.

"Nope. I'm taking him home tomorrow so I can watch him hatch."

The next morning, the large striped caterpillar was still eating. I added another milkweed.

The plump striped fellow rode back to town chewing on a milkweed leaf, which was sticking out of a bucket just below the glove compartment. It was a docile traveler nearly all the way home. But when we were close to town, it decided to explore. It started to crawl onto the console of the car. I swiveled the plant away, but it began to swing his front half around, swaying, searching.

I tried to rotate the weed at stoplights, between shifting gears. This was the first time I'd ever taken a loose larva anywhere. I've always dealt with such wild creatures by transporting them in jars with holes in the lids.

This was going to be hard to explain if I got stopped for erratic driving.

When I pulled into the driveway, the caterpillar was still safely on the milkweed. I carried the precious cargo to a table behind the house.

It was a full-sizer, so I rested a piece of driftwood against the milkweed. I hoped he'd form a chrysalis right on that piece of wood. A green and gold chrysalis. Then a monarch butterfly.

My husband shook his head.

Before going to bed, I checked on the caterpillar. It was resting, tucked underneath a large leaf.

EARLY the next day, the caterpillar was up and at 'em, already at breakfast. But when I checked an hour later, it was gone. I hunted and hunted.

"A bird probably ate it," my husband offered.

"The book says they have no enemies because they taste so awful," I replied. "He's probably at work on his chrysalis somewhere right now."

"How far could it get in an hour?" he asked.

A caterpillar with a purpose, he'd left the only food around. It was obviously chrysalis time. I searched every piece of wood I could find. Nothing.

This winter I wonder if "my" monarch made it. Did it get the chance to become a butterfly? Did it join the migration south?

Is it now in the moist highlands of Mexico, waiting for spring?

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