On the wings of love

My children’s butterfly-raising project gave us gifts we didn’t anticipate

Day 5: Ellie, age 3, with her caterpillar. Photo Credit Tracey Tong

It’s a long-held belief of educators that learning doesn’t only take place in the classroom. I agree: teaching important life lessons — respect for the planet and its creatures — and raising all-around good people are our responsibilities as parents.

Most recently —with philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s assertion that compassion for animals is linked to goodness of character at top of mind — our family purchased painted lady caterpillars through Monarch Butterflies (monarchbutterflies.ca). Dedicated to repopulating butterflies and improving the environment, the Toronto-based company offers monarch and painted lady butterfly-raising kits so that people can experience the life cycle and metamorphosis of butterflies in schools and their own homes — a popular activity for all ages.

The box with our precious cargo arrived in early May, and the reaction from the girls was as I had hoped. Millicent and Elliot — who inherited their mother’s tendency to recoil from insects when in the great outdoors — instantly fell in love with the caterpillars, which were just two millimetres long and encased in individual plastic containers with their food. I placed the bug condos in a prominent area of the living room, where our new housemates could be a part of the family.

Day 2: Ellie (left) and Millie examine the containers of tiny caterpillars. Photo Credit Tracey Tong

The next morning, the girls made a beeline for the caterpillars. “They seem larger,” Millie mused.

“It’s probably wishful thinking,” I said, but upon examination, we determined she was correct. They’d sprouted overnight and left us “presents,” which, had they been larger, probably would have been stinky (Ellie pointed this gem out).

Caring for insects quickly became the main activity in our household. The girls revelled in their statuses as pet owners. Only the best would do for our creatures: we bought the largest mesh habitat we could find.

Caterpillars are voracious eaters and prolific poopers (in forests heavily populated with these guys, you can hear the poop fall!) and daily chores expanded to include cleaning frass, webbing and tufts of shod skin. I loved every minute (it reminded me of when Millie was born, and my husband and I would fight for the privilege of changing her diaper — something we as seasoned parents laugh about now). Thanks to our well-stocked Ottawa Public Library branch, the girls and I found many books on the butterfly life cycle.  

Day 4: Caterpillars produce a lot of frass, a.k.a. droppings. Photo Credit Tracey Tong

About 15 days after their arrival, the caterpillars attached their chrysalises to the paper liners in their cups, which I taped to the ceiling of the habitat. Watching the caterpillars dream away was no less interesting than observing larvae wiggle around their temporary homes; the kids and I sat for hours, staring at the kidney bean-sized danglers.

Day 15: We hung the chrysalises from the ceiling of their temporary enclosure. Photo Credit Tracey Tong

The first butterfly emerged 10 days later. The children marvelled wide-eyed as the orange and black critters crawled out of their tracing paper-thin husks and hung to dry.

Day 25: The first butterfly emerges from his chrysalis. Photo Credit Tracey Tong


Day 26: A butterfly, 30 minutes after after emerging from its chrysalis. Photo Credit Tracey Tong

One butterfly, whose wings failed to unfurl, gets extra love and is hand fed half a dozen times a day. It broke my heart to see him unable to fly, but after emailing Monarch Butterflies, I learned that it happens. “Butterfly life cycles are beautiful but extremely complex and delicate,” the company wrote. “With that in mind, and as part of any life cycle, complications are sometimes involved. Our goal is to always show compassion and care in these moments. Naturally, our goal is to always provide healthy majestic butterflies, however, the weather, genetics, or even a small delay in delivery for one reason or the other can affect the life cycle of some specimens.”

Day 26: Ellie marvels at her new butterfly friend. Photo Credit Tracey Tong

We’d intended to release the butterflies — Monarch Butterflies recommends sending them on their way within three days — but our crew emerged just after the derecho struck Ottawa over Victoria Day weekend. Unwilling to risk their lives by letting them out in uncertain post-storm weather, we decided to keep them indefinitely. In the meantime, our friends have claimed the master bedroom, where they feast on fresh fruit (procured during dedicated butterfly-specific grocery runs) and play among strategically placed plants, which I had spent hours researching. Millie, 7, has named all of “her” butterflies, and three-year-old Ellie uses them to practice her counting. They’ve been such a gift, encouraging the girls’ interest in science and a love of this beautiful species. Later on — a time I dread will come far too soon — these butterflies will teach our daughters about the fragile and fleeting nature of life.

Day 27: The author’s daughters spend hours watching the butterflies in their enclosure. Photo Credit Tracey Tong

As for their mama, it’s been lovely to shift my focus from the day-to-day of parenting, work and worry to care for something else. Days spent innovating features for their habitat and connecting with these critters (one sits on my hand as I write this story) fills me with joy — something I didn’t expect. Inspiring “wonder, delight and splendor,” the Monarch Butterflies website states, “butterflies often symbolize healing, change, and growth.” I’d read these words for the first time when I adopted them. Now I know: they were referring to me.