And Now We Wait

My friend Annie planted fennel in her garden this year with hopes of attracting Eastern Black Swallowtails to lay their eggs there. Fennel is one of their many host plants (things that their caterpillars can eat when they hatch), along with carrots, celery, parsley, dill and others.

And sure enough, she got a bumper crop of swallowtail caterpillars on her fennel, and offered to let me take some of them to raise. I was hesitant at first because I had my hands full with monarchs and a few new moth species, but eventually I couldn’t resist any longer and accepted four of them in various stages of growth.

Here’s one of the smaller ones, with its white saddle of uric acid deposits that are thought to help protect them from harmful chemicals in the diet.

Black swallowtail caterpillar - early instar - w sig - blog

They look very different as they molt into larger instars, as shown here:

Black swallowtail caterpillar and molted skin w sig - blog

You can see the shed skin behind this one; he’ll turn around and eat that skin. Yum.

So we were off and running on this new adventure. I kept them supplied with celery, parsley, and dill, and they continued the work of eating, pooping, and molting. Caterpillars generate a lot of frass (poo) as they get larger, and it’s a challenge to do the daily cleanings of their container without disturbing them too much, but I make my best effort.

Black swallowtail caterpillar - middle instar - w sig - blog

Black swallowtail caterpillar on 9-3-18 w sig - blog

Finally, on September 10, one of them crawled up on a stick I’d provided and assumed the pre-pupa posture, hanging below the stick. I got excited and kept checking it throughout the day, but nothing happened other than a slight scrunching up, like a Slinky toy being pressed together.

Things started happening the next day though. This is how he looked at 3:30 in the afternoon:

Black swallowtail caterpillar beginning to pupate - w sig - blog

You can see he’s anchored the end of his abdomen to the stick and is spinning a loop of silk that will wrap around his upper body to support it. By 9:30 that night he’d completed his silk harness and looked like this:

Black swallowtail caterpillar chrysalis almost done - w sig - blog

In case you’re wondering, he didn’t change positions on the stick; I just took some of the photos from the other side.  I thought this stage was beautiful, with the subtle greens and browns, and the varying surface textures of the chrysalis.

And then the next day the chrysalis was in its final form, with gorgeous brown and white marbling.

Black swallowtail chrysalis - final form w sig - blog

The black swallowtail chrysalis can be green or brown, and all four of mine are brown like this one. I’ve read some suggestions that the color is determined by the surroundings, perhaps to blend in with foliage or something. But these guys were in a room with green walls, and they made brown chrysalises, so that theory doesn’t hold water in this case. Or I suppose it would be more likely that he’s brown because the stick is brown, in which case the theory holds. Ah, so many questions!

And now comes the big mystery: Will these guys emerge in a couple weeks, or will they stay in their chrysalises all winter long? I haven’t found any information that would tell me how to know what to expect, so my plan is to watch them closely for the next couple of weeks. I would love to see them emerge so I can release them before the weather gets too cold. But if they turn out to be the overwintering types, I’ll put them outside in a semi-sheltered spot and wait for the “big reveal” next spring. Either way, I’m looking forward to watching this amazing process unfold.

I was just talking to a friend today about the process of metamorphosis. It’s something we all learn as children. We grow up knowing that caterpillars turn into butterflies, but I’d guess that most of us don’t really and truly think about it too much. I know I never appreciated what an incredible thing it is, until I became intimately involved in their lives as I shared my home with them.

Since I’ve been raising butterflies over the past few years, I’ve had days where I just sit and watch them in utter amazement as I think about their lives. A butterfly lays a microscopic egg on a plant. The miniscule caterpillar hatches and begins feeding on the leaves. If she lives long enough, there comes a day when she turns into an unrecognizable mass of goo that hardens into a beautiful shell-like structure. Then, inside that structure her body somehow liquifies and gets reassembled into an animal with big, soft wings. My mind can’t even comprehend it, really, but it brings me so much joy every single time I see it happen.

I don’t like to use the word “miracle,” but sometimes I feel like that’s the word I need to describe a butterfly’s metamorphosis.

Black swallowtail female
Eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

Just Call Me “Moth Mama”

In my previous post, I wrote about some yellow-striped armyworm caterpillars (Spodoptera ornithogalli) I’d brought home to raise.

Yellow-striped armyworm moth caterpillar Aug 22 2018
Giving him some fresh air one day while I was cleaning the container and adding food

Many caterpillars have beautiful markings, and this one was no exception. I didn’t notice this pretty geometric design on the dorsal side until the last instar.

Yellow-striped armyworm caterpillar - blog

There’s sometimes a bit of a challenge in identifying the species of a caterpillar because they can look very different depending on their life stage. Sometimes they’ll have completely different patterns in their early instars than they do in later instars, after molting several times. And my primary field guide doesn’t usually show more than one, or maybe two, instars for each species. So I have to consult multiple sources to confirm an identification; usually one or more of Mississippi State University’s “Moth Photographers Group,” BugGuide.net, or various Facebook groups like Mothing Ohio, Butterflying Ohio, or Caterpillars Ohio.

I didn’t know what to expect as far as how or when they would pupate, but it turned out I didn’t have to wait long to find out. On the morning of August 23, I discovered a little brown pellet lying on the bottom of the enclosure and a shriveled up exoskeleton beside it.

Yellow-striped armyworm in cocoon day one - blog
Pupa with molted exoskeleton lying on the left

It surprised me because I’d thought they would need to hang from a stick or dig under some soil or something.  I also thought a moth cocoon would be hairy or have a rough texture, so this smooth, shiny capsule intrigued me. (Correction: thanks to a kind reader I know that this isn’t a cocoon at all, but the actual pupal form of the moth.) I moved it into a separate little container, placed it on the kitchen counter, and waited for the others to pupate.

In the meantime, my research told me that this species would not overwinter in this form, but would instead emerge as an adult moth in only 9-22 days. That was exciting, because the idea of waiting all winter long to see its adult form seemed rather anticlimactic, after all the drama of finding it, identifying it, and then seeing it pupate.

So I marked September 1 as the first possible date of emergence. That day came and went. As did September 2. Then, at 7:00 on the morning of September 3, I was awakened by an unusual noise. My cat Sam and I both jumped out of bed and ran to the kitchen. We found Sophie on the counter pawing at the little container — which now had a moth fluttering around inside! So he only spent 11 days as a pupa.

The photos came out pretty dark, so I lightened this one to show his beautiful patterning:

Yellow-striped armyworm moth - blog
Newly-eclosed yellow-striped armyworm moth

I say this often, but it bears repeating: You will be amazed when you take the time to look closely at anything in nature. There’s so much hidden beauty right under our noses every day! My camera’s macro lens is one of my prized possessions; it changed my life by opening up a whole new world to me.

It may seem silly, but I was bursting with “parental pride” at having raised him from caterpillar to adult moth. It wasn’t quite as exciting as the first time I raised a monarch butterfly, but it was still enough to make me smile when I was barely awake enough to see what he looked like. This guy was quite agitated in his container and I had concerns that he would damage his wings, so I took a few photos as quickly as I could, and then placed his container in the garden under the sheltering leaves of a large hosta. I often find moths hiding there during the day, so I thought that would be a good place for him to hang out until he was ready to explore his new world.

Yellow-striped armyworm - underside view - blog
Underside view of newly-eclosed yellow armyworm moth

If there are any farmers reading this, they might be annoyed that I raised this insect because it’s considered an agricultural “pest” and is a frequent target of crop pesticides.  I guess that would be a fair point, but I also think that it was a great learning experience for me and it’s not like I’m raising bunches of them. In fact, only one of the armyworm caterpillars I found survived to adulthood.  And I’m sharing what I learned too, so the educational value of raising this single moth is multiplied.

Also, I read in Caterpillars of Eastern North America (Wagner, 2005) that the adult moths of this species migrate here from the southern U.S. in the spring. They can have several broods throughout the summer, but they can’t survive the winter up here. Wagner doesn’t mention the adults migrating south again in fall, so does that mean that any of them that are here in the winter will perish and our population will get replenished in the spring when new adults migrate here? I’d still like to know the answer to that.

Polyphemus caterpillar on 9-1-18 - blog
Polyphemus caterpillar on September 1, the day I adopted him (Antheraea polyphemus)

Having said all that, it’s been quite rewarding to successfully raise a moth for the first time.  The Speyer’s cucullia caterpillars I showed in my previous post have burrowed into the soil already; if all goes well they’ll emerge in the spring. I’m continuing to raise the polyphemus moth caterpillars I mentioned previously too. They seem to be growing much more slowly than I’m used to seeing with monarch caterpillars.

Black swallowtail caterpillar - blog
Black swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)

And just a couple days ago my friend Annie gave me four black swallowtail caterpillars from her garden. That’s yet another new species for me, but I’ve already noticed that these butterfly caterpillars are growing much faster than the moth caterpillars. I wonder if it’s generally true that moth caterpillars grow slower than butterfly caterpillars; that sounds like something I should add to my list of winter research projects.

In the next couple of weeks I’ll have a few monarch butterflies emerging, and then I’ll look forward to releasing my very first black swallowtail butterflies. I can’t wait!

The Wings That Lifted Me Up

I just had the most extraordinary experience thanks to the kindness of a friend. I’d been feeling down for a few days and was keeping to myself, refusing to socialize with anyone. I knew I just needed some time away from people to get myself re-centered after a couple of bad experiences earlier this week. So I was spending my days with my hands in the soil, transplanting my many native plant seedlings. It was good and fulfilling work, and I could feel myself slowly getting ready to face the world again.

By the way, I read about a study years ago that showed that microbes in soil can actually lift your mood, and my experience seems to back that up.

So anyway, my friend Rick didn’t know I was going through this, but he happened to call today to ask if I wanted to come watch him release his two newly-emerged Giant Swallowtail butterflies. It took me about a half second to say “Yes, of course!” I was so excited I could barely contain myself. Not only did he have those beautiful butterflies to show me, but this would be my first visit to his extensive and award-winning native plant garden. He’s been one of my mentors in my new native gardening project, and so I was just as excited about talking plants with him.

As I arrived at his house, he was standing in the yard holding an aquarium containing the two swallowtails. As I oohed and ahhed over them, he said he had yet another surprise for me. We walked into the back yard and he showed me a freshly-eclosed Hyalophora cecropia, aka Giant Silkworm moth! I almost jumped out of my skin because I’d been dying to see one of these for a long time.

Cecropia moth on Rick's arm - full view from above
Cecropia moth on Rick’s arm

Is that not stunning?! I still can’t believe I finally got to see this species, the largest moth in North America with a 6″ wingspan. And not only that, I was able to let it crawl around on my arm and feel the prickles of its tiny feet! I was rather surprised to notice that as it walked, that gorgeous fat abdomen just dragged along under the wings. I would have expected it to be lifted up. I may need to do some research about that to see if maybe that was just because it was newly-eclosed.

Cecropia moth showing underwings and abdomen pattern
Rick gently lifted the wings so I could get this shot of the gorgeous pattern on the abdomen.

This moth had been in its cocoon all winter long and will live just long enough to mate and lay eggs for the next generation. If you’d like to see photos of the entire life cycle of this fascinating insect, go here.

As with all moths, it had lush comb-like antennae, as shown below. We believe this one is female because the antennae on the males are much larger than those on the female.

Cecropia moth at Rick's house - close crop of antennae

Here’s another Cecropia still in its cocoon:

Cecropia moth cocoon

I sometimes forget to make the distinction between a cocoon and a chrysalis. A butterfly emerges, or ecloses, from a chrysalis. A moth emerges from a cocoon. #ScienceTidbit

Here’s one of the Giant Swallowtails after we placed it on a wafer ash tree in Rick’s yard:

Giant Swallowtail on wafer ash tree w sig

Here’s the chrysalis after the butterfly emerged out of it:

Giant swallowtail chrysalis after the butterfly has emerged - smaller file size

The camouflage is perfect, isn’t it? If I saw that branch in nature, I’d probably not even notice the chrysalis. Here’s a short video of the butterfly resting before making its first flight:

I’m incredibly grateful for the timing of Rick’s call today, and that I was able to spend a couple hours soaking up the beauty of his yard and the knowledge in his native-plant-growing brain. And, of course, I left his house with a few more native plants in my arms.

This is proof that, sometimes, one small gesture can turn your day around. The second I saw those crisp new life forms fluttering their delicate wings, I forgot all about the things in the human world that had made me sad. Once again, nature was my therapy.