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Saturday, August 22, 2009

How to grow a butterfly

For the last 10 years or so, we've caught butterfly caterpillars, cared for them, watched them transform to butterflies and released them. The credit really goes to my wife, who figured this out and does most of the care and feeding. We accidentally discovered this when we came home from vacation one year and the parsley plants were infested with caterpillars. My oldest son and I set out to destroy them, but my wife intervened. She captured some and a few weeks later, we discovered they were swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.

The 'configuration' is we have a butterfly bush in the back yard (clever, eh?), but we didn’t always have one. Near the butterfly bush, my wife places several planters full of growing parsley. The butterflies feed on the bush then fly over to the parsley and deposit their eggs, an event we have yet to witness. The vast majority of the ones we collect are Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.

This year’s collection started July 29th. My wife found two caterpillars in the parsley, about 3/16" (~5mm) long. If they're caught much smaller than that, they escape from the containers and get lost in the house (DAMHIK). We’re not sure how long it takes from the eggs being laid until they hatch, but I doubt it’s very long. All told, we collected eleven caterpillars this year.

On August 2nd, the first one was 5/16" (~8mm), pictured below.

On August 4th, they measured 5/8" (~16mm). They doubled their size in 2 days. Around this time, they shed their skins and transformed from black to green (note to self – next time photograph the molting). In the picture below, it's August 7th and they are now 1 1/16" (~27mm) long.

On August 10th, after growing to about 1.5" (38mm), this one entered the chrysalis stage. You can still see the caterpillar, but it is surrounded by fine, almost hair-like web.

August 11th, the webbing has transformed into a shell-like cocoon.

August 19-20, you can see that the cocoon is changing color to black. It won’t be long now!

August 21st, the first butterfly emerges. We've yet to witness the emerging process and someday, I hope to photograph it. We had two more emerge the next day and several more are getting very close.

It’s now drying its wings on a Gerber Daisy. This day was horribly humid and it took more than an hour for the wings to dry enough for it to fly away.

From a 3/16" (~5mm) caterpillar to a fully mature butterfly took about 24-25 days. On August 19th, the Philadelphia Inquirer had an article on how few butterflies there were in the Delaware Valley this year. We didn’t notice much difference in quantity from prior years however; we estimate that are as much as a month later than usual. We’ve usually completed this by late July.


Jack Riepe said...

Dear Woody:

What a great idea and a great post! I thought the pictures were intense and very educational. We too have a butterfly bush in the front garden, but noted an absence of takers this year. I found the first Monarch butterfly of this season on the bush yesterday.

Next year, we will plant parsley andf try to help this creatures along.

This was a treat tonight.

Fondest regards,
Twisted Roads

Bloom said...

Hi Wayne,
Thanks for the picture journal. I was introduced to the idea of "raising caterpillars" this year by a friend who says that she takes hers inside to save them from being eaten by praying mantis. I noticed these caterpillars on my fennel every year, but never knew what they were. I intend to try to raise some next year, and I also plan on trying to grow some milkweed- apparently the monarchs really like that.

Patty Jacobs (wife of Clyde.... Red Molly)

Woody said...

Thanks Jack, I'm glad your enjoyed it! I had fun taking the sequence.

Woody said...

Thanks for stopping by. We also keep ours inside to protect them. I was not aware that praying mantis feasted on caterpillars. Thanks for letting me know and thanks for the tip on milkweed!! I commented to my wife earlier the we had never had monarch caterpillars, maybe they don't like parsley.

Marka said...

Excellent photographs, Woody! Thanks for the great lesson as well; I'm always amazed at what one can learn by meandering around the interwebs.

Woody said...

Thanks Marka! I'm glad it was informative.

Bloom said...

Hi Woody,
My friend Evelyn, who I referred to earlier, just told me that the Monarchs like the milkweed, and the swallowtails like the parsley family. And, she herself witnessed the poor demise of a caterpillar (by a praying mantis) before she could intervene.

Rebecca said...

I saw this link In James' comment section. I posted a butterfly too - it is the first time I had seen that variety.

I used to teach el. school and would do this as part of science. Only I bought monarch caterpillars. I think I might try your method this year.

I saw these caterpillars
over at Temple U. gardens last year. Are they the swallowtails you capture? They were not on parsley, it was some large shrub like plant. I didn't even think to bring one home...I would have to be sure to know what to feed it.

Kudos to your wife!

texwisgirl said...

that's really neat! i really should do more to encourage their growth and breeding around here. we see lots of caterpillars but i don't really plant any growth for them specifically. a butterfly bush sounds like the perfect ticket! might have to look into that!

Anonymous said...

Wayne, great information. Gorgeous butterfly image.

aurora ruizo-agra said...

eklogrHi Woody,
Thanks for sharing the great idea on raising butterflies and on butterfly photography.

Aurora Ruizo-Agra said...

Hi Wayne! It's been months since I got the idea from you on raising butterflies for photography. Inspired by you, i have created a butterfly garden, and as a family we have raised butterflies which we released after being photographed. They captivate us as they flutter and keep feeding on our garden... food for the soul :-). Now we raise them not for photography but for the love of them. Thanks much Wayne! Godspeed.

Wayne (Woody), whatever said...

Thank you Aurora, you are very kind. We have expanded a bit this year and added some butterfly houses. Hopefully, they will be successful.

Susie Clevenger said...

Goodness, I didn't know such a thing could be done. What a beautiful experience. I love butterflies. In fact, on facebook my poetry page is called butterfly poet. :) The photo of the butterfly on the Gerber daisy is stunning. I am just an amateur photographer in love with capturing images. Thanks so much for stopping by my page.