The Life and Death of Rainbow Sunshine



July 8–one of the people running Monarch Day at Indian Creek Nature Center holds one of the stars of the show.


Rainbow Sunshine in cup the day we picked the caterpillar up. Sadly, the story does not end well.

It is sad to report, but Rainbow Sunshine did not make it. Earlier this summer, on July 8, there was a very nice event at the Indian Creek Nature Center—a warm Saturday devoted to Monarch butterflies.

We went to the Second Annual Monarch Fest, and we met some grandchildren there. They helped make clay Milkweed seed balls, and while riding RAGBRAI this year, I did indeed toss seed balls. The Nature Center gave away some butterfly flowers, and I grabbed some and planted them in my garden.

And they gave away Monarch caterpillars that you could take home, nurture and watch turn into butterflies.

I’m happy to report that’s exactly what happened to a caterpillar named “Cali” that was adopted by the family of four grandchildren and their parents who were with us. They fed the caterpillar Milkweed from their own yard, and successfully raised and released a Monarch butterfly within a couple of weeks.

We tried, too. We brought home a caterpillar, and I gathered Milkweed leaves for it while on bicycle rides. I also daily cleaned the plastic glass where the caterpillar lived and gave it a new, fresh leaf.

My mistake? I think it was when I gathered some leaves from Milkweed plants that were pushing through some bushes at a nearby business. I don’t know if that’s what went wrong, but something did—my theory is that the leaves may have been sprayed with something.

We named our caterpillar Rainbow Sunshine, which was a bit of a family joke (when she was very young, my oldest daughter once asked my wife, “Why didn’t you name me Rainbow Sunshine?”)

Anyway, the caterpillar ate and grew for about four days, but then suddenly stopped moving. The instructions said it might do that for a day or so as it molted, but the caterpillar didn’t seem to molt. But it stopped eating, moved seldom and finally, after several days, was obviously an expired caterpillar, lying in the bottom of its cup home belly up.

I waited, but when the corpse seemed to start to mold, I called it and released Rainbow Sunshine into the soil of our garden.

Well, we were disappointed, but insects lead hard lives or they wouldn’t lay so many eggs. It’s a crap shoot whether any particular baby butterfly will make it to metamorphosis.

Anyway, flash forward. I have been gone from home for almost a week, riding my bicycle across Iowa on RAGBRAI. As I describe on another blog, that didn’t go exactly as planned, either, but still it was a nice five-day ride.

I got back and noted that the new butterfly flowers I had planted with others I was already growing seemed to be doing OK, which made me happy.

Then, on Saturday, the day after I got home, I did a double take.

It wasn’t Rainbow Sunshine (wrong garden), and I’m not sure if it is on a butterfly flower or one of the “maybe Milkweed” plants I tried to grow from seed—but there it was: yellow, white and black, nice and fat, quietly eating away—a caterpillar, already larger than Rainbow Sunshine had been at the time of its unfortunate demise.

I photographed it and checked on it the next day. I saw it for the first time Saturday, and Sunday, it was already bigger (and the plant it’s on has fewer leaves).

There are no guarantees. This humble little bit of life may go the way of Rainbow Sunshine and most other caterpillars. But it has already grown large, and maybe it will form its chrysalis soon.

Of course, I want to see a butterfly emerge in my garden. In any case, whatever the fate of this particular young Monarch, I feel good that I have been working for years to plant varieties of Milkweed in my garden.

And Sunday, as I sat waiting in a rocking chair on my front porch for family members to come outside for an afternoon walk to a park, I saw a shadow on the lawn. I looked up, and an adult Monarch was flitting around 10 feet above my head. It was moving too fast for me to tell if it was a he or a she, and it may have been attracted by the many Coneflowers I have blooming beside the house rather than my tiny Milkweed patch—but there it was.

Hope. Maybe not for you, Rainbow Sunshine, but for your kind.


Two views of the surprise guest. One of my grandchildren is convinced I tossed out my caterpillar too early and it simply grew–not likely, the timing is wrong and this is the wrong garden, but still.



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