Hands-On Science Tales: Watching Metamorphosis

The search began in mid-August. First, I scoured the fencerows and field edges for milkweed plants. The farmer had cleaned up and this year the plants were difficult to find in the regular places. The one good stand of milkweed plants was covered with a variety of milkweed aphids, milkweed bugs, and milkweed tussock moth caterpillars but no monarch caterpillars or eggs. Finally, a close scrutiny of the young milkweed growing at the edge of the alfalfa field yielded several eggs. These smaller-than-a-pinhead, white beads attached to the leaves hatched out into tiny ant-sized caterpillars and began chewing miniscule holes into the leaves, leaving black dots of frass behind.

A few days later an excited call from my niece sent me to collect the monarch caterpillars she had found. She and her brother also contributed three tiny swallowtail caterpillars they’d found on their mom’s parsley plants in the garden. Now our classroom insect zoo was alive and growing.

Over the next two weeks the caterpillars munched away on leaves and grew and grew and grew. As they grew, they molted several times. The swallowtail caterpillars changed their skin designs and color each time they shed their skin. The monarchs grew fatter and longer.

Then came the morning we found several monarch caterpillars hanging in a J from the top of their cage. We watched all day but by dismissal they were still caterpillars, though now quite dull in color and rather swollen and ugly looking. Hopefully by morning we would have a chrysalis or three.

Upon arrival the next day, the students found several green upside-down bells hanging from the cage ceiling. Later that day class time was interrupted by “Everybody come quick! Look at what is happening to this caterpillar!” One of the swallowtail caterpillars was shedding its skin for the last time. The students watched, enthralled as it wiggled and squirmed and pushed the splitting skin off. As the skin fell to the ground a green blobby worm was left hanging by a silken sling, attached at the foot end to a stick. A few minutes later it had fully changed into a gray-brown chrysalis.

Two weeks went by, but no butterflies emerged. The monarch chrysalises were turning darker, and we hoped we’d see a butterfly before Friday dismissal, but dismissal time came and no butterfly appeared. I placed the chrysalises outside so the butterflies could fly away, if they hatched over the weekend. Monday morning found one empty chrysalis and one butterfly hanging onto its chrysalis, waiting for the sun to warm its wings so it could fly off. There was also a newly hatched butterfly in the classroom.

As each child came in the door, exclamations ensued. By break time the butterflies were ready to release. But one special tradition yet remained. The first graders sat in a row on the grass and the butterfly was carefully passed from one hand to the next. Giggles and squeals erupted as the butterfly crawled from finger to finger and the feet tickled each hand. The butterfly was then transferred to a nearby bush to bask in the sun and eventually it fluttered off into the blue sky.

A few days later one of the chrysalides was a dark black upon my arrival. We kept a careful eye on it throughout the morning and reading class was again interrupted while we excitedly watched the chrysalis shell split and the butterfly popped out. “Ooh, that’s disgusting,” was more than one child’s opinion upon seeing the wrinkled, crumpled wings of a newly emerged butterfly. But only a few minutes later the beautiful monarch was stretching its wings, and its swollen body was normal size.

We have continued to be amazed by newly emerged butterflies though we’ve not witnessed the actual event since. We’ve had two swallowtails to release but most of them are the last generation of the season and will hibernate through the winter to emerge in the spring.

Little creatures and young students go together. Each year the caterpillars I supply for the classroom are soon supplemented with more jars and containers as the students go home and search for creatures of their own. While many of those often don’t survive due to lack of proper food and care, it sparks interest and wonder in the marvelous creations of God.

Photo by Bankim Desai on Unsplash.

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