'Butterfly Whisperer' Nurtures Monarchs From Milkweed To First Flight

Sep 10, 2018

When KT Thalin bought a rural home with some land in Saxtons River, Vermont, 14 years ago, she thought it might be nice to have monarch butterflies flitting around her yard in the summertime. So she started encouraging the growth of milkweed, the sole food source for monarch caterpillars and the host plant for monarch eggs.

Her milkweed cultivation paid off and last summer she started getting curious about the monarch caterpillars she found inching around her plants. So she brought a few inside to watch them go from caterpillar to butterfly.

"I had never even seen the process, not even in school, that I remember," Thalin told Vermont Edition.

Just some of the plastic containers KT Thalin houses her monarch caterpillars in.
Credit KT Thalin / Courtesy

After watching them form their chrysalises and eclose, "which is the word for 'hatch' in butterfly-speak," she says, she got hooked.

This year she's brought in more than 200 eggs and caterpillars and about 90 have gone through the full process and been released back into the wild.

"And I probably have close to 100 more chrysalises in the house. So it's a little nutty," she acknowledges.

Thalin does not advise a casual butterfly enthusiast to take on this task, at least at the same magnitude. 

Before making its chrysalis, the caterpillar hangs upside down in a J formation.
Credit KT Thalin / Courtesy

The caterpillars eat a lot of milkweed and also make a lot of waste. She spends hours cleaning the plastic containers her caterpillars are in, as well as collecting, washing and distributing milkweed for them to eat.

"It's a job," Thalin says. "It's actually a job."

But it's one Thalin says is magical. The entire life cycle from egg to butterfly is about a month, so Thalin can watch the entire process take place on her kitchen table — and all the many other places she has containers of caterpillars!

She watches the caterpillars get ready to metamorphose by hanging upside down in the shape of a J and then enclose themselves in a beautiful green chrysalis with little gold dots.

"They look like jewels ... They're so magical," she says.

When a butterfly is about to eclose, or emerge, its wings become visible through the walls of the chrysalis.
Credit KT Thalin / Courtesy

In about 10 to 14 days, the pupa stage is complete and the scales on the butterfly's wings become visible through the chrysalis. Thalin has become an expert in knowing when they're about to eclose and tries to be there when each butterfly emerges.

Click through the slideshow at the top of the post to see stages of a monarch butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.  

After the butterfly emerges, its abdomen is full of fluid it then pumps into its wings to expand them to normal size.
Credit KT Thalin / Courtesy

"When the chrysalis starts to crack open and the butterfly comes out, it drops its abdomen, which is at the top ...  you know, it's where it's hanging from — so its abdomen kind of plops down, this big fat abdomen plops down," she describes. "And then it rights itself so it's holding onto the base of the chrysalis."

When the butterfly first emerges, its wings are shorter than its bulbous abdomen.

Thalin says many people have the misconception that the wings are folded up inside the chrysalis and just need to be unfolded when the butterfly emerges. But it's actually a different process.

"They're teeny tiny little wings. And as it hangs, it pumps the fluid that's in the abdomen into the wings and fills them out," Thalin says. "And as it's doing that, the abdomen gets smaller and smaller and thinner and sleeker."

And the wings fill out with fluid and elongate into their regular shape.

KT Thalin says taking care of these monarchs is not just a hobby - it's more like a very rewarding job.
Credit KT Thalin / Courtesy

Thalin says people have pressed her on the question of whether she's "playing God" by bringing so many caterpillars in and protecting them from predators and disease rather than letting nature take its course.

"I've looked online for an answer to that and I find nothing to suggest that that's a problem," Thalin explains.

"If you can give them a helping hand ... I just don't see that there's anything in that that would be messing with nature, especially since we're ruining their habitat at record speed," she also says.

It's been a lot of work for Thalin this summer and she's not sure whether or not she'll do it to the same extent next year, but despite the effort, it's been a gratifying summer obsession.

"It's incredibly satisfying, it really is, to let those butterflies go," she says.

Within a few hours, the newly emerged monarchs are ready to go. Thalin takes them outside and watches them fly away.
Credit KT Thalin / Courtesy