Butterfly Science

It’s become a spring thing, ordering caterpillars online. We tried it one year, three years ago, and realized how much we loved watching the miracle process unfold. Rooting for each caterpillar to craft the perfect cocoon, trying to catch the cocoons cracking in time to see the butterfly emerge, wet and crumpled. How quickly it dries and flies! Every time we’re in awe.

Like most kids, Rosetta developed a mild butterfly obsession as soon as she could run fast enough to try catching them, lifting from the grass just out of reach. She wore bright clothing, and sometimes a butterfly would land on her dress. But she was rarely still. We began drawing and coloring butterflies each spring from when she was three, noticing how their colors were always better than we could capture. And when we began insect collections the following year, the kids made an agreement between themselves not to use butterflies. “They’re too pretty, and so rare,” they told me.

But the kicker, the instigator of the caterpillar buying, was the summer of the Painted Lady butterflies. We’ve never experienced another like it.

They were six and five, and we signed up for a homeschool day at the Denver Aquarium. The educators had locked the kids into a classroom, and even though my kids signed up for this, they disliked the idea that I couldn’t come in to rescue them. My neck hurt when they emerged. They’d been so worried, nobody wanted to look around at the rest of the creatures there. We went outside to eat our lunch along the river that backs the property and saw a flowering bush absolutely covered with butterflies.

Of course they tried to catch some, releasing fluttering clouds of butterflies at each attempt. But the butterflies only resettled on the same bush.

“What are these?” they asked. The butterflies reminded me of monarchs, but not quite. They were not as crisply defined, and smaller, their spread wings an ombré of fuzzy oranges.

We researched them at home. Painted Ladies. Their migration pattern had shifted east, and clouds of them settled over the Bob’s echinacea, next door, Karen’s cosmos across the street, our own salvias. Our neighbor remembered this happening once when she was a kid, forty years ago on our street. On her face I saw the same enchanted look my kids wore. The Painted Ladies flew all through our neighborhood, enmagicking us all.

Ever after, I order caterpillars on a mild spring day, before the temperature flares. We watch, remembering the magic of the past, excited to bear witness.

We buy our caterpillars from Insect Lore each year, mostly because we already have the kit. This one looks the same. Check with your state’s exemptions before ordering because some states regulate which butterflies you can raise and release. Colorado has a strict and very short list.

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