Fat Caterpillars and Butterfly Sex

September, ember, member, re-member. Voluptuous word and season.

This month at Jamaica Bay, monarch caterpillars hang fat and plentiful on milkweed leaves. Their return (or departure?) seems late but I can’t be sure; I’ve waited so long for them, but what, in a time of progressive hotness, is “in season” anymore?

All I know is how sexy they are: thick and grubby, prodigal, white-yellow-black encapsulations of biological mystery. Metaphors for metamorphosis, they remind us of generationality, of the inevitability and fluidity of change. They compel us to sublimate selves into broader timescales, reaching backward to grasp our forebearers hands and forward to deliver our creative passions. Eyes on the Lepidoptera, we remember the cycle-stages of life: birth, growth, change, procreation, stewardship of an imagined future. And death. 



“Does caterpillar remember itself in this new-crowned elegance? Does butterfly recall that first caterpillaring form? Monarch dries her wings to rise, and travels on.”  -Mark Seth Lender, Salt Marsh Diary


Last week I held a candle and stood next to my infant nephew as a pastor washed and oiled his head. Child of blessing, child of promise. His mother, an entomologist, is doubly familiar with the mysteries of physiological change. As I write, a dear friend is in labor with her first child. Two more are expecting. I am 33, a woman, a writer. Autumn hails. Fertility is on everyone’s lips. 


Lips. Rose hips. Rosa rugosa. Labyrinthine petals on firm, slender stalks. Asters, solidago, salt and sand, mud, water, warmth. Critters, pulses, tides: in sound and smell and taste, there is nothing so sexual, so sensual as the salt marsh, that grassy membrane between sea and solid ground. 


Oranges, reds, yellows and browns are my colors. I was born in the fall and possess an autumnal spirit: reflective, happy to hunker down hearthside, yet nostalgic for the fireflies and bare feet and endless nights of summer. Fall is the season we come into our bodies, thank the Earth for her bounty, and wrap closer to our beloveds as the evening chills. Or doesn’t. 

In quieter afternoons at the visitor center, I read about butterfly sex: how the male grasps the female, inserts a sperm packet; how she sometimes removes the packet if she deems the male unsuitable; how she conceives of the proper moment to conceive, based on proximity of plants suitable for egg-laying. I read that some males, to encourage acceptance of their sperm, stir the female’s insides in such a way as to provoke tremors or contractions. Orgasm?

So much we’ll never know. So much we know already, and still wonder at: how some butterflies and moths have auditory organs in the mouth and taste receptors on the feet; how certain South Asian moths obtain mineral nutrients by drinking human (and other animalian) tears. How, in Slavic tradition, when a person dies the family opens a window so that the soul may depart as a butterfly. 

Danaus plexxipus. Queens and kings of known and unknown wonder. May they, and their winged compatriots, reign for Septembers to come.





*My reference for much of the above was the lovely Do Butterflies Bite? Fascinating Answers to Questions about Butterflies and Moths by Hazel Davies and Carol A. Butler.


3 thoughts on “Fat Caterpillars and Butterfly Sex

  1. always remember the joys of looking for the caterpillers with you; across the street from Grandpa’s farm on Tuesday, I searched in vain for some examples…guess they’d already left that area but at least there was plenty of milkweed for any still hungry!!!


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