While I’ve raised Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars for several years now, this past year has been spectacular. I lost count of how many caterpillars there were, but by the end of the year, exactly 100 butterflies emerged! In addition, I still have 35 that are in their chrysalis state, who will most likely overwinter in that state, and emerge starting in spring.
Another aspect that was new was that for the first time I also had caterpillars for the Giant Swallowtail, the largest butterfly in North America (they really aren’t that much bigger!). See the photo below for the first one. I haven’t learned to tell the sexes apart for that species, as the coloration differences aren’t nearly as obvious as for the Black Swallowtail.
So here are the totals for 2020:
Female Black Swallowtails
Male Black Swallowtails
Black Swallowtails, sex unknown
I took a photo of each adult when it emerged, but didn’t want to create a post with all 100 images. So just click on the photo to have a new random image shown!
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.
Sure enough, this morning when I checked the enclosure this morning, there was a brand-new butterfly!
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!
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!
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!
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.
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:
The enclosures have been filling up with pupas from that brood. Here are a few of them:
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!
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.
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.