Day 28: The Impossible Butterfly

I wrote this last Saturday evening right after it happened, and posted it to Twitter. I had plans for writing something different today, but our cat had other plans, and became ill. So I’ve just spent most of the day in the “waiting room” (sitting in the car until called), and then having the cat treated. It’s odd how doing almost nothing all day long can exhaust you!

So rather than write something brand-new, I thought I’d re-post my incredible experience. If you’ve followed this blog, you’d know that I raise caterpillars of the Easter Black Swallowtail butterfly, from here, here, here, and here.

I’m at a complete loss for words. I just experienced something I didn’t think was possible.

Earlier today a butterfly emerged from one of the pupas in my nursery. He had a wing deformity (yes, it was a male), and when he attempted to fly, he couldn’t get more than a few feet before returning to the ground

Resigned that he wasn’t going to survive, I placed him on a flowering plant in the yard, and assumed that nature would take its course, and the butterfly would soon die.

I kept returning every hour or so throughout the evening to check on him, and he hadn’t moved very far on the plant. As the evening grew late, I wanted to say my goodbyes. I know it seems silly, but raising these marvelous creatures from egg to adult creates an attachment. I placed my fingers in front of him, and he instinctively climbed up onto my hand. I spoke to him, telling him how sorry I was that his wing was deformed, so he wasn’t going to be able to fly and live his life.

After a minute or so, he started flapping his wings, and flew for a few feet, as he had done before, but quickly landed on the ground. I again placed my hand in front of him, and again he climbed aboard. I talked to him a little bit more, and again he started to flap his wings. This time, though, he flew!

I watched him fly across the yard, up over the garage, and then over the back fence. He quickly disappeared into the distance, and I couldn’t see him any longer.

I don’t know what kind of life he will have, but to be able to fly away on his own is something I truly never thought he would be capable of. I am still feeling that warm giddiness at witnessing what I had thought was impossible.

Day 22: The New Brood

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I raise caterpillars. How do you find caterpillars to raise, though? The best way to grow the types of plants that the species of butterfly you are interested in likes to lay her eggs.

For the Eastern Black Swallowtail, which is what I primarily like to raise, the plants include parsley, rue, dill, carrot, fennel, and a few others.

Part of my daily routine during the summer is to check these plants for eggs. They’re tiny and hard to see, but when you know what to look for it makes it easier. I found the group of 3 eggs that Lazarus came from a few weeks ago, which was a bit early in the season. Since then, nothing.

Until last Friday.

29 (count ’em) swallowtail eggs

I began inspecting one of the rue plants, and immediately saw an egg. So I grabbed a scissors and a small container. This way I could trim the part of the leaf with the egg, and save it in the container. I collected that egg, and began checking out the rest of the plant. There’s another one! And another! It seemed that everywhere I looked I found another egg!

After I was sure I got all the eggs from the rue, I moved on to the parsley plants. Sure enough, there were several more on those plants, too. It took some time, but I was finally sure that I had found them all. Back indoors I very carefully arranged the various plant clippings so that the eggs were visible, and took the photo above. Prior to this, the most eggs I had ever found was 6, so finding 29 at once was incredible! Over the next 2 days I found 5 more, bringing the grand total to 34. I’m going to need a bigger housing for them!

Someone asked me why I bring them indoors, where the temperature is much cooler than they would be exposed to outside. There are several reasons, but the primary reason is that it shields them from predators. I did some research online first to make sure that it wouldn’t be harmful to be indoors, and there does not seem to be any problems with it. The results I’ve gotten have borne that out.

Freshly-hatched caterpillars!

This morning the eggs began hatching. As soon as they hatch they start eating the leaf they are on, which is pretty wilted by now, so I add fresh host plant material for them to munch on. Can you find all the caterpillars in the photo above? I can see at least part of 14 caterpillars. There are also 2 unhatched eggs visible, and if you look at them closely, you can see that they are no longer the smooth yellow color of the newly-laid eggs.

Those stripes are the segments of the soon-to-be-hatched caterpillar. I imagine that these are from the 5 eggs that I found after the first batch, as they seem to be a day or two behind in development.

This will certainly be a good test of my caterpillar-raising skills in trying to help 34 different creatures grow to adulthood. I’ll be sure to post about any significant events in that process in the weeks to come.

Day 15: Pupation

Yes, that’s actually a word.

As I mentioned a few days ago, I raise caterpillars. I had two caterpillars that were growing well when the one in that post drowned, but later that day the other one began the process of turning into a pupa, which is the stage where its insides dissolve and re-assemble into an adult butterfly. And I was l fortunate enough to record video of that happening.

Some moths spin a cocoon of silk to encase themselves while they transform, but butterflies do not. Instead, they simply shed their skin. I say “simply”, but it’s pretty amazing.

As caterpillars hatch, they go through several stages, or instars, as they grow. At each of these stages, they shed their old skin to reveal a newer, bigger skin underneath, and each stage looks different than the others.

Black Swallowtail stages from caterpillar to butterfly
Eastern Black Swallowtail stages of development

Once the caterpillars have grown enough, they stop eating, and attach their tail end to a branch or other surface, and spin a sling of silk to hold them in place (see the “pre-pupa” in the image above). Over several hours the caterpillar just seems to be hanging out there, but there is a lot going on.

First, its body is detaching itself from its legs. It’s also sealing off its mouth and rectum. Then it begins forming a relatively tough, solid layer of skin underneath its existing skin. Once that skin is complete, the caterpillar begins to pulsate and wriggle, finally splitting its old skin and then shimmying its way out of it.

So when the caterpillar attached itself yesterday, I set up my phone’s camera to time-lapse, and left it running for several hours. The video is really amazing to watch.

If all goes well, this little guy will remain as a pupa for around 2 weeks, and then it will crack open that chrysalis, and emerge as a beautiful adult butterfly. I’ll be sure to post about that when it happens!

Day 13: Loss

I’ve been raising caterpillars for about 6 years now. I say “caterpillars” instead of “butterflies”, because once they emerge as an adult butterfly, I let them go, and my involvement ends.

The species I get to raise is the Eastern Black Swallowtail. We grow parsley in our garden, and parsley is one of the favorite host plants where swallowtails like to lay their eggs (along with rue, dill, carrots, fennel, and a few others). I found these cute caterpillars munching away on the parsley one day.

We counted an even dozen of them. As the days passed, though, their numbers steadily decreased. Only 2 of them made it to the pupa stage, and one of those pupas got eaten by a wasp. Finally, though, one of the most gorgeous creatures emerged! She was content to rest on my hand while her wings dried out, and after a while flew off.

My first swallowtail!

After that I decided to try to bring the caterpillars indoors to keep them from predators. I kept them supplied with food, and they grew well. A much higher percentage made it to adulthood, but there were some losses along the way. I had such a loss this morning.

I feed them with sprigs of whatever plant their eggs were placed on. To keep the sprigs fresh, I put them in a vase-like bottle. The problem is that sometimes the caterpillars aren’t too careful, and fall into the water and drown. To prevent that, I covered the opening with foil, and placed the stems through a small hole I poked in it.

What I didn’t take into account was that as the caterpillars move around and jostle the sprigs, the foil would tear a little, and in time the little hole I poked in the foil got bigger. The now-stripped stems then fell down into the water, and one of the caterpillars must have been holding onto one of those, and was carried into the water, too. When I got up this morning, I found him submersed.

By now I’ve raised around 100 caterpillars, and have had my share of them die. Some only get so big, and then suddenly die. Some have crawled out of the container I had them in, and if I didn’t find them in time, they would starve to death.

So I’m not sure why this one bothered me so much. I do feel responsible, in that it was my bad design that led to it drowning.

Sorry, little guy – I’ll make sure that I learn from this, and make things better for future caterpillars that come my way.