Raising Giant Swallowtail Butterflies

After finding some black swallowtail caterpillars in our garden earlier this summer, we were very surprised to find giant swallowtail caterpillars too. We were even more surprised because these caterpillars looked like bird poop!

That is how my son identified them. He typed “caterpillars that look like bird poop” into a Google search engine, and giant swallowtails were the first result!

We were thrilled to find them because we don’t see giant swallowtails very often. We have seen them in our yard, but I can count on one hand the times I’ve spotted one. They are the largest butterfly in the U.S. and Canada, and they can have a wingspan of six inches. Ours weren’t quite that big, but they were almost five inches.

It turns out that one of the host plants for giant swallowtails is citrus, and if you remember, my son had planted a lemon seed a few years ago, and it grew into a small tree. We don’t live in the right climate for citrus, however, so it died during the winter. I cut off all the limbs, and I was going to throw it out, but in the spring, I started to see little green shoots come up again. So I left it. By the time the giant swallowtail came to lay her eggs, it was the size of a small bush. Since it’s unlikely we’ll ever have lemons, we don’t mind sharing our tree with caterpillars.

Eventually, we put some of the caterpillars into our butterfly cage, and we had the pleasure of observing these incredibly beautiful and well-camouflaged chrysalises.

They stayed in their chrysalis form for a good 15 days — that’s the longest we’ve ever observed a butterfly in a chrysalis. When they eclosed, they revealed their gorgeous adult attire, which was a far cry from the caterpillar-poop attire. 😉

We’re looking forward to other wonders we may find in our yard!

Raising Black Swallowtail Butterflies

Earlier this summer, we saw a monarch butterfly laying eggs on our milkweed plant, but when the caterpillars were very tiny, they disappeared. We believe a wasp preyed upon them. That was disappointing, but soon after, we found some other interesting caterpillars in our yard. We identified these as black swallowtails. There were seven. We didn’t take any chances with these guys. As soon as we could, we put them into a butterfly cage.

I can’t tell you how exciting this is for us. We love helping caterpillars get to their adult stage safely. 😉 Here are some of the photos I took.

We found these small caterpillars on my potted dill plant, and we had no idea what they were. With the help of iNaturalist, we found out they were black swallowtail caterpillars.

As they grew, they got very pretty.

In the last instar, they are gorgeous caterpillars.

Their chrysalis is quite striking as well.

We bought a large butterfly cage and put the entire potted dill inside. They were kept quite safe there.

A male. We had two males and five females total.

They all made it safely out into the wild.

We are also helping some giant swallowtail butterflies. I will post photos of them after they eclose too.

Raising Monarch Butterflies

In August and September, we had a pretty amazing experience. It started because last spring, I tried planting some milkweed seeds. My plan was to grow a lot of milkweed, and then I would order some monarch larvae and try to raise them just like we did for painted ladies four years ago.

My ideas didn’t quite work out the way I planned. First of all, out of 150 seeds, less than ten milkweed plants grew. (I’m sure this has more to do with my yard’s growing conditions and my lack of a green thumb. I have a green pinky.) They also grew very slowly. Only a few of them got big, but they never blossomed.

My milkweed plants. All of them.

One day while I was watering the milkweed, I noticed some holes in the leaves. When I turned over a leaf, there it was — a tiny monarch caterpillar!

Baby monarch caterpillar. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this little fella.

When I searched, I found them all over the milkweed. We were so excited. There were almost 20 caterpillars. (Every time we tried to count, we got a different number. There were a lot of hiding places in the milkweed.)

They grew and grew. I wondered from the very beginning, if this little patch of milkweed would be enough for them, especially after they got big.

We had another worry too. Tropical Storm Irma was going to come through here. I noticed that a mere sprinkle of the hose to water the milkweed could knock down the caterpillars.

There was no way they were going to survive Tropical Storm Irma. We made the effort to put the big pots into our garage, and as the storm was passing, I was glad I did that. It was fierce. (But I am saddened to think about how much wildlife must have drowned in that storm.)

They continued to eat and eat, grow and grow, and poop and poop. Just like caterpillars are supposed to do. It was quite amazing to watch.

We were clearly going to run out of milkweed, so I asked around for help. Someone on Twitter sent me an article saying that if the caterpillars are in their 5th instar, they will eat pumpkin and cucumber. So we bought some pumpkin and cucumber and put it in the pots, giving them a way to climb up, just like on the milkweed. At first they didn’t eat the alternate food, but by the next day, the milkweed was gone, and they were eating it! We were so relieved.

Not long after this, we noticed some of the caterpillars began leaving the pots. We knew they were probably going out to try to find a place to pupate. We decided to keep a few in our butterfly cage. I wanted the boys to be able to watch the metamorphosis, especially my eight-year-old, who doesn’t remember raising the painted ladies. I also wanted to give a few of the caterpillars some extra protection. I put seven caterpillars in the cage, and let the other ones go on their own.

When caterpillars are ready to pupate, they find a good place to attach themselves to with a silky thread and hang upside down in this J shape. They were like this for about one day at least.

Notice the gold flecks on the chrysalis. So beautiful.

Pretty soon we had four chrysalises in our cage. A day or two later, we had three more. So far, so good. We were so excited to be able to watch one become a chrysalis! I hastily grabbed my phone and got these not-the-greatest videos, but still, it’s pretty incredible.

(Something you should know about these videos: You might want to turn your volume down because my neighbor was cutting up a tree that fell during Irma with an electric saw, and it’s quite loud. Also, my son says the caterpillar is not shedding its skin. Actually, it is! It sheds all of it, and it will finally fall off in the second video.)

We also found a caterpillar hanging from one of the pots with the milkweed growing in it, and it made its chrysalis there. We were so happy to know where one of our “free” caterpillars went to. We looked around our yard for more chrysalises, but we couldn’t find any more at this point.

After about nine days, we began to notice that the chrysalises were turning a black color. This is actually because the chrysalis is transparent, and we could now see the monarch butterfly’s wings inside this beautiful pupa.

Exactly ten days after pupating, the first butterflies emerged from their chrysalis. I can’t tell you how excited we were.

We ran over to check the chrysalis on our pot. It had emerged too! It stayed there for about an hour, opening and closing its wings slightly, letting them dry. My boys were there when it finally flew away.

To our delight, we found three other butterflies emerging from their chrysalis in the yard! It’s easier to find the butterfly than the tiny, green chrysalis, but finding one butterfly led us to finding another chrysalis, which was nearby.We stayed by this one all morning, and we were able to watch it emerge. It’s not the best video, but here you go:

The wings will slowly spread out and dry.
Another one we found on our garden fence.

Throughout the day, four of the seven butterflies in our cage emerged, and we let them go as soon as they seemed strong enough to fly.

The next morning, the last three butterflies emerged, so we said good-bye to them too.

Now all the butterflies are hopefully on their way to Mexico where they will spend the winter. If you’ve never heard about the Monarch migration, or how they congregate together in one place in Mexico, you should read about it.

I don’t think we’ll ever forget this experience, and it’s times like these that I’m especially glad we’re homeschooling. Most kids don’t get to stop what they’re doing and spend a whole weekday morning watching butterflies emerge from their chrysalises. But what better education is there than having an intimate experience with nature?

The boys are hoping we’ll get to do this again, and I’m hoping it doesn’t happen until we have plenty of milkweed. But our little milkweed plants are recovering and growing faster this time, so I’m hopeful. 🙂

What exciting experiences are you having this autumn?

2nd Generation Butterflies

{Raising Painted Lady Butterflies} {Butterfly Life Cycle}

A. 2nd generation butterflies

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on June 26, 2013.

If you read my column regularly, you may recall that we raised Painted Lady butterflies this spring. We ordered the larvae from an online company and watched them grow, pupate and emerge into adult butterflies. Then we got the crazy idea to keep the butterflies, watch them mate, lay eggs, and raise a second generation.

I had visions of my house being invaded by tiny caterpillars, but I persevered thinking that at any time, I could throw the whole thing outside. I thought we’d just try it and see what happens.

We kept our first generation in our butterfly habitat, a roomy mesh cage about the size of an aquarium.  Four out of six larvae made it to maturity, and when we observed them mating, we figured out only one of them was a female. She may have been overworked, but she was determined to carry on life, and she laid dozens of eggs on a small hollyhock plant that I had dug up and potted from my yard so that I could put it down into the cage.

Butterflies don’t live very long after they mate, so when we released our first generation, I’m not sure how much time they had left. For one, it was real quick – before it reached the tree in our front yard a bird came out of nowhere and snatched it up. My husband and I weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry. We were all sad, but fortunately, my six-year-old “little biologist” understands how nature works. My three-year-old didn’t seem to notice.

There are a few plants that Painted Lady butterflies will feed on, including hollyhock, and by sheer luck I had some growing in my yard because I had received the seeds for a present. The female butterfly will only lay her eggs on these plants so that once the larvae hatch, they can start eating right away.

The eggs are smaller than the point of a pin, and they’re a beautiful aqua blue with vertical lines that look like the longitude lines on a globe. We looked at them twice under a microscope. I had read that you can see the tiny caterpillars inside them, but we never observed that.

The eggs were tiny and scattered over the leaves of the hollyhock, so I’m not sure how many there were. I decided to put the plant on our front porch to avoid an “invasion,” but I left it in the mesh cage to protect it from predators. After about a week and a half, we found the tiniest caterpillars you can imagine wiggling on the plant leaves. They were less than a millimeter in length.

At this point, we clipped the leaves with the caterpillars and put them into a big mason jar. We covered it with a coffee filter and secured it with a rubber band. Punching holes into the filter is not necessary because the caterpillars don’t need a lot of air – the filter lets in enough. We added a fresh leaf from our hollyhock plants every other day.

Then we watched them grow and grow and grow. And eat and eat and eat. And poop and poop and poop. This is the life of a caterpillar. After six days, they were the size of our first generation when we received them in the mail. They moved so fast that I never bothered to get an accurate count, but I know we had at least 24 of them.

When they got a little bigger, we let some of them go in our garden, and I wished them well.  I feared we wouldn’t have enough hollyhock to continue feeding all of them.

We kept 16 and divided them into four big mason jars to give them extra space. Of those, only ten of them survived to the pupa stage. All of them emerged or “eclosed” into adult butterflies, but, sadly, one of them was not fully formed.

2nd gen butterflies!-2

The most troubling part of the whole process, however, was discovering that one of the butterflies went missing from our cage.  Did they push open the cover? Did our cat get it? Did the three-year-old open the cage when we weren’t looking? Was I going to find a dead butterfly while vacuuming under the sofa?  I was baffled.

It was even more troubling the next day when two more went missing, so we immediately took them outside to release them, only two days after they eclosed and while we were still waiting on two more to emerge.  Luckily the case of the missing butterflies was solved when I lifted the paper towel from the bottom of the cage – three of them had crawled into the folds of the towel, and luckily they were healthy and strong and flew away as soon as I released them.

After that, it wasn’t long before the last healthy butterfly was born, and we discovered that last one was not healthy enough to fly away.  We released the healthy one, and the other rests in peace.

Raising the butterflies from eggs to adult and witnessing the entire life cycle was a wonderful experience for my whole family. It showed us how fragile and beautiful life is, and while trying to help the butterfly with miniature wings, I thought of a line in my favorite poem by Mary Oliver.  “Life is infinitely inventive,” she writes.

We hope some of them survive and are creating a third generation right here in Barrow County.

***

I hope you enjoy the following gallery of the butterfly life cycle! Click on an image to enlarge. To view a slideshow of the cycle of our first generation of butterflies, click here: Raising Butterflies

Raising Butterflies

Scroll down for a slideshow of our butterfly’s life cycle!

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on May 8, 2013.

Last year we raised toads from tadpoles, and this year we’re raising butterflies. This is surprisingly easy to do, and I’d encourage any family to give it a try.  It’s a wonderful experience for children and adults.

My sons received the Backyard Safari Butterfly Habitat as a Christmas present, but you can find other companies who sell butterfly habitats and the larvae online. The cages are around $15. The Backyard Safari Habitat came with a coupon so that we could order the larvae when we were ready for them. You need to wait for warm weather, if you plan to release the butterflies. (The larvae were approximately $10 with the coupon, but they are under $20 without it.)

We received six Painted Lady larvae (or caterpillars) in a small container with everything they needed to survive during this second stage of their life cycle. There were explicit instructions to not open the container. All we needed to do was set the container by a window (but not in direct sunlight). Note: I have read different opinions about leaving them in the container, so I suggest you do some of your own research.

Painted Lady Butterflies live almost everywhere, which is why they are often used in schools and homes for this purpose. In most places it’s okay to release them back into the environment. Another option is to find butterfly larvae in your local area and raise them, but each species has different needs, so you have to make sure you have the right food source.

We watched our caterpillars for less than two weeks as they stirred up the food, spun silk, and proved to be extremely bad housekeepers. When we got them, they were less than a centimeter in length, and in two days, they doubled their size. Right before they formed themselves into a chrysalis (or pupa), they were about an inch long and quite plump.

After the butterflies emerged, my son turned this into a project by making a model of the Painted Lady Butterfly! He studied it like a real artist!

According to the instructions I received, the caterpillars were supposed to climb to the top of the vial and attach themselves to the gauze that was placed under the lid of the container. There they would hang down and form into chrysalides, and then we weren’t allowed to disturb the container for two days. After that time, we could carefully remove the lid, and then pin the gauze with the chrysalides near the bottom and on the wall of the cage.

This is what really happened: The caterpillars made a huge mess in the container, and we couldn’t see through it very well. All of the caterpillars crawled to the top, but most of them didn’t stay there. In the end, there were only two caterpillars that formed chrysalides and hung from the top. We could barely make out one chrysalis on the bottom, and since there wasn’t any movement, I assumed the others down there were changing too.

Per the instructions, we waited two full days after the last caterpillar we could see formed his chrysalis. Finally we got out the butterfly cage, and found a small branch that fit nicely into it. Then I removed the lid to the container, and we discovered that the caterpillars had eaten most of the gauze! The two chrysalides were hanging from silk and the plastic lid. Luckily I managed to fit it over the twigs in the cage so that they hung down safely.

I had to scoop out the four other chrysalides from the bottom of the container with a spoon, and I laid them gently on the bottom of our cage. We had read that this can happen, and they should be okay, but unfortunately, two of these never formed into butterflies. We weren’t surprised.

After only five days, two of our butterflies emerged!  Two more butterflies emerged in the next few days.  They are beautiful, small orange and black butterflies, and we’re feeding them watermelon and oranges.

The whole process has enamored my six-year-old, and he wants to keep going, so we’re going to attempt to raise a second generation. Yep, call me crazy. If it turns into a good story, and I’m pretty sure it will, I’ll be sure to share it with you. Note: Yes, indeed, it’s turning into a story, and I will share it with you!

Below is a slideshow I created to show you our experience, and you can see the life cycle here too!

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Notes you may be interested in:

  • The butterfly’s life cycle is in four stages: egg, larvae (or caterpillar), chrysalis, adult butterfly.  (I highly recommend the simple app Life Cycles by nthfusion.com to help with learning about nature’s cycles!)
  • The plural for chrysalis can be either chrysalides or chrysalises. (You can go here to hear the pronunciations.)
  • The word eclose is a verb which means to emerge from the pupa as an adult or from an egg as a larvae.
  • The red liquid that drips out off the butterfly after it emerges is meconium or the waste that was secreted while it was in chrysalis.
  • After the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, it can live for about two weeks. During that time, they seek a mate, and the female seeks a host plant to lay her eggs.

If you like this, you might enjoy the slideshow I made of our tadpoles to toads last year.

Have you raised butterflies? Please share your experience!