‘Delicate Balance: Metamorphosis of the Monarch Butterfly’ is on display in Houston.
by Karen Derr
Photos by Theresa DiMenno
Nature photographer Theresa DiMenno’s series of photographs Delicate Balance: Metamorphosis of the Monarch Butterfly is on display now through December 1 at the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. “The photographs include the monarch from eggs to small caterpillars to large caterpillars confronting each other for space on the milkweed leaf to chrysalis, and butterflies with their wings drying,” explains DiMenno, who completed the documentary series just this year by capturing monarch butterflies mating.
DiMenno began photographing monarchs in 2009 when she noticed caterpillars voraciously eating milkweed plants that had come up voluntarily in her Spring Valley backyard. Since then, she has photographed every stage of the monarch’s life; however, she presents images that are more art than scientific illustration.
“Everything that I photographed [for this series] is here in my backyard—really in a small area of my backyard,” she explains. And this isn’t the first time she’s found subject matter for her photographs close to home. A previous series of photos titled My Lover’s Garden depicts her husband’s plants by utilizing filtered light to give an abstract feel to the photos.
In 2013, DiMenno started actually recording data on the caterpillars, chrysalis, and eclosing (or emerging) butterflies in her backyard. At that time she counted 10 chrysalis, and one was starting to eclose. “We had this freeze where it got down to 29 degrees,” DiMenno recalls. “I called the Cockrell Butterfly Center, and I got Nancy Greig, their head entomologist. She was very helpful and confirmed the monarch would indeed die if it was left out. I decided to bring it inside our house. I didn’t want to mess with nature too much, but I just couldn’t leave the rest outside, so I brought them inside too.”
DiMenno tells of how all 10 butterflies eclosed in the room she provided for them, and how she hand-fed them orange juice. She eventually took each one outside and set it free. “I wanted them to be fully realized butterflies flying around outdoors, even if it was just for a day.”
DiMenno goes on to explain, “[Houston has both] migratory monarchs and resident monarchs, and they’re being studied to see if their DNA is different.” Milkweed is the only plant that caterpillars eat.
“I want to share the metamorphosis [through my photos]. It’s just amazing to watch. I have waited hours, sometimes, for the butterfly to emerge and its wings to dry. And I want to bring awareness about their challenges with habitat,” DiMenno says. “So my goal is to have the show travel in the different cities along the migratory path of the monarch, from Canada through Texas and Mexico. It’s just an astonishing phenomenon.”
The loss of habitat for the monarch butterfly is due largely to the use of pesticides here in the United States, as well as logging operations in Mexico. DiMenno hopes to encourage others to provide milkweed plants for habitat or allow native milkweed plants to grow wild. You can buy the plants at Wabash Feed Store on Washington Avenue, at Buchanan’s Native Plants in the Heights, or at the gift shop at the Cockrell Butterfly Center. It is crucial that the plants are pesticide free.
For more information on the plight of the monarch butterfly, DiMenno recommends the website monarchwatch.org. The organization also has a program to provide free milkweed plants to schools and nonprofits.
If you think you’ve seen Theresa DiMenno’s work before, you probably have. She’s worked for many publications since the 1980s, especially photographing musicians and bands. She’s also been a photographer for OutSmart and has volunteered for projects like the AIDS Memorial Quilt and many others. Her nature photographs are also displayed in the patient rooms and hallways of Methodist Hospital.
While her photographs of people are stunning, nature photography seems to be her true calling. You can view more of her work, including many of the butterfly series photos, at her website, tdimenno.com.
Karen Derr is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine and a broker associate at Boulevard Realty.