Every year for nearly thirty years now I enjoy the ritual of raising Monarch caterpillars and observing them throughout their astounding metamorphosis. This year as I eyed an Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes Fabricius 1775) fasten an egg to a tiny Queen Anne’s Lace plant . . . hidden within some horrid Bishop’s Weed . . . I thought I might like to get to know the offspring of this butterfly too.
It is a good year for Queen Anne’s Lace flowers in the fields. I know I should mow the flowers down, for the European introduced ‘Wild Carrot’ can be very invasive. I confess to letting them grow some years, as the plant and flowers are host to Eastern Black Swallowtail. They will gladly eat any plant in the carrot family. The tiny cream colored egg of the Swallowtail is like a jewel on a thread of leaf.
In the center of most of the lacy flowers there is a dark spot. When the caterpillar first emerges it reminds me of that little speck of black. There is a thin lace colored stripe on the larva. It certainly reminds one a bit of bird poop too. Nature is a wonder in creating camouflage garb.
I had my little Black Swallowtail ward in a separate container next to my Monarch caterpillar family. It is fun to observe the difference in how these two captives devour their hand-harvested food. The Monarch eats to grow FAST, where the Swallowtail takes its time . . . after all . . . it has no reason to hurry . . . no long journey ahead . . . a long winter sleep within its chrysalis, while the Monarchs take a perilous flight to Mexico. I collected the eggs of both butterflies at about the same time. The Monarch instars morphed many times while the Swallowtail remains content to stay smaller in its early instar suits much longer. The Swallowtail first instar is only about an eighth of an inch long in the photo above. It stayed on one flower for several days munching on the teeny petals . . . one by one.
The Eastern Black Swallowtail morphs into a differently designed instar. Its new third instar coat is like armor complete with many spikes of bright orange. Perhaps more frightening to predators than the smaller brown barbs on its former dress.
By the fourth instar the Eastern Black Swallowtail becomes more fond of green and has less prongs. It is at about this stage that the caterpillar truly begins to acquire a taste for food and even devours the stem of its host plant.
The fifth instar in all its splendor.
I never disturb this little one enough for it to bark at me with its vibrant orange organ known as an osmetrium. You can almost see the bit of orange on its head. If alarmed . . . a long forked-like antennae emerges and is warningly wiggled towards the intruder.
This photo reminds me of the very full caterpillar in ‘Alice In Wonderland.’ Over three inches about this time, and when I came home from a concert, a large poop . . . I mean LARGE . . . was on the floor below the pedestal it grew up on. I found the caterpillar half its former size spinning a silk line on a sedum stem. It seems they empty out their entire digestive system before resting and forming the pupa. Our liaison has come to an end. Truthfully it takes very little effort to raise the Eastern Black Swallowtail . . . and . . . well, I do not mean to complain, but unlike the very demanding Monarch caterpillars, I did not have to run out into the field or garden paths daily to fetch fresh lace, as I do milkweed for my Monarch wards. I do dote on them and cannot imagine my life without the sprightly Monarch critters . . . but that is another story.
The next day a beautiful green and yellow chrysalis hangs . . . no roaming for this larva . . . the lodging right next door seems safe enough. Note below that the Eastern Black Swallowtail was going into its chrysalis stage, as the Monarchs were already becoming butterflies and some had already taken their first flight. A Monarch caterpillar from an egg brought in much later than that of the Swallowtail is about to make its silk node and hang towards its becoming a chrysalis. It was quite delightful observing this process of life and I look forward to sharing the winter nest with the sleeping slowly forming butterfly. I will be sharing other butterfly tales later on. The metaphor of their metamorphosis to our human lives always moves and inspires me. I am very respectful of my wards and have them all growing next to open windows. I even hold them out under the rain so they can sense the changes in nature. I share this magic with all my guests and enjoy seeing the joy and awe in those seeing these life forms and their transformations for the first time.
I want to end this piece by saying that I do not support the commercial selling of eggs, caterpillars or butterflies. I believe we should only raise larva in the area they were found in. I think that buying and releasing butterflies at weddings should be a crime. It is cruel and potentially can affect the butterflies living naturally in any one region. Enjoying wildlife in its habitat and thoughtfully raising and releasing them back is a safer saner way to enjoy and learn more about wildlife. I often feel guilty even bringing in the milkweed plants that are in harms way growing in the garden paths. Perhaps I am wrong about this way of thinking . . . in regards to city classrooms all over the country who raise and study Monarchs and Silk caterpillars . . . I suppose the jury is still out. It is a precious thing for every child to be able to see a butterfly fly for the first time. Milkweed does even grow in city cracks. I would love to hear what you think. I do not mean to be unfair in my judgement. I am lucky to have twenty-one acres to explore.
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