Some time has passed since I last wrote on this blog, and for due cause: Late June and this past month of July have been some of the hardest work I have done in my life. We successfully finished the intensity of the experiment and are now letting the butterflies live out their lives, weighing them and keeping track of their lifespans.
The work I am talking about constitutes the care and maintenance of almost 500 butterflies. This sounds relatively “easy” – butterflies can’t take much care, right? Wrong. Each monarch caterpillar alone can eat (by my rough estimate) at least five times its weight in plant tissue per day. This would be easy if they lived on their own plants, but by the design of this experiment, each caterpillar has a specific plant designated to it and it alone.
So, everyday, for at least 200 of these caterpillars, we had to go into the CO2 array, reach into the chamber, select the correct plant, cut a portion, lay it on the ID’d cup, bring it inside, wash it with bleach and double rinse it, and then dry it and replace the old stems from the caterpillar cup – for 500 caterpillars. This required so many hours of work that we actually had to hire other to assist us so we could get some sleep and remember to feed ourselves, too. And this is only the caterpillars. We had adult butterflies that needed feeding (honey water) and monarch eggs that needed to be looked after so that they hatched healthily and ready to grow as caterpillars.
Now, on the other side of that raging storm of scientific research, I have realized that, although at times it can seem like painstakingly preparing the food for every caterpillar and diligently maintaining a colony of butterflies can be ridiculous, it is worth it. The data that will come out of this research will (hopefully) reshape how we think about the Monarch Butterfly’s ability to fight disease and persist in an environment that is rapidly changing with human interference. With these data we can extrapolate an organism’s ability to self medicate to our own experience as humans and how we are influenced, down to our DNA, by what we eat.
This research inspires and excites me, enrages and delights me, and as I learn more about the possibilities of the phytochemical world around us, I can only imagine where my own research will take me in my future. But for now, I have butterflies to feed.