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)

Oh, How Time Flies

It’s hard to believe it’s been a whole year since I moved to my new hometown.  I just looked back at what I wrote as I was in the process of moving and settling into the new house. I was so eager to put some color on the white walls, but I haven’t done a bit of painting yet. I do have a paint swatch hanging on a wall of the living room though, so I’m getting closer.

Here’s something I wrote last year:

As I walk around the empty rooms of the house with my footsteps echoing around me, my thoughts and emotions fluctuate from excitement and anticipation back to fretting about how much work and money it will take to maintain a home by myself. I think I’ve made great progress in the past year in learning how to control my fears, and I know that no matter what happens, I can figure out how to deal with it. I am braver than I ever imagined. I am resourceful and creative, and I’m willing to ask for help when I need it.

Well, I’ve definitely had my fill of home repair stress and expense already and some days I do miss the ease of condo living, but I still love my house despite the never-ending list of things that need to be fixed.

And I absolutely love living in Toledo.  In fact, the past 12 months definitely rank in the top five happiest years of my life. I went through a brief period of loneliness right after moving, but I quickly got involved in lots of activities and now I have an extremely busy social life. My determination to build a new life here helped motivate me to step out of my comfort zone, and I was surprised how great I felt every time I forced myself to go to a meeting where I didn’t know anyone, or join a hiking group of strangers. I feel like I’ve become a more open and relaxed person, and that’s huge for someone who has always had a tendency to isolate myself from much of the general chaos in the world.

And the people of Toledo welcomed me with open arms. I’d read an article that said Toledo is a very friendly city, and it was absolutely right. I’ve been accepted and made to feel like I’ve been here for years. Today my life is full of friends and my calendar is loaded with all sorts of fun things — volunteering, art classes, group hikes, nature conferences, and so much more.  There are times I think I need to schedule a few days with nothing to do, but that’s a good problem to have and I’m not complaining.

Just as I was preparing to make the move late last winter, I came across a book called This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are. I believe Melanie Warnick changed my life by writing this book. Her suggestions for getting involved in your community can work not only for someone moving to a new city, but even for improving your outlook on a place you’ve lived for a long time.  Some of the chapters are:

Glass Paperweights by Kim
Paperweights I made at the Toledo Museum of Art. This is Glass City, after all.
  • Lace Up Your Sneakers
  • Say Hi to Your Neighbors
  • Do Something Fun
  • Commune With Nature
  • Volunteer
  • Create Something

I followed much of her advice — I got out in the neighborhood and talked with people (instead of always avoiding running into neighbors as I’d done before); I signed up for classes and hiking groups; I volunteered for my local metroparks. Each of these things contributed immensely to helping me spread my roots deeper into my new community.

I’ve come to see that Melanie is right when she says that there’s “true psychic power in a clean slate,” and “a new city presses the reset button, forcing you to at least temporarily abandon old patterns of thought and environmental triggers.”

I shared this sign last year but I want to do it again because it resonates so strongly with me:

You will do better in Toledo sign I drive past one of these signs often and it seems to work as a sort of positive affirmation for me. I know that everything isn’t perfect here, and I will have more struggles and pain in my life. But I also know that I’m surrounded by people who care for me and whatever happens, I will do better in Toledo. I’m connected to this place and its people. Life is good and I’m grateful.

And, to make things even better, it’s almost spring! Migrating birds have started to trickle northward and very soon I’ll be photographing dragonflies and butterflies and watching my new native plant garden grow.  I can’t wait to have new nature stories to tell you! Thanks for being here. 🙂

Blue-faced Meadowhawk on knotted rush - Juncus nodosus - w sig
Blue-faced Meadowhawk, one of my favorite dragonflies