When my daughter opened her present and revealed a butterfly garden, I immediately broke into a cold sweat.
When I was a boy, I had been given a similar present: a cricket farm that made the sixth plague of Egypt seem like a "little bug problem."
A butterfly garden consists of a cardboard terrarium into which you insert live caterpillars. You then watch them turn into butterflies. The slogan on the box said, "Watch them grow and let them go!"
The slogan on my cricket farm must have read, "Watch them grow, watch your cat knock over the terrarium, watch hundreds of crickets scurry into every dark recess of your kitchen!"
I must admit, the butterfly garden was more educational than my cricket farm. I only learned three things during my short stint as a cricket farmer:
1. The biggest natural predator of crickets is the house cat.
2. A cricket farm accident makes your mom much less receptive to requests for an ant farm.
3. The common garden cricket can live for six months under a Kenmore refrigerator.
What I learned from my daughter's butterfly garden was much more profound. For instance, naming each caterpillar is extremely important.
Caterpillar names follow the same convention as those for ponies and unicorns. Acceptable monikers include "Rainbow," "Princess," and "Beauty." My son was more intrigued by the possibility of hearing the sound caterpillars make when you squash them. We kept him away from the terrarium until the butterflies were released.
One of the caterpillars died early in the process. I thought this would provide a great opportunity to teach my daughter about nature's life cycle. She thought it would be a great time to teach me about funeral planning.
"We have to bury the caterpillar in the yard," she said.
I tried to convince her that a certain bathroom fixture provided all the glamour of a "burial at sea," but she would hear none of it.
"We'll need a cross to put on the caterpillar's grave, too," she said.
Excuse me. Under no circumstances was I going to make a cross to put on an insect's grave. Please! What's next? A police-escorted funeral procession for a ladybug that succumbed to the windshield of our car?
Who's in charge of this learning experience anyway?
Obviously, not me. I made the cross out of two yellow toothpicks. We dug a hole in the mulch and buried the caterpillar in our backyard. No words were spoken. The caterpillar had lived a full life, even if he hadn't ever gotten his wings.
I did not take a careful caterpillar census at the beginning of our project, and it's possible that a butterfly escaped into our house.
The "Guide to Butterflies" says that each of the insects can lay up to 500 eggs at a time.
But it does not mention how long a butterfly can live under a Kenmore refrigerator.