The Palisadian-Post is running a selection of winning pieces from the 2020 Pacific Palisades Library Association’s Summer Creative Writing Contest, which featured the theme “Surprise Us!” The following piece was penned by Marlena Van Zandt, who was awarded first place in the Scrawlers category (grades five and six).
I thought I knew a lot about animals and plants but it wasn’t until I started my own Monarch Sanctuary this summer that I learned amazing and surprising things about both. Last year, we bought a milkweed plant with a caterpillar on it. I watched it grow really big then it disappeared. I looked and looked, then I found its chrysalis a few plants over! After it hatched the butterfly stayed in the yard for a long time. It was so pretty seeing an orange butterfly fluttering around. It made us happy. One day it was gone because I think it migrated.
This year I found tiny caterpillars on that milkweed. They look like striped rice sleeping in the buds and are so cute. There were 26 caterpillars on that plant! Then one day there was only ONE left! I couldn’t believe it. These caterpillars ONLY eat milkweed because it’s supposed to make them taste bad or even make them poisonous to predators, so who ate all the caterpillars?! I decided right then and there that I was saving that last caterpillar. I cut off the branch of milkweed that #26 was eating and brought it into the house and put it in a vase but he disappeared! Caterpillars can move really fast when they want to. I found him halfway across the room so I named him Houdini after that famous magician and we bought a monarch habitat. I put Houdini inside with milkweed branch but he ate every leaf so we bought a new plant.
Houdini disappeared while I was cleaning the habitat and I didn’t see him for three days, then my mom found him by accidentally squashing him. He had stuff coming out of him but he was still moving so we put him in the habitat and he started eating like he was starved which he probably was. But it wasn’t just Houdini in there now. Every time I found an egg or a mini one I brought it inside. Soon I had 10 caterpillars. I loved them and took them out all the time surprised at how fast they grew. They were friendly and would come right to me wagging their antenna. We had to buy more milkweed and when they got new plants they would eat like crazy. Every few days the caterpillars shed their skin and ate it! When they get ready to turn into a butterfly, they hang in a J shape from a branch or the top of the enclosure. Then they shed their skin for the last time which is amazing and surprising because they wriggle around and underneath their caterpillar skin is a green squirming caterpillarlike lump that hardens into the chrysalis! By the next day the chrysalises are beautiful. They’re smooth and light green with a metallic gold stripe and spots. I can tell a male from a female when it’s a butterfly and even when it’s a chrysalis by the markings.
When the first butterfly hatched it was so exciting! But the others all turned black and didn’t hatch. I looked it up and learned we probably had the Black Death which is when something like pesticides gets on them. They’ll die if you put flea poison on your pets then touch your caterpillars even days later and my mom had put flea drops on the cats a few days before. Houdini didn’t make it. Only one out the ten did. I felt horrible. But I learned that they only have a 5% chance of survival in the wild so my odds were twice as good but I still felt terrible. I cleaned out everything and was going to give up then I saw more eggs and minis on the plants outside and decided to try again. This time I read as much as I could and we joined a Facebook group called Monarchs and Milkweed where people talk about raising cats (that’s what they call caterpillars!) and post a lot of cool pictures. We have so many pictures!
This time I did it right. As much as I loved holding them I didn’t. I didn’t even pet them. I’d get them to walk onto a clean stick then transfer them into the habitat. They ate so much! We bought four new plants which is the most our habitat could hold. When those were eaten down to just the branches (and sometimes they ate the branches too!) then we bought four more plants and four more plants. We have a lot of plants that look like they’re dead but I’m watering them and they’re getting new leaves and the butterflies are laying eggs on them even though the plants look like skeletons! Then we got tons of yellow aphids on our milkweed so we bought ladybugs. After I released them and saw them eating all the aphids like crazy I wondered if they ate caterpillar eggs too. They do! What a mistake! But the ladybugs flew off after eating all our aphids and probably some caterpillar eggs. I told the people at the garden center the next time we went. They didn’t know that.
As of today I’ve released 36 monarch butterflies into the wild. I had so many chrysalises at one point that every morning a butterfly was waiting. The record was a day FIVE butterflies hatched!
My habitat has a 75% survival rate which makes me sad for the ones that died but happy that I’ve helped a lot of monarchs. I’ve had butterflies land on my hoodie, knee, armpit and even on my face! I’ve rescued three who were stuck in spider webs.
I was surprised at how much I didn’t know about monarchs and I like telling other people how amazing they are. I’ll always grow milkweed and do what I can to help the monarchs. I hope you do too. You’ll really like helping monarchs and having lots of butterflies in your yard.
To enter the Summer 2021 creative writing contest for students entering grades one through 12—which is now open and has a theme of “Help!”—visit friendsofpalilibrary.org.
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