Project Lepidoptera

The girls are not afraid of things that creep and crawl.  They’ve got a little cage they catch bugs in to observe and set free.  Pillbugs, capsule tent worms, ampoule grasshoppers, ladybugs and locusts have all been guests in the bug cage at some point.  When I came home from work on Tuesday they had three fat caterpillars munching on some fennel.  Anna found them while (attempting) weeding the flower beds for me (yes, she is that sweet).

They wanted to keep the caterpillars, and I figured they be fun to watch.  We dug around on the web and learned they’re black swallowtail caterpillars.  Their favorite foods are  parsley, fennel, and rue – all plants we’ve got in abundance.  These were mature looking caterpillars – they go through three stages after hatching from eggs and before pupating.  We set up a caterpillar house for them in a glass jar with a layer of sand on the bottom, a stick to climb, and lots of fennel and rue in a small plastic cup.  We put water in the cup to keep the plants fresh, and surrounded the stems with cotton balls to keep the caterpillars from drowning.  While picking some rue for the caterpillar house, we found a fourth caterpillar! In it went.  We topped the jar with cheesecloth.

Here’s one of the caterpillars in their new (temporary) home, which stays on the porch:

The rue and fennel stayed fresh for a few days, or at least fresh enough for the occupants.  They ate and pooped up a storm.  Their whole objective at this stage of life is to be an eating/pooping machine, and they were living up to it until this morning.  Claire came in alarmed – two of the caterpillars were smaller and not moving.   It was nothing to be worried about.  These caterpillars were in position, getting ready to pupate! Their back ends were attached to the stick, and you could see the strands of silk they’d used to dangle their front ends.

We kept an eye on them all day in the hopes of seeing the skin split open and fall away, but apparently a watched caterpillar never sheds its skin.  I came home from church to find the girls were very excited.  One of the caterpillars had become a chrysalis!

A crumpled little pile of skin could be seen on the sand below. They had more news.  We have a fifth caterpillar – a baby!  The newly hatched black swallowtail caterpillars are black with a single white stripe.  I don’t know how they spotted it in there, it blended in so well with the poop.  Poop doesn’t climb the walls of the jar though. There must have been an egg on one of the plants we put in for food, or maybe a tiny newly hatched stowaway. I managed to get a picture of its underside as it crawled up the glass – it’s less than half a centimeter long.

I was looking forward to not having to worry about picking fresh plants for them once they were all done pupating, but it looks like we’ve got one more to bring up first.  I don’t know when they’re going to emerge.  Fall caterpillars overwinter in their chrysalis and summer’s a wastin’, so if the butterflies don’t emerge in a couple weeks we’ll have to keep them in the unheated garage for the winter and be patient.

If all goes well, eventually we’ll get to release some of these into the yard!

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