The pollen is hanging heavy these days, attracting the gatherers. There's plenty of bees buzzing around, alongside some more unfamiliar sights -- metallic green-gold flies, a black bee with tan breeches, a rain-soaked bee, rain-drop buds, and an admiral in camo and stripped antennas.
Traveling creates wonderful opportunities for seeing new sights, but it is also good to get home again and enjoy the flowers in my Indiana garden. Here's a few flowers and friends observed during May.
This past weekend was the annual church retreat at Camp Friendenswald. We weren't able to be there the whole time, but went for the overnight Friday so that we could head out to the fen overlook at dawn. It was a beautiful morning to listen to the quiet chatter of ducks, bursts of loud calls from geese, the whir of wings as a small flock winged overhead, the calls of blackbirds gathering in one sunlit tree over a bed of burst cattails.
The sun slowly rose over the treetops to the east, and worked its way down the hill to our west, a tide of shadow ebbing away and leaving bright fall colors behind.
Later in the morning, Eric Kurtz led a hike, stopping in the meadow between the two fens to describe the efforts to create a passageway encouraging the endangered Mitchell's Satyr butterfly to spread from the one fen where they've found it to one closer to the lake. As we listened, I found a shiny black and tan chrysalis in the blanched grasses. The case was the right shape for a monarch, but the butterfly inside was not the proper orange and black. Either this was a species that makes a similar chrysalis, or, more likely, I've finally found a monarch chrysalis in the wild, but the butterfly did not survive. We haven't had a hard frost yet in Goshen, but they may well have had one here in Michigan.
In the last three days we've had seven monarchs emerge from their chrysalis. Our last two will likely emerge tomorrow.
You can see our make-shift monarch holding box above. Most of the jars that held the caterpillars were covered with the mesh and even when we put a likely looking stick in for them to attach to, they preferred to get as high as they could and attach to the mesh. But we didn't think there was adequate room for them to emerge in the jars, so we made do with lathe and duct tape. Above you can see the three monarchs that emerged yesterday, plus some of the empty cases from the day before, and the two pupa that are still green. And plenty of duct tape.
After hanging and strengthening her wings, this female made her way to the top side of the lathe and is pumping her wings, getting ready to take off for the bushes across the yard. She doesn't know the porch screen will thwart this goal.
But with a little help from a friend, she gets a ride outside and after resting with the sun on her wings for a few moments, she takes off on a wavering flight across the yard to the far bushes.
Above is a male (you can tell by the spots on the lower wings), resting on the alyssum that borders my herb bed. He soon moved to the curly allium pictured below and hid there for a time.
The second male took off across the yard and then circled back, enjoying the sunshine on the hummingbird feeder.
Bon voyage, butterflies!
This yellow flower is now starting to bloom in the prairie plantings near the railroad tracks. I don't know what it is, but I was enjoying the mix of yellow with a touch of pink on the buds. Then I found a bloom with a couple of pink petals -- or so I thought until I looked at it more closely.
On another recent morning, our third monarch had emerged from the chrysalis by the time I checked on them. When its wings were ready, it made its first flight to a nearby houseplant, and I was able to carry it outside the screened-in porch with ease. A few minutes with wings full spread in the sunlight, and it took another brief flight and perched on the screen, slowly pumping its wings. The last set of photos is a slideshow of four photos -- if you get this blog by email, you'll need to go to the website to see the butterfly slowly building his wing strength (the spots on the lower set of wings mark it as male).
Sunday morning I could tell we had a monarch that was about to emerge. Instead of a jade pupa, I could see the black and orange pattern on the wings through the clear case. But there was no sign of anything happening yet, so I went off with my camera in search of other sights.
When I came back, camera in hand, I naturally checked to see how the butterfly was doing. The case was just splitting open, and in the next 90 seconds, the butterfly made its way out and hung on to the old case. For a few minutes, it looked like a pregnant lady in a short cloak. Gradually the wings extended to their full length. I watched for a half hour or so while the butterfly rested, got its mouth in working order and slightly opened its wings every so often.
It wasn't quite ready to fly by the time I needed to leave for church, so I put the container and butterfly out on the lawn. By the time we were home again, it was gone. Maybe we'll finally see one in flight in about ten days, when the eleven others are due to emerge.
(If you're interested in a really thorough description of this whole process -- and a tip on how to tell which gender the butterfly is while it is still in the chrysalis -- check monarchchaser.wordpress.com.)
Nearly ready to fly. The reddish drop at the bottom is meconium, the waste material from its time in chrysalis. I didn't know about identifying the gender in the pupa, and I didn't get to see this one with its wings fully extended, but I think that it may have the tell-tale spot on the wing that indicates a male. Either that, or there's a bit of smudge just there!
Somehow we managed to end up with a baker's dozen of monarch caterpillars on our back porch the past few weeks. After years of occasionally looking at milkweed and wondering how other people managed to find monarch caterpillars, in recent years I've sometimes found one or two. I'd bring them home, put them in a quart jar with airholes, feed them milkweed leaves and watch with fascination the cycle of caterpillar into chrysalis into butterfly.
Last year I didn't see even one monarch butterfly, let alone any caterpillars. I heard that between overly cold weather where they overwinter in Mexico and the spraying of pesticides on milkweed near fields where they travel, their future is looking dicey.
So I was delighted to spot a couple of healthy looking caterpillars on milkweed along the millrace. I left the big ones to manage on their own, and brought the young one pictured below home. It went through several instars, the stages where the caterpillar sheds its skin, allowing it to keep growing, and eventually we found it hanging from the top of the jar, in the typical "J" shape that means it's about to form the chrysalis. Sure enough, soon there was the light green case with its gold trim, and it is still out on our back porch, with the hidden work of changing into a monarch butterfly.
In the meantime, as I brought in milkweed from our backyard for it to eat, I discovered another, larger caterpillar and then on a nearby small milkweed, four eggs. For a week, it seemed I could not bring in a milkweed leaf without discovering an egg or a newly hatched caterpillar. The count at the moment is nine chrysalis, one caterpillar hanging in a "J" and two caterpillars still chowing down on milkweed. The largest caterpillar went in to chrysalis a day or so after I brought it in, and emerged last Tuesday. I missed the emergence, but discovered it while its wings were drying. Unfortunately I had to leave for a meeting and so didn't see it take flight.
John and I did get to see several of the caterpillars enter the chrysalis stage, their caterpillar skins splitting, revealing the pale green shape underneath, gradually shrinking and hardening into the jade case. Fascinating -- as will be the emergence of a dozen butterflies in 10- 14 days. And then either this generation or the next will fly down to Michoacan, Mexico, spending the winter with millions of other monarchs there. Amazing!
We took a walk along the race just before dusk the other evening. I checked the milkweed for any signs of monarch caterpillars and found this young chap, less that a half inch long. I've seen a couple monarch butterflies in recent days, which is more than I saw all last fall, and it's always fun to find a caterpillar.
A little further along we startled a heron, who slowly flapped his way down the canal ahead of us, finally coming to rest up on some dead branches -- unusual, since we generally see them in the water, near the bank.
He was still there shortly after when we came back past the snag, awkwardly climbing the vertical branch to get up to a higher level. He hopped and occasionally flapped for balance, and did his best to camouflage himself as a dead tree branch. (Can you see him in the 4th photo?)
The next morning I found another, larger monarch caterpillar on a milkweed growing in the middle of my raspberries, and three eggs on another leaf nearby. The last photo has one of the eggs and the two caterpillars together on our porch table, to show the size variation. The egg is off to the left and looks like a tiny yellow football balanced on end. We brought them all in to our screened-in porch so there will undoubtedly be more photos of monarchs in various stages.
It's the season for jigsaw puzzles and the more colorful the better during a northern Indiana winter. This one was a Christmas gift and is proving a useful companion to another project, pulling the pieces of a writing project together, a project that has been taking priority over blog posts this week.
The puzzle is also serving as a reminder of the many butterflies that feasted on my zinnias and other garden plants this summer. Most of them look more travel scarred than the butterflies in the puzzle, but look at those amazing colors and patterns.
Delight was not the primary emotion I experienced when I encountered these garden spiders in the prairie plantings on campus earlier this month. Especially when I looked up from photographing a clump of seedheads and realized I was nearly surrounded by garden spiders and their webs. Despite fond memories of Charlotte's Web, and appreciation for the way Charlotte uses her writing/weaving skills to come to the aid of Wilbur the pig, my visceral images were more of Bilbo's encounter with giant spiders, and of the giant spiders in the forest at Hogwarts.
Thanks a lot, Tolkien and Rowling. And it is really not fair. Garden spiders are harmless -- to humans anyway. Their webs are works of art I can appreciate, especially when they catch early morning light in a dewy outline. I'm sure there is a plethora of fascinating things to be learned by those willing to look at the spider with a attentive, compassionate spirit.
Still, my first reaction is an "Ewww," especially with these large garden spiders. And why is that? They are no bigger than a monarch butterfly, and their color scheme -- yellow and black -- is not far from the orange and black of a monarch. Yet I'm drawn to the butterfly and flinch from the spider.
I set my spider photos aside, unable to see a spark of delight in them. And then I read this poem by Mary Oliver, from her book Swan: poems and prose poems. And I take delight in her attentive, compassionate perspective. Ah, yes. Spider, butterfly, human, all doing our best to create our homes and find food, making our way as best we can in this pretty, this perilous world.
I tore the web
of a black and yellow spider
in the brash of weeds
and down she came
on her surplus of legs
each of which
touched me and really
the touch wasn't much
but then the way
if a spider can
she looked at me
clearly somewhere between
outraged and heartbroken
made me say "I'm sorry
to have wrecked your home
your nest your larder"
to which she said nothing
only for an instant
pouched on my wrist
then swung herself off
on the thinnest of strings
back into the world.
The pretty, this perilous world.
And just in case you need a break from looking at spiders, here's another image from the same day.
My approach to contemplative photography --
Tell about it."
Mary Oliver in "Sometimes"