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A Balcony View of Near-Extinction

It’s a warm August night in Los Angeles.


My glass of gin and tonic is dripping in the heat as my roommate Melissa and I sit on our apartment’s balcony to toast the newest additions to our household. Earlier tonight, we were delighted to find a surprise on Melissa’s most recent spontaneous plant purchase of narrowleaf milkweed: two monarch caterpillars.


The black, yellow, and white stripes were instantly recognizable, even on their small bodies. One caterpillar is larger than the other, and has more vibrant stripes, but they both have long black antennae, bent part way up like they’re trying to catch radio waves. I begin doing what I do best — fervent research — fueled both by my affection for these particular caterpillars and the urgency of the suggested related search terms of “near extinction,” “dying off,” and “sharp decline.”


Bruce (background) and Bitsy (foreground) two days after discovery of their existence. (Nicole Endacott for The Xylom)

For the next several days, our lives revolve around the caterpillars. Male and female caterpillars are indistinguishable at this stage, but we decide nonetheless that our companions need names and assign them indiscriminately. The larger one, who we name Bruce, begins ravenously plowing through the milkweed, so we buy another plant. It takes a few days for the smaller one, Bitsy, to catch up and do the same, at which point we buy two more plants. The small table on our balcony holds four huddled milkweed plants, two growing larvae, and a whole lot of their droppings, which is called frass. We have to brush it out of the way to make room for our gin glasses, but our evening communes are still full of delight.


As we sit above the hum of street sounds, we marvel at Bruce and Bitsy’s suction cup feet, their lengthening bodies weighing down the milkweed leaves, and how they look almost dog-like when their heads stretch into a sort of snout. Twice for Bruce and three times for Bitsy, we watch them fade in vibrancy then find their abandoned exoskeletons in suspended animation the next day. Monarch larvae go through five of these molts before they’re ready to pupate, or form the chrysalis where they’ll undergo metamorphosis.


Two weeks later, when we enter the window of when my internet research tells me Bruce might be ready to pupate, we watch him as much as we can. Even once we’re fully stocked on milkweed and have enough to get Bitsy through her final molt, I stop by a native plant nursery nearby to scope out their selection. I tell the owner about our caterpillars and ask how a butterfly could have found the single scrawny milkweed plant on our urban apartment balcony on which to lay her eggs. In lieu of an answer, he smiles and asks one of his own. “Isn’t it amazing?” Of course, I agree. And we’re not even at the most amazing part yet.


 

The next evening, Bruce is gone.


Like a mother who has lost her child in the supermarket, my heart races as I examine each leaf of the milkweed, even though he would be hard to miss. After a few frantic moments, Melissa finds him, but not on the milkweed —he’s across the table on the citronella plant.


“You don’t belong there!” we scold, deeming ourselves intelligent enough to question Bruce’s internal programming, the same programming that led his mother to our milkweed in the first place. After more internet exploration — “Monarch caterpillar not on milkweed?!?”— we discover that this is another step in the monarch lifecycle. Bruce is searching for a place to pupate, and he’s found it. His rear is affixed to the leaf with sticky silk. By the next morning, he’s hanging upside-down in the “J-shape” that signals imminent pupation.


Bruce poses in a J-shape immediately before pupating. (Nicole Endacott for The Xylom)

Somehow, in my time as both a student and teacher of biology, I never learned how a monarch chrysalis is made. I’ve heard people use the phrase “enters the chrysalis” or “builds its chrysalis,” but neither are accurate. The chrysalis is inside the caterpillar. After hanging in the J-shape for about a day, the caterpillar shimmies off its exoskeleton, leaving behind a light green blob that settles into a beautiful ovoid shape with a pointed top. Bruce’s chrysalis, which we return to after a long workday, is jade green with a rim of gold and looks infinitely more like a piece of jewelry than what it really is: an insect larva's insides. When it comes time for Bitsy to pupate, we watch her explore the whole table before eventually returning to the milkweed to shrug off her exoskeleton.


Bruce’s chrysalis, which we return to after a long workday, is jade green with a rim of gold and looks infinitely more like a piece of jewelry than what it really is: an insect larva's insides.

For over a week as both monarchs transform out of sight, our evenings on the balcony are lonely. But we receive one consolation. Without anything to go on in our larval stage assessment, we still somehow correctly sexed both Bruce and Bitsy. Our female, Bitsy, is inside a chrysalis with a tiny vertical crease near its top, but Bruce’s is smooth.