Back in October, I had the distinct pleasure of "driving Miss Daisy," a magnificent female monarch butterfly, from Carroll County to North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I am still in awe at the distinct pleasure that was mine to have the opportunity to assist in giving Miss Daisy's southward migration journey a bit of a head start.
First a caterpillar on a milkweed leaf and then a chrysalis on a collard leaf, my friend Melinda Byrd — a Carroll County resident, artist, author and naturalist — kept watch in her garden with great anticipation knowing that a monarch butterfly would soon be emerging.
But when night temperatures threatened to dip below freezing, Melinda decided to bring the chrysalis indoors and let the majestic butterfly transform itself under her care and watchful eye.
She created a safe haven for the chrysalis where it could be contained without being too confined. And the beautiful butterfly did indeed find its way out of its sheltered encasing: the chrysalis. Unfortunately, it morphed in the darkness of night so Melinda did not get to observe the magic of one of Mother Nature's spectacular miracles.
When she awakened the next morning, she was greeted by the magnificent monarch butterfly — a black and orange beauty bordered with tiny white spots — a female she decided to call Daisy.
In general, butterflies have a very short life span of only a few weeks. The monarch butterfly is unique in that it lives longer and migrates in the fall from North America to winter in Mexico — following flyways very much as birds do. But not all monarchs migrate. Daisy is a fourth generation monarch butterfly, and only the fourth generation lives long enough to make the long journey south to Mexico.
It occurred to Melinda that if she could give Daisy a jump-start on her journey by finding a "free ride" for part of the trip south that perhaps she would have a better chance of making it all the way to Mexico — and especially late in the season.
Thank goodness for social media. Melinda had been sharing the story of Daisy on Facebook with pictures and progress reports. When she casually mentioned that she wished she knew of someone who was traveling south within the next few days, I was quick to respond.
You might wonder how Melinda knew that her monarch was one that was destined to fly to Mexico for the winter. It has everything to do with timing and a lot to do with the undiscovered secrets of our natural world.
It actually takes four generations of monarch butterflies to complete the cycle of the migration journey. In addition, each generation lives through four stages of life: egg, caterpillar (larvae), chrysalis (pupa) and butterfly. For most butterflies, these stages of life are very brief. An entire lifetime for a butterfly may be only six to eight weeks. But the lifetime of a fourth generation monarch, if its cycle is not interrupted, may last for six to eight months.
Melinda's monarch Daisy began her life as an egg that was laid on a milkweed leaf in Melinda's backyard. It took only about four days for the tiny egg to hatch into a baby caterpillar that immediately began munching on leaves — milkweed leaves — the only kind that monarch caterpillars will eat. As the caterpillar grew, it shed or molted, its outer skin several times. Within two weeks of hatching, the caterpillar was fully-grown and ready for the next stage of life.
It attached itself to a stem and hung upside down as it spun silk around itself to create a cocoon called a chrysalis. A truly amazing transformation occurred inside the chrysalis in a period of just 10 days. It was during this time that Melinda brought the chrysalis inside, and the beautiful monarch butterfly emerged.
Daisy was destined to become a migrating monarch. Today, she should be well on her way to Mexico (or perhaps she has already arrived) where she will spend the winter months in hibernation with tens of thousands of other migrating monarchs. The monarchs gather together in colonies in forests of oyamel trees.
Daisy will begin traveling again in late winter, but her northward journey will be a much shorter one. By March or April, she will be laying her eggs (as many as 300) on milkweed leaves in the southern part of the United States. Thus begins the life of the first generation in the cycle of the migrating monarchs. Daisy's life will come to an end as a new cycle begins. It takes three to four generations for the butterflies to reach the northern part of the United States and Canada.
The caterpillars in this first generation will go through the entire life cycle and transform into butterflies that will move farther north before they lay their eggs in May or June and then die. This next generation will continue to move northward and will lay eggs in July or August. The third generation will lay eggs in September or October for the fourth generation of monarchs — the butterflies that will migrate to Mexico where the cycle will end and begin again.
Although I can't say with certainty that Daisy will make it to her final destination in the oyamel forests of Mexico, I can tell you for sure that she made it safely to South Carolina. On the morning of Oct. 22, I picked up my friend Jeannie Hawkins (also from Carroll County) at the Myrtle Beach airport, and together we found the perfect setting to release our precious cargo.
It was a warm and breezy sun-shining day when we took Daisy to La Belle Aime Vineyard and released her. She flew directly up into a live oak tree where she could view the landscape that surrounded her — a lovely scene of trees, blooming shrubs, sparkling pond, and lots of grape vines.
Jeannie and I must have stayed with her for at least a half hour, with cameras clicking, but our monarch beauty didn't seem ready to begin her long journey.
My guess is that she spent the day moving about the vineyard as she filled up on sweet nectar in preparation for the long trip still ahead of her.