David Segal: Leaving the nest
June 30, 2018
My dad is always tending his butterfly garden. He opens and shuts the front door multiple times in a row as he passes between yard and house, disrupting the dogs into excited barking each time. He ferries water from kitchen sink to milkweed seedlings; he quenches his thirst and dries his brow as he retreats inside from the sweaty air.
A few years ago, he read about the uncertain future of the monarch population. Measured by the acreage they cover at winter migration sites in Mexico, monarch numbers are trending down sharply. The butterflies need milkweed to lay eggs, and the caterpillars need it to feed. There is less milkweed around than there used to be.
There are monarch enthusiast groups everywhere, from the urgently named Monarch Watch and Save our Monarchs, to the less alarmist Raise the Migration and monarchbutterflygarden.net. My dad noted in his research that the Gulf Coast is in the path of the monarch migration, so he decided to do his part.
His garden is a success by any reasonable measure. Monarchs passing through Houston lay eggs on his milkweed leaves, which hatch into caterpillars, which eat the leaves as they prepare for their metamorphosis. At the start of this process, a monarch caterpillar curls itself into a "J-hook" suspended by a sticky silk button from a twig or leaf. The black and white striped exoskeleton splits apart to reveal an opaque lime green chrysalis (cocoons are for moths). After about 10 days, the cloudy green skin gives way to a translucent layer through which the famous orange and black wings are visible. My dad keeps a running tally of his caterpillars, J-hooks and chrysalises. ("Don't count your monarch eggs until they hatch," he says.)
I am intimately acquainted with my dad's botanical and entomological habits because I've been living in his house for a year. I moved from Colorado to Houston with my wife and two kids and planned on a brief sojourn with my parents. We would use the short stay, we thought, to sell our Colorado home and house hunt in Houston. Man plans and God laughs, goes the Yiddish proverb, and a few months turned into a year. We all have been pretty good sports.
Most of my dad's caterpillars suspend themselves from the green mesh netting he installed on stakes over the milkweed garden. He realized that his caterpillars were under threat from wasps. The net keeps the wasps out and lets the monarchs pursue their life cycle with none to make them afraid.
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As an extra security measure, my dad purchased a bug zapping wand shaped like a miniature tennis racquet. A button on the handle electrifies the paddle. When he detects a wasp, he rushes inside, grabs his zapper, and rushes back out to meet his foe. On a good day, he comes back inside brandishing his weapon: a confirmed kill. He was always a good tennis player, which turns out to be apt preparation for becoming a garden vigilante.
As much as he enjoys zapping wasps, my dad's favorite part of raising monarchs is release day. My dad is evangelical about release day. Grandkids, neighbors and passing strangers all have observed the ritual of release.
When a monarch emerges from its chrysalis, it needs time to flex and dry its wings. The net protects it during this vulnerable period. When my dad deems the butterfly ready, he announces it to the public. He lifts the side of the netting and lets the butterfly exit and fly away. And of course he records it with his iPhone.
One release day unfolded like all the others, at first. My dad had checked for wasps and watched the recently emerged monarch unfurl its wings. He had decided it was ready and let it go, and then he retired to the air conditioning for a glass of Gatorade on ice. A few minutes later he went back out to check on the garden and reset the net. He captured with his iPhone something we had never seen before.
The monarch had lingered after its release and fallen victim to a non-winged predator that had flown under my dad's radar. A standard lime green garden lizard had seized the butterfly while it was perched on a leaf. In the photo, the reptile's throat bulges from the bulk of the butterfly's head. Still unfurled on each side of the lizard's jaws are the orange and black wings, slightly wrinkled. How the lizard downed the winged carcass is left to the imagination. Slowly, I presume.
My wife and I are about to close on a house in Houston, 12 months and two weeks after moving here. We are excited to have our own space, our own stuff, our own schedule. We will be only a few minutes down the road, and I'm sure we will get the daily monarch report. But we will miss the sense of security that comes from having someone else's roof over our heads.
Though my dad is vigilant against wasp attacks, he was coolheaded about the lizard ambush. It was regrettable for the loss of a monarch, but he reacted like it was natural and even fascinating. After all, he could not, he reasoned, protect his wards from every possible threat once they left the enclosure of his care. The best he could do was give them a sound start, and that would be enough.
I asked my dad once about whether he was getting tired of tending his monarchs, every day, in the heat. Had he considered stopping?
"I can't stop," he said. "What if they're counting on my garden to be here when they pass through?"
David Segal lives in Houston. Connect with him at rabbidavidsegal.com. His column runs the first Sunday of the month.
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