Live and Learn



In the heat of the day, the shades close over the greenhouse like the rigging of a ship and wrap me in a neat chrysalis of glass and steel.  Seated on sliding, metal racks are the hundred plus caterpillars destined for High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), crawling upon nibbled stems and broad leaves of many netted milkweed plants.  The caterpillars are all my children and they are rowdy.  Their only thoughts are of eating and sleeping and perhaps the occasional nightmare of being snatched by a pair of tweezers, loaded onto a white, plastic tray, and placed into a glass box.  I often wonder what they think of the “hand from the heavens” which, like all good extra-terrestrials, abducts them for strange experiments and then returns them to their home, unharmed.  They probably don’t want to think about it.

Rewind to two weeks ago; it is mid-morning and a package has just arrived for the Puzey Lab, airmailed overnight and in urgent need of opening upon arrival.  My caterpillars traveled in style.  They were clumped upon three, curled leaves in a small, plastic cup nestled beneath two layers of green and white colored paper.  One hundred fifty eggs, most of them a cream white-yellow space capsules with parallel ridges that met at a point.  A few were tipped with black where beneath the translucent surface of the egg casing you could see the black, glossed surface of the head preparing to emerge.



     My task was simple.  I had but only to separate these eggs from one another, using a scalpel and a pair of sharp tweezers, being careful not to dislodge the eggs, puncture them, or God forbid loose one over the edge of the table.  I thought I did quite well until, after having gathered every single one of the separated eggs onto a plastic cover, I bumped the table and dropped the whole thing facedown onto the white, tile floor.  Yes.  I dropped all one hundred fifty of my babies on their heads.  Things were off to a great start.

Keeping the eggs hydrated with a wet, paper towel that I had attached to a cardboard backing, I returned to making nets to contain my children on milkweed stems.  The nets were made of white tool fabric purchased last year at JoAnne’s Fabrics in New Town for Jake’s project.  It had endured nearly two projects now, and was nearly gone.  Jake and I would return to JoAnne’s soon in the pursuit of more tool, in addition to a building project that would provide a home to new, vibrant additions to the greenhouse.




     The nets were time-consuming and awkward to make.  Due to a lack of equipment and time, we stapled them together using staples not designed for the stapler that most effectively fit around the wound tool.  During these bursts of net making, I would pull up a table in front of one of the soft, green armchairs in the colloquium (nicknamed the fishbowl), log onto my Amazon Prime account, and watch The War, by Ken Burns.  I cried during almost every episode and learned newfound respect and horror for my country.

Caterpillars began hatching and as with every first project, the logistics wasted no time becoming a nightmare.  Some of the nets were too small, some too big.  Spider mites and aphids threatened the health of the plants set aside for the experiment.  Cleaning the greenhouse became a grueling and daily task.  During the middle of the day, the heat and humidity of the greenhouse would be so great, even with the shades, that I would drench one or two pairs of clothes every afternoon.  White, salt stains caked my shirts and the boot lines of my pants.  And the caterpillars themselves, which we had planned on placing on the plants before hatching from their eggs, began to hatch on an unpredictable schedule.  Mini-broods of a dozen to two-dozen eggs would be ready to hatch in the course of a few hours and the caterpillars had no regard for my need to sleep or to eat.  I did my best to place them on their assigned plants as fast as I could, in addition to my other responsibilities.  But the work began to take its toll.

I became sick the weekend after the caterpillars arrived.  By some great miracle, though I did not stop or slow my routine, reduce my hours, or neglect data, after three days I began to regain my health.  My girlfriend, Victoria, was my constant friend and support, along with my friends in lab and in other labs.  Professor Kurt Williamson’s weekly movies became an important support system to keep me going and to give me a break of an hour or two before returning to my labors.  Troll Hunters is now on my list of favorite movies.  On the second or third day, the final brood of caterpillars remained dormant overnight, providing me to rest for the final push the next day.  By hook or by crook, on July 30th, 2016, I would finish placing the caterpillars on the plants and begin data collection in earnest.




     Forty-four pots were invaded by small space worms or by tiny, ridged capsules over the course of those few days.  In addition, seven or eight caterpillars were placed on a milkweed stem within a breeding enclosure constructed by Jake and I on our adventure to JoAnne’s Fabrics and Lowes.  My routine involved finding and counting the caterpillars on each plant and marking, out of interest, herbivory scores (how much leaf material the caterpillars consumed).  But this was not the whole of the project, and in the first few days I had it easy.  Caterpillar weight was an essential part of determining a possible correlate between body mass / weight and the diversity of cardenolide compounds within the plants.  In addition to counting and taking scores, each caterpillar would have to be weighed.  Having seen their size at hatching and general growth rate, I had concluded that 72 hours would be a fair time to begin weighing.  So, on July 30th, in addition to finishing my initial task of stocking each milkweed plant with caterpillars, I weighed my first two caterpillars, the two that had hatched the day the eggs had arrived – July 27th.  Within ten minutes, I had killed one of the two.

This was not a proud moment in my project.  As a child, my uncle would often take me butterfly watching.  He was a collector and I think he deserves much of the blame of turning me into an avid lepidopterist.  Framed glass cases of butterflies and moths lined the walls of his cottage on the Tennessee River in Florence, Alabama.  Beneath each specimen were its common and scientific names.  Memorizing those names and becoming literate in butterfly literature and culture became an obsession.  The scaled, vibrant wings of butterflies and moths were like those of dragons, and to learn their names was in some, small way like proving to the world that dragons existed.  He was the first to teach me how capture, pin, and spread a butterfly, a practice that I first regarded with passion and later with sorrow.  To kill a living thing without promoting its own good or the good of its kind was something I decided I could not do.

I remember watching a Tiger Swallowtail dying in a playground once.  Smooth pebbles heaped around its struggling wings and I could see the optical nerve bundle of its bright, blue eyes staring at me with all of the power and fear of a human pupil.  Looking down on this dying caterpillar, curling beneath the cruel edge of my tweezers upset me.  I left the greenhouse, disgusted.  But in typical human fashion, it would take wounding a second caterpillar days later for me to take the initiative to blunt the tweezers and set them aside for the sole purpose of picking up caterpillars.  The alternative method of picking up the caterpillars using a piece of paper had not been time efficient or consistent in its success.

The staggered broods allowed me to slip into my weighing tasks little by little, as though I were easing myself into the shallow end of the pool.  Each day added another group of pots and a few more pages of data.  Two people, used to the routine and working at full speed, took an average time of six minutes per pot.  But two people could not be the norm, as everyone was busy with their own projects and lives.  Most of them were also heading home soon to spend some time with their families before the fall semester.  My days became a blur.  I noted with some amusement one day to Victoria that my perception of time when working long hours every day (weekends included) was equivalent in some small way to having long periods of free time.  I knew the date, but not the day of the week.  On her days off or on her free evenings, Victoria would assist me so that I could go home and get some sleep.  The first week was rough.




     By the second week, the thick foliage of the netted milkweeds began to transform every night into thin, sharp, nibbled stems covered in writhing caterpillars.  The average caterpillar weight jumped from fractions of a gram to a gram-and-a-half and higher.  A new subroutine was constructed in which I would weigh the caterpillars for a final time, place them into labeled cups (so that they would pass what was in their gut), and allow them to sit for 24-48 hours before being frozen in liquid nitrogen.  Caterpillars that had not grown and were too small for HPLC were placed in the breeding enclosure while caterpillars near and above 1.5 grams were set aside for possible pupation.  All caterpillars in-between awaited their fate in the darkness of Dixie cups.

I will not lie and say I felt happy or even content with freezing the caterpillars.  Having spent all day with most of them for almost a solid two weeks while watching my little space worms become wingless dragons had a great effect on me.  I became attached to my caterpillars.  The painful memory of an old promise returned, and as I froze them, I made a promise to myself that this experiment and those to come would do some good for the monarchs.

What kept me going during this time was the breeding enclosure Jake and I had built out of half-inch PVC pipe and fiberglass window-screen.  This had been done during the early days, the shallow end of weighing, when there was enough down time to be constructive.  A few weeks prior, when Jake had ordered his shipment of caterpillars, he let me have ten caterpillars with which to perform a trial run.  Because they had eaten from a variety of food sources, they were not viable for data collection.  They were to become parenting stock for a breeding enclosure in which we would grow our own caterpillars and butterflies for future feeding trials.  The idea of bringing more space worms and dragons into the world was what kept me going during the difficult challenges of the feeding trial.




     Just before Professor Puzey left for Alaska to hunt mimulus, we spoke several times about the enclosure, but no concrete plans or designs had been made.  The timeline had seemed quite a bit longer then – a few days before my eggs arrived, and just under a week before the first of ten caterpillars pupated.  It was magical to find the glistening, green chrysalis speckled with gold hanging from the masticated stem of an abandoned milkweed, but it awakened a new sense of urgency.  We had no enclosure for the developing monarch, or for any of the developing monarchs that were soon to come.

The chrysalis was only the beginning.  For weeks we had requested permission to purchase or order supplies for the greenhouse to make cleaning and maintenance easier.  Our most earnest request was for a squeegee.  In all my years of working at a kennel down the road from my house and in a variety of buildings with floors meant to handle liquids, built from the lowest to the highest incomes, I have never seen a floor leveled so badly and with such poor drainage as that of the greenhouse now adorning the ISC2.  A squeegee was not a luxury request.

Our requests returned no result.  So, in typical Haskell fashion (my Mum’s way of handling things), I took the initiative.  I bought rubber boots from ACE Hardware so that I would not go through three pairs of shoes every day.  I took a look online at squeegees and told Jake I was going for a ride if he would like to come.  I bought tool fabric for future nets and a squeegee from Lowes.  But the enclosure was the challenge.  After throwing a few ideas around, Jake suggested PVC.  Mr. Tom Meier, the handyman of the ISC supported this decision, and thus it was that Jake and I ended up in the PVC aisle of Lowes, building the enclosure.  We assembled the parts, made the measurements, purchased the screen, and returned to the ISC, squeegee in hand.

I remember walking through the front door of ISC toward the elevator, laden with supplies, face flushed with victory, and passing Mr. Meier.  He looked at the materials.  I thought for a moment he might be impressed and then he smiled and asked where all my connectors were and just how I planned on putting the enclosure together without them.  I had left them in the car trunk, of course, and I tried to tell him this, but in my typical high and pathetic voice that elicited what I think must have been pity.  He let me borrow his PVC cutters.  And now, thinking back on it, I don’t think I ever remembered to email him that I returned them to his box.  I can hear my Mum’s voice in my head right now, but I can’t tell you what she’s saying.  To paraphrase, young folks like me don’t have the sense God gave a flip-flop.  Tail between my legs, I retrieved the connectors and built the frame.

Jake’s imagination solved the problem of how to attach the fiberglass netting.  We used some aluminum wire Professor Puzey had purchased for my project to lash the netting over each face of the enclosure, and then used the hot glue gun to secure each panel.  The finished project was just what I had envisioned – tight, professional, and large enough to comfortably house a small population of monarchs.  With a satisfying thud, the cage slid onto the back bench of the bay, a perfect fit to the dimensions we measured.  Our chrysalis and caterpillars were now safe and contained in their new home.  To commemorate the victory, Jake and I re-created American Gothic, the cage in the background, squeegee in hand.





     It was a glorious moment.

     Fast forward: today is August 8th, 2016.  The sky is gray.  I am living out of my car, showering at Wesley House, and sleeping in a spare room in the Wesley Campus Minister’s home.  Though I will not be able to return to my own home in Farmville for some time, I am content.  My dragons need me.  My data collection is almost at an end.  There is light at the end of the tunnel, a whole new world to explore.  I look forward to data analysis over the coming months – to watch as this long, bittersweet, formative process yields another piece of the puzzle or another bit of supporting evidence to support the conservation of the monarch.

Thank you, Charles Center, for your patience and your willingness to support my project and my dreams.  Rest assured, I will post a final blog within the next 48 hours detailing my exact experimental design – the dry, logical (?) details of my scientific process.  Until then, Godspeed.