Day 17: Lazarus

This past Sunday I awoke to find that one of the two Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars had drowned. I had some plant material in a small vase with a cover, but the opening of the cover enlarged, and the caterpillar fell in the water. I felt incredibly guilty, and incredibly sad.

I removed the caterpillar from the bottle of water and gave it what I considered a proper burial: our kitchen scrap compost container. We keep a plastic tub by the sink, and put all our compostable bits in there: coffee grounds, paper towels, food that’s no longer edible, etc. Into that mix went the caterpillar. As the day progressed we added more things to the tub from our meals.

That was Sunday morning. On Tuesday afternoon I was walking through the kitchen, and couldn’t believe my eyes. There, in the middle of the floor, was a swallowtail caterpillar! It wasn’t a newly-hatched one, either: it was as big as the one that had drowned.

My mind raced to figure out where this caterpillar came from. Could it be one of the tiny caterpillars that might have crawled out of the container we keep them in, now grown much larger? No, because it would not have had access to food. Could it have somehow gotten on my clothes while I was in the garden without me noticing? Not very likely, as I inspect all the host plants at least once a day for new eggs/caterpillars, and there’s no way I would have missed a caterpillar long enough for it to get that big.

There was only one explanation: the caterpillar that had drowned had somehow survived, and then made its way out of the compost bin, down from the counter, and then crawled approximately 15 feet to the spot where I found it. That sounded too preposterous to be likely, so I started searching the net. But sure enough, caterpillars can survive drowning if they are dried out quickly enough!

What makes this even more amazing is that I didn’t do anything to revive it. In fact, it was treated like any other scrap in the compost bin, and probably had the morning’s coffee grounds dumped on it, along with other things throughout the day. I’m guessing that there may have been some paper towels that drew the water out of the caterpillar, allowing it to breathe once more, and then the feisty little guy just started crawling, and made its way out of the bin. It’s also amazing that in the two days between its burial in the compost and re-discovery, we didn’t step on it as it was crawling on the floor, or our cat didn’t find it and make it his new play toy.

I ran out and grabbed a sprig of rue, the host plant it was feeding on, and placed it on the floor in front of the miracle caterpillar. It crawled onto it and started munching away. I picked up the sprig with the caterpillar clinging on, and placed it back in the “nursery”, this time with no standing water hazard. I’m happy to report that two days later the caterpillar is still eating and pooping as if nothing had ever happened.

Lazarus, rue, and frass

I’ve never named the caterpillars I’ve raised; frankly, the only way to differentiate them is size, and that changes constantly. But I had already started calling this one Lazarus, after the biblical story of a dead man who had been brought back to life. Later that day I was listening to music on shuffle, and David Bowie’s song Lazarus came on, further crystallizing that name for me.

I will be sure to post photos when Lazarus emerges as a butterfly!

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.