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.
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!
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