What the Hell Is This? Another Parenting Blog?

I promise to return to my usual posts about the hilarity of Chicago street gangs, the futility of peace negotiations in the Middle East, and the absurdity of the American consumer next week. For this week, something different:

When we planted our garden earlier this summer, I asked my 5 year old son what he wanted to grow. Among other things, he was very excited about growing “milky way.” It quickly turned out that he actually wanted to grow milkweed so we could have monarch butterflies. I guess the school had some lesson on about monarchs and their decreasing numbers due to habitat loss. From that point in April forward, I spent entirely too much time trying to satisfy my sons’ interests in milkweed and monarchs.

First, of course, I went online to see if I could buy milkweed seeds or plants. You can, but it seemed awfully expensive to buy something that is a WEED. Luckily, I had a friend who grew milkweed in her yard and she was willing to share some. I dug it up, replanted it in a sunny spot in our yard…and it didn’t take.

I drive my car to work, and so does everyone else. Parking around my office at the university is impossible. Parking in the adjoining neighborhood is close to impossible because the neighbors hate the university (and vice versa), so most of the parking is zoned for residents. Downside: I park really far away from my office. Upside: all that zoning for residents is just for spite — the neighborhood south of the University isn’t densely populated, and there’s a lot of vacant lots. Vacant lots = milkweed! So every day on  my way to and from my car, I would look for monarch caterpillars. A couple of weeks ago, I found one on my way in. On the way home, I found another. I put them and a few leaves in one of the old plastic takeout containers I carry my sandwiches in and took them home. Later, my older son noticed that there was a really tiny third caterpillar on one of the leaves. Here’s a picture I took of one of the caterpillars. This is on my dining room table, using a helping hand-type soldering stand to hold the leaf, a Nikon D7000 and 85mm lens with a close-up lens, and a Maglite to illuminate the thing:

Monarch Caterpillar


Here’s another shot I did, trying to capture its face – which turns out to be fairly featureless. This was also done with my D7000, but with a 50mm Series E reversed on the front. This is a really difficult set-up to work with, using the camera fully manually and looking through a viewfinder that’s very dark due to stopping down the lens all the way.


I mention all the camera equipment to mock myself. I have all this stuff. I use it a few times a year. I make no money off of it, I don’t enter any contests or anything, and I don’t usually share pictures I take that aren’t of my kids.  But find me a caterpillar and an hour to kill on a Tuesday night, and BAM! I pull it all out and set it up and then think of all the other things I could buy to make the next time easier. Any gadget-driven male who tells you they think any differently is lying.

A long time ago, my sister- and brother-in-law bought the boys a little plastic earthworm farm. You put vermipods in the little box and then thrill to the xtreme excitement of the life-cycle of an earthworm! Let me summarize it for you: they start as little worms and grow to be bigger worms. Then you throw them in the garden. YESSS! Anyway, I took the thing and fixed cheesecloth over the ventilation holes. You can see the set-up in my kid’s hands below.

In what became a strange daily ritual, I would grab a few milkweed leaves everyday on my way back to my car. And then get sticky white sappy stuff all over my fingers.  Hey! I guess that’s why the call it milkweed. Caterpillars eat and poop a surprising amount. They also grow really fast. If you’re lucky, they’ll form a chrysalis. If you’re even luckier, they’ll emerge from the chrysalis. I prepared my kids for the eventuality that one or all of the caterpillars would die at some point. But the first one to form a chrysalis actually emerged. Here’s a time-lapse that I shot with my GoPro Hero 2, which I set up via WiFi on my Galaxy SIII. Because sedentary higher ed office monkeys need WiFi-enabled action cameras:

If you look carefully, you can see the other caterpillar at lower right coming in and out of the picture. The things moving in the background are our guppies that my son took home as fry from his class last year. They’ve also managed not to die, which is nice.

Here’s my kids with the butterfly in the enclosure on our way out the door to release it:

DSC_4863 This is the former resident of our sunroom resting after a short initial flight. My wife, kids, and I were all pretty excited that this worked out so well. If you’re not a parent, you probably don’t know that most parenting blogs have deep moral lessons; even those that are ostensibly about craft and science projects are written by people who are either home schooling their kids or leading a vacation bible school. I’m doing none of those things, so I’ll just say this was pretty cool. I’m really grateful for all of the information that’s published by the University of Minnesota Monarch Lab on how to do this. I’m still checking the milkweed twice a day for caterpillars, but I’ve been distracted by the pressing needs of building a giant Batman pinata for my son’s birthday. But that’s a different story.





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