Contemplative Photography & Reflections

Tag: Monarch Butterflies

Milkweed Pioneers

Milkweed Pioneers

I can’t believe I haven’t written much about milkweed yet. It is one of my favorite plants. I have developed a reputation for becoming exuberant when driving past a nice patch of milkweed. My teenage children filmed one such episode a few years ago, and I have made them promise it will never end up on YouTube.

What’s to love about the humble, common milkweed plant? First of all, milkweed attracts monarch butterflies and is their larval food source. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves, and when the caterpillars hatch, they begin munching on the leaves. Each year at the end of August, my husband and I search milkweed patches for monarch caterpillars to bring into my classroom so my kindergartners can observe part of the monarch butterfly life cycle. (Click here to read more about that.) So, I initially became interested in milkweed because of its importance to monarch butterflies.

Milkweed produces a sticky, stinky, milky sap that is poisonous to many animals. When monarch caterpillars eat milkweed leaves, the toxins get stored in their tissues, and they become poisonous to predators. The connection between monarch butterflies and milkweed is profound, and the monarch butterfly’s relationship with the milkweed plant is one of its greatest defenses! The presence of milkweed in the monarch butterfly life cycle seems so beneficent.

Once milkweed had caught my attention, I fell in love with the silky, white seed fairies that burst from mature, tightly packed seed pods that crack open in the fall. The image of seed fairies leaving the pod strikes me as so elegantly powerful and symbolic that I kept a large, framed print of the photo (below) next to my mom’s bed when she was dying.

The silky milkweed “floss” has even been used as a filling for pillows!

Our yard overflows with wildflowers. It is a pollinators’ paradise. However, there was no milkweed! Every fall for the past six years, I’d bring a few mature milkweed pods into our yard and watch over them as they cracked open and released a multitude of silky seed fairies into the wind. (I read somewhere that each pod contains upwards of 200 neatly arranged seeds.) Each year, I prayed that some of the seed fairies would touch down in our yard and nestle contentedly into the ground for a long winter’s nap. But each spring and summer, I was disappointed to find that no seedlings took hold in our yard.

Until last year.

Last summer, we noticed a tiny milkweed plant growing near our compost bin! It never flowered, but at least a milkweed plant finally had taken root in our yard. Milkweed seeds are dispersed through the wind, but the plant also spreads through hardy networks of underground stems called rhizomes.

This year, milkweed is thriving on the riverside in front of our house, and the mother of all milkweed plants has claimed a spot next to our compost! It is more than five feet tall with a stalk that’s nearly an inch thick, and there are two slightly smaller plants so close to it that from a distance they appear to be one plant. They – along with their unseen rhizome system – comprise our first colony of milkweed pioneers!

Although I assumed my appreciation of milkweed already had reached an apex, I have discovered new things to love about it.

Common milkweed blooms in great spheres of pink flowers during the summer and attracts many pollinators. (The nectar and pollen do not contain the poison.)

Spiraling up from the bottom, each sphere (umbel) is in a different phase of flowering, with the lowermost sphere being the furthest along.

The upper spheres haven’t opened yet.

Zooming in for a pollinator’s view of the lower, flowered sphere, I discovered that each blossom has a five-pointed star at the center. I love to find hidden stars in nature!

Here is a side view of the flowers with petals folded down.

I leaned in to smell the blossoms and was delighted by the fragrance! It was nothing like I had anticipated, given the stench of the milky sap. My husband and I would remark about the beautiful fragrance in the air during our morning walks, and I was amazed to discover that milkweed was the source of it! Why aren’t there milkweed blossom scented perfumes and candles?

I go outside every day to inspect and marvel at our milkweed colony. It is like greeting a dear friend. Of course, I’m hoping to find a monarch butterfly egg glued to the underside of a leaf in due time. But at the moment, I am content to observe the flowering. There is so much to love about this incredible plant!


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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography ( with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Harvest Moon and the Last of the Monarchs

Harvest Moon and the Last of the Monarchs

Today was a drizzly, gray day on the river, and as a result, the full harvest moon remained hidden behind a blanket of clouds and ended up being quite a non-event. The last time I saw the (nearly full) moon, it was busy climbing trees and rolling along one of the bridge cables, and I hope it will roll back soon because I do so love moonlit kayaking!

Despite the moon not making an appearance, something rather special happened today when the harvest moon was at 100% fullness: My very last monarch butterfly was born. I found her when she was a tiny caterpillar barely 1/4″ long and watched her munch milkweed leaves for about two weeks before becoming a chrysalis. My students and I kept a close watch as the chrysalis changed, gradually becoming more transparent.

For the past two days, I kept the chrysalis (in a tent) by my side constantly, not wanting to miss the birth. I brought him home with me, placed him in the front seat of the car while I chauffeured my children to and fro, and even kept him next to my bed at night. I was convinced he was going to emerge yesterday and at bedtime had my fingers crossed that he wouldn’t accomplish this great feat while I was sleeping. I was thrilled to wake up in the morning and see he was still a chrysalis.

The saying about waiting for water to boil also applies to waiting for a butterfly to be born! I carried him from room to room with me and then finally decided to focus on lesson plans for the upcoming week.

A butterfly’s birth is a silent event, and when I looked up from the computer, he was a crumpled-winged butterfly, probably a couple minutes old.

There is an old wives’ tale (apparently unsupported by statistics) about more babies being born during the full moon. Whereas I never experienced this myself, I’m nonetheless surprised it never occurred to me during the two days of chrysalis toting that the full moon would be the perfect time for this butterfly to be born! I named him Harvest.

I continued to observe Harvest throughout the day, and when the temperature was warm enough, I brought him outside and introduced him to a marigold.

However, Harvest didn’t leave the flower and was still there as the temperature dropped, so I brought him back inside and put some flowers in the butterfly tent. I’ll try again tomorrow to get him outside when the temperature is warm enough for him to fly. I could care for a butterfly for several days in the butterfly tent, but Harvest really needs to get on his way. And he seems to know this. Disinterested in the flowers, he spends time at the top of the tent, appearing as if he wants out.

Harvest has a great journey ahead of him, and it’s getting late in the season. He is part of the fourth generation of monarch butterflies this year and has a longer potential lifespan that those of the previous three generations (who only live for two to six weeks). The generation of monarch butterflies born in the fall migrates to a warmer climate and may live up to nearly nine months, clustering on special trees that keep them warm throughout the winter. (When I read about or see images of the monarch butterfly trees in Mexico, the sacred tree in the movie, Avatar, comes to mind.) Yet, cool weather is only one threat to the monarch butterfly’s survival. Rainstorms and predators are also dangers along the way.

It takes four generations of monarch butterflies to complete the 4,000 mile round trip from the northeastern United States and southern Canada to Mexico and back. Harvest’s generation makes the trip, having never made a long journey before – and yet, each year the fourth generation of monarch butterflies somehow finds its way to the very same overwintering destination as its predecessors the year before. Born alone without parents to guide them, they are following something. Their inner navigational system knows what to do. Wow.

In addition to the dangers they face while migrating, there are also beneficent forces at play. The migrating monarchs are able to give their tiny wings a break by soaring on thermals. They have a keen sense of direction and also know to stop when conditions are not favorable and wait it out until winds have shifted in their favor. Of course, I perceive all this as one big, incredible metaphor for the human potential to awaken to and follow our own internal guidance systems!

I have observed Harvest’s life cycle for the past 26 days and have grown attached to him. I want him to make it to one of the monarch butterfly tree colonies down south, somehow experiencing the victory of a successful journey and being all he can be – fulfilling his potential and helping his species to continue. However, knowing what is best for him, I will need to let Harvest go tomorrow.

When I put Harvest up to a flower today and let him creep down my fingers to the colorful petals, it reminded me of the letting go involved with my oldest child beginning college and being a newly licensed driver this semester. That was the metaphor that was alive for me today.

It is not enough to wish the world will be kind to my daughter and this newborn butterfly. I remember when my daughter went through a prolonged Wizard of Oz stage when she was little. How many pairs of glittery ruby slippers must I have bought for her as she kept growing out of them and wearing them out? How wonderful it would be to have magical shoes that can protect you from all the dangers along the way! I always wanted a pair for myself when I was a child. Visualizing my daughter surrounded with protective white light is the practice that seems to come closest – and until my children were about ten years old, I did a white light visualization with them every evening at bedtime. However, the other part of the equation is wishing that she (and Harvest) will develop strong wings and a strong inner guidance system to carry her through life’s storms. These are a mother’s prayers.

Harvest is struggling with cooler fall temperatures just as my daughter struggles with coordinating transportation and balancing the demands of two part-time jobs and full-time coursework. It seems both my daughter and the butterfly will need the endurance of an Olympic athlete to succeed in their journeys, and I can only do so much at this point. It is their time to fly, and I need to stand here and watch them try out their wings for the first time and hope they will discover, trust, and follow that little voice that knows the way.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss ( with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Monarch Magic

Monarch Magic

When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take that step into the darkness of the unknown we must believe that one of two things will happen: There will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly.   Patric Overton

Ever since I began teaching kindergarten, my husband and I have made a tradition of searching milkweed plants for monarch caterpillars over Labor Day weekend, right before the school year starts. The goal is to collect a few caterpillars so my students can observe the dramatic and colorful  transformation from caterpillar to butterfly; however, it is an activity we truly enjoy doing together each year. My husband has fond memories of his mother packing him a picnic lunch before he headed out to look for monarch caterpillars as a child, and he cherishes the opportunity to continue this tradition with me. Observing the monarch life cycle is a magical way to begin kindergarten and a powerful reminder of the potential for transformation and transcendence. There are so many metaphors to be found in the monarch life cycle, and it is interesting to notice which ones resonate most strongly each year.

Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed leaves, and when the caterpillars hatch they begin eating the leaves, which is their entire diet. During August, we note the locations of the most promising milkweed patches. Some years, despite a great deal of effort, we come up empty handed. Last year was such a year. We didn’t find any monarch caterpillars but returned home with a great story. After combing all of the known milkweed patches, we expanded our search along the country roads near our home and noticed an impressive field of milkweed across the street from a farmhouse. Feeling both desperate and adventurous, we decided to knock on the door and ask permission to look for monarch caterpillars in the field. The old man who came to the door obliged our request; however, the grass was so tall that we gave up soon after beginning. On our way back to the car, the man came back outside to ask us if we had any luck, and we ended up having a lovely heart-to-heart conversation with him about life in this day and age. I wish we could have filmed him talking. He was a retired dairy farmer and spoke about how much better farming is in Canada because farmers get paid better and can afford to maintain their property and equipment, which is not the case here. He really opened up to us and talked about his perception that too much damage has been done to this country by greed, and said he is not sure we can fix it at this point. It was such a joy to interact with this kindhearted man and to hear an old farmer share his wisdom. A couple times during the conversation, I actually found myself choking back tears because I felt my grandmother’s spirit coming through him quite powerfully. (Her urn is decorated with a pastoral farm scene, paying tribute to her Vermont roots and her love of Vermont farm life, which was an important chapter of her life.) Without ever mentioning this to my husband, as we were driving home he remarked that he felt my grandmother’s presence during that conversation. That is one caterpillar mission I always will remember.

This year, however, we saw several monarch caterpillars and butterflies the week prior to Labor Day and knew we would be successful in fulfilling our goal of collecting caterpillars.

Sure enough, when it was time, we ended up collecting seven caterpillars. We begin by looking for tender, green milkweed leaves that have some holes eaten through them. We also look for droppings. Often, the caterpillars munch on the underside of milkweed leaves and thus are cleverly hidden, so we need to look for clues suggesting their presence. We squat down low to the ground to see the underside of the leaves.

This year, we found three large, plump caterpillars that looked like they were nearly ready to turn into chrysalises and were likely to do so before school started. We also collected four very small caterpillars so the children would be able to observe the active larva (caterpillar) stage.

We put the caterpillars and some milkweed into a butterfly tent with mesh sides and a transparent top that zips open. The very hungry caterpillars munch their way through leaves until they have had their fill and somehow know it is time to enter the next stage of their life cycle. I am amazed and inspired by this part of the process and how the caterpillars know when it is time to change. I wonder how often the human capacity to think suppresses an inner knowing that it is time for us to change. How often do we convince ourselves to resist doing something different that would result in living a more authentic life because we are so used to a particular way of being – and it feels too risky to do otherwise?

Each in his or her own time, the caterpillars climb up the walls of the tent to the top, and eventually begin making a silk button from which to hang. The caterpillar hangs in a “J” shape for a large portion of a day before turning into an emerald-jade green chrysalis by molting its skin. The skin, which has become too tight, begins to split around the bend of the “J,” and the caterpillar wraps itself into a chrysalis. It wiggles and jiggles its way into the chrysalis stage.

This year, all of my caterpillars managed to turn into chrysalises when I wasn’t looking. The link below will bring you to a wonderful, real time video of a caterpillar turning into a chrysalis. My students have asked to watch it over and over again:

Monarch Metamorphosis: Caterpillar to Chrysalis in Real Time

The monarch chrysalis is an elegant sight – an emerald green case embellished with numerous, patterned golden dots, like a jeweled crown.



For about ten days, the green chrysalises hang, quiet and still. The children check the butterfly tent every day when they enter the classroom to see if a butterfly has appeared. Throughout the week, the chrysalis fades gradually in color until it becomes transparent, like a window. Although this is the time when the least activity appears to be taking place, it is a powerful time of metamorphosis. It reminds me of the human potential for great transformation to take place during periods of stillness.

In time, the chrysalis splits open, and the butterfly emerges. This was just beginning to happen when I entered my classroom this morning, and I grabbed my camera quickly!

The butterfly lowers itself out of the pupal case, extends its legs, and clings to the pupal case.

The abdomen is swollen with fluid that needs to be pumped into the tiny wings to help them expand.


Eventually, the wing tips will fill with fluid.

And then the butterfly will wait for its wings to stiffen and dry.

After several hours, the adult butterfly will be ready to fly. The monarch butterflies born in our area at this time of year will migrate to Florida, Eastern Texas, or Mexico and gather on trees that are literally covered with monarch butterflies. It is amazing to think that such small, delicate wings will carry them thousands of miles on a rigorous journey and that each butterfly somehow is able to find his or her way!


When it is time to release a butterfly from our butterfly tent, I gather the children on the playground outside our classroom and let the butterfly perch on their fingers if it is not in too much of a hurry to try out its wings for the first time. The expressions of wonder and joy on the children’s faces are priceless, as is the gentleness with which they pass the butterfly along to the next classmate and the sincerity and hope with which they wave and exclaim, “Fly, butterfly, fly!” This is an authentic learning experience that leaves an impression on the soul that no assessment tool could ever measure.

It is a truly magical way to begin the year, and I continue to be inspired and fascinated by the process every year.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss ( with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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