Lazarus Finale

I’ve written before about the swallowtail caterpillar that rose from the dead, whom I named “Lazarus“. First was the sad entry about accidentally letting a caterpillar drown: Day 13: Loss. Then a few days later I wrote about the discovery of the caterpillar after I had dumped its body into our compost bin: Day 17: Lazarus. The caterpillar grew until it was ready to pupate, and I posted images of it in its chrysalis: Day 20: Lazarus Update. That was exactly 3 months and one day ago.

Lazarus had a bright green chrysalis; they can range in color from green to dark brown. Yesterday I noticed that the color had visibly darkened, which is usually a sign that the adult butterfly is about to emerge.

Green chrysalis showing dark bands

Sure enough, this morning when I checked the enclosure this morning, there was a brand-new butterfly!

Lazarus minutes after emerging from its chrysalis

Sorry for the blurry image, but the enclosure is a nylon mesh that gives you visibility, but not a great photographic view. I waited a while for the new adult to dry out and get its wings ready, and then learned the truth: Lazarus is a girl!

The very beautiful Lazarus!

She was in no hurry to leave, so she hung around for about 2 1/2 hours before finally taking flight. So I had a great opportunity to take pictures!

I’ve never gotten so involved with any individual caterpillar before this one, and I can’t begin to explain how happy I am to have been able to watch her fly off on her own after all she’s been through. It did seem that she was in no hurry to leave, so I figured she wouldn’t mind one final photo: a selfie of the two of us!

Ed & Lazarus Selfie

Day 55: The Experiment Ends

54 days ago I decided to set myself a goal to work on during my period of unemployment and social isolation: I would publish a blog post every day, and spend at least 30 minutes on each. I’m proud to say that I was able to achieve that goal!

Tomorrow I start my new job at NVIDIA, so I don’t anticipate having the copious amounts of time on my hands as I have had these past few months. I will still blog occasionally, but only when I have something to write about, and time to write it.

What have I learned by doing this experiment? Well, to start off with, I learned that it’s very difficult to let go of something without polishing it to death. That is my normal mental state when I write, and as a result I end up not publishing a post if it doesn’t feel perfect. But setting the one-edit rule helped a lot. At first I would examine every single character to make sure I didn’t have any mistakes, or could have used different words for better clarity, or… the reasons go on and on. But after doing that for a few days, and realizing that the world didn’t collapse around me, it got much easier.

Another thing that made it easier is realizing how few people actually read these posts. I have tools that generate daily stats for number of visitors, and how many times any given post was read, and believe me, they were pretty low. The one exception was the post about finally getting a new job: that got over 300 views! I find that encouraging: that people were truly happy for me, and interested in how I was doing.

One other thing I learned is that writing any particular piece gets easier once you start. Most days I didn’t have a clear idea about what I would write, and would procrastinate until I either had to start something or break my streak. I’d start by writing whatever I could think of on the topic, and it was usually crap. But after a bit it would start to flow, and I’d end up deleting the first few paragraphs whose focus meandered aimlessly, and post the rest.

I’ll close this with a caterpillar update: Lazarus is still in his/her chrysalis, but so far 9 of the new brood have emerged as adult butterflies! Unfortunately, one of the 9 had deformed wings and couldn’t fly.

I took this picture this morning of one of the enclosures: you can see butterfly #9 up at the top getting ready to leave, several pupas attached to the stick assembly I made (and one pupa attached to the enclosure itself in the top right), and two caterpillars crawling on the cup of parsley, with their little poops dotting the paper towel flooring. It’s a butterfly production line!

Day 46: The First Emergence

Today was very busy, but doing lot a lot of different things rather than one main task. So it’s the early evening and I’m finally sitting down to write.

The day started off early: I had just put water on for our morning coffee, and while it was heating I checked out the caterpillar enclosures. I saw a lot of fluttering in one, and sure enough, there was a male butterfly trying to find its way out.

First butterfly of the brood

When the butterflies emerge, they typically hang out for a couple of hours until their wings are fully expanded and dry before they try to fly away. This guy must have emerged a few hours earlier, because he was raring to go. I took the above picture as he was crawling up the side of the enclosure. Once he reached the top, off he flew!

This was the first adult butterfly that came from this large crop of eggs that I found a few weeks ago:

29 swallowtail eggs!

The enclosures have been filling up with pupas from that brood. Here are a few of them:

Lots of pupas!

You might recognize the contraption made of sticks from an earlier post; there are now 7 pupas attached to it! the five unattached pupas are either caterpillars that attached to a sprig of parsley, which will dry up in the enclosure. Notice that the one on the right still has a bit of parsley stalk attached to it. Other caterpillars sometimes give up trying to find a place to attach themselves, and just curl up on the ground. I’ve had that happen before, and they result in normal butterflies, so I’m feeling positive that these will too.

There are only a few caterpillars left who are still munching away and getting bigger. The rest have pupated, so in the coming days I’m sure I’ll find a lot more butterflies emerging from those pupas. I just hope that they have the decency to wait until I’ve had my coffee before doing so!

Day 38: Comes With the Territory

I was very excited when I discovered the huge crop of Eastern Black Swallowtail eggs a few weeks ago, but at the same time I also knew that that would mean having to deal with several caterpillars that wouldn’t make it all the way to adulthood. There can be many reasons caterpillars die: poison/insecticides, virus/bacterial infection, or just a genetic fault.

A healthy crop of caterpillars!

I took the photo above after changing the food supply and water for one of the enclosures. Those critters strip the rue and parsley pretty quickly, and many of their droppings end up in the glass. I also change the paper towels at the base of the enclosure, as it is also littered with caterpillar poop and pieces of the plants. I count at least 13 caterpillars in that shot; there are probably a few more hidden on the other side.

But when I clean out the enclosure, I often find several caterpillars on the floor of it, unresponsive. I remove them to a separate container, in case they are infected. A couple of days ago, I gathered 6 such sad critters from the two enclosures.

I puts bits of food in front of them to see if they start munching, a sign that they are still healthy. In the photo above, both #1 and #4 eventually “woke up” and began eating, so I returned them to the enclosure with their siblings.

#2 didn’t look very good at all. In the 15 minutes between when I placed them on the paper towel and when I took the photo, it had oozed a blackish liquid. It did twitch for a little while, but was soon dead.

#3 just looked deformed. I don’t know if it had some disease or a genetic fault, but it didn’t last long after this.

I had some hope for #5 and #6, as they are in the “J” shape that that swallowtail caterpillars form themselves before shedding their skin to become a pupa. They were smaller than pre-pupas typically are, but these little guys have surprised me before. I’ve had a few that laid on the bottom of the enclosure like this, and after a couple of days I’d look in on them and they had become chrysalises! They eventually emerged as perfectly normal adult butterflies, so I was hoping that that would be the case for these two. They were both wriggling from time to time, similar to the motion they make when getting ready to molt into a chrysalis.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. #5 turned dark and stopped moving in a few hours. #6 remained twitchy for 2 days before finally dying.

It’s always hard to see these tiny creatures hatch from eggs, and slowly grow bigger and bigger, only to die suddenly for no apparent reason. But it’s part of nature, and it helps to keep in mind that by keeping them away from predators and keeping them well-stocked with food, a much greater percentage do make it maturity. All you can do is your best to help them along.

Day 34: They Grow Up So Fast

Remember that large collection of butterfly eggs that I found almost 2 weeks ago? They’ve been eating, pooping, and growing non-stop ever since.

For some reason it seems that some grow faster than others. I generally keep the very little ones in a small plastic container with their food, as it helps to keep them from wandering off. But once they get big enough (third instar if we’re being technical), I transfer them to a larger mesh enclosure where I can provide more food, and where they can eventually pupate.

About half of the growing caterpillars outpaced their siblings, and so I transferred them to the larger enclosure first. The rest went into a second enclosure a few days later. Now that first group has grown to the point where they are ready to pupate.

When they’re ready, they stop eating, purge any undigested food from their stomachs, and search for a place to attach themselves to transition to a chrysalis. In the wild they can travel pretty far – when I used to let them grow outdoors, I’ve found their chrysalises attached to plants over 25 feet away. To get to those plants they would have had to crawl down the pot they were in, up a two-foot tall stone wall, and then across the garden to the plant.

Being in an enclosure limits their ability to find an attachment site. Sometimes they climb the enclosure itself and attach to either the sides or the top (as Lazarus did), but that’s not ideal, as it makes it hard for me to attend to the others without disturbing them. So I create what I call a Pupation Station.

The new Pupation Station

They are pretty simple: I find a branch with a Y-shape to provide a stable base, cut sections of branch at a slight angle, and then glue them to the base. Most of the time the wandering caterpillars find it, and choose to transition there. Here is a photo from last year’s crop of caterpillars, where 5 of them attached themselves to the branches:

5 Swallowtail chrysalises

So as I mentioned, the first group has already begun the pupation process. Two of them have purged, and have attached themselves to the ceiling of the enclosure. The rest are looking pretty pudgy, and I suspect that they will soon join them.

2- week-old big fat caterpillars

I took the above photo during a feeding/cleaning session. I remove the bundle of parsley and/or rue from the container of water, and separate the stalks with caterpillars from the rest, which is discarded. I take a bunch of fresh parsley, add the stalks with the caterpillars to it, and tie the base with a rubber band. Meanwhile I empty the glass that holds the water, as it is pretty gross from all the caterpillar poop that drops into it. I’ve started adding some round glass pieces to help prevent the caterpillars from drowning, so those have to be washed too. Then everything is carefully re-assembled and placed back into the enclosure.

Speaking of not drowning, I noticed this morning in the enclosure for the slower-growing caterpillars that one of them was partly submerged.

Saved by the glass pieces!

It looks like it had fallen down from the parsley leaves into the water, but since the glass pieces are there, it was able to crawl back up the stems to continue feeding. It made me very happy to know that I had learned from the bad experience of the past, and that adding those pieces saved a caterpillar from drowning.