This small project is a study in macrocosms and microcosms – the large world and the small, the now and the forever. And all on your kitchen bench.
Not bad for a grub in a jam jar.
I’ve always wanted to raise a butterfly from a caterpillar, but i thought it might be technical or tricky somehow. And what if it died halfway through, because I fed it the wrong thing? That would be awful.
But then we met Hillary, and we discovered that raising a butterfly at home is easy, fun and suspenseful, all at once.
Pets, at our house, are a thing. We’re renting, and that means no pets, apart from fish. However, proposed pets are frequent – how about a really small chicken? A guinea pig I could keep in my room, Mum? I could nurse an injured bird maybe. Or a very, very small dog? No-one would know it was there…
Until the day that Nick finally looked up the species of caterpillars that were munching on our potted cumquat trees…
Orchard Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars! Awesome. Unless you are a citrus leaf, that is.
Now at our place we have many healthy colonies of paper wasps in our window eaves. For the most part, we love these guys – they feed on the fat green caterpillars which eat our vegetables, and are constantly zooming around our garden beds, inspecting for more. Excellent garden helpers.
There’s other wasps around, too, that parasitise caterpillars – they lay their eggs inside the caterpillar, and use it as a nursery host until their babies burst out of the caterpillar. Good news for the wasps (and our garden), but very bad news for the caterpillar.
We didn’t want any wasps to get this particular caterpillar, with it’s beautiful butterfly potential, so we put it in a jar with a twigs-worth of citrus leaves, and named it Hillary.
I’m going to step you through the process of raising an Orchard Swallowtail butterfly. This is the basic sequence for many species of the caterpillar-to-butterfly journey, though of course the leaves they eat will differ according to the species.
As will the length of time from caterpillar to butterfly.
Phase 1: Caterpillar
All you need to raise these caterpillars is a jar with a covering that keeps other critters out (and the caterpillar in) while providing good airflow.
Firstly, obtain your caterpillar. The young leaves of any citrus tree are your most likely bet. As you can see from the pictures above, the caterpillars have multiple stages and look different depending on how old they are – the one on the left is a mature one, the one on the right is a young one.
Regarding diet, all these caterpillars need really is fresh citrus leaves, and they will be happy – the leaves form their entire diet. They also eat some native species of the rutaceae family.
At the advice our our friend Ali, we added a few fresh citrus leaves each day, washed and sprinkled with filtered water.
Hillary ate them all up like a freight train.
In addition to fresh leaves, we provided a sturdy twig in the jar, in order to:
- Have something to wedge the citrus leaves into as we added them
- Allow us to easily watch Hillary’s progress
- Provide something for Hillary to hang her chrysalis from, in due course
- Allow us to easily remove Hillary, lodged on her twig as she normally was, for easy cleaning of the jar
This last point is important. Caterpillars poop like nothing else! Which is fine and dandy, but in a jar, it does build up.
And in the interests of keeping things healthy (as would happen naturally if the poop wasn’t ending up at the bottom of a jar just below the twig), we cleaned out the jar a few times during this phase.
Phase 2: Chrysalis
Over the next 10 days Hillary ate many leaves, got big and fat, turned bright green (all that leaf eatin’ I expect) and then one day, everything changed.
On the 10th day, Hillary (and I’m not kidding) came out through her own mouth, leaving her mandibles, legs and thin outer coating in a neat pile beside her.
She then hitched up to the twig at the base of her body, and drew a single thread from the twig, around her middle, and back again, as support.
And then she hardened into a chrysalis. Just like that.
Once she had become a chrysalis, all of Hillary’s body dissolved and her cells morphed into what are called Imaginal Cells, as their former state as parts of a caterpillar have no bearing on how they will be arranged into the future butterfly.
Butterfly metamorphisis is unique process that science would love to understand fully, but doesn’t yet – it’s been said that a chrysalis is nature’s ultimate ‘black box’ – no-one knows exactly how it does what it does.
Fascinated? Go listen to this podcast about the process.
Things not to do when your butterfly is a chrysalis:
- Don’t bump your jar! Cells at work.
- Resist the urge to take out the twig to get a better picture. You might drop the twig, and that would be the end of your chrysalis. True story, though not mine.
Phase 3: Butterfly
16 days later, on a lazy Sunday morning, Hillary was thoroughly re-composed into a butterfly. So out she came, just like that.
The process took an hour or so, we think, but to be honest, we kinda missed it. It was a Sunday, we were sitting right next to Hillary making the most of a rest day by reading new books before bothering to make breakfast… and we just weren’t looking.
Until Elizabeth, a small neighbour of ours who was playing lego in our loungeroom, came up and said:
in that kind of voice that means something wonderful has just happened. And there she was.
After an hour we carefully took Hillary outside, still clinging to her stick, and placed her stick in a pot plant, under an eave and out of the weather.
An hour later, she was still there.
And an hour again, she had flown away.
Fly well, Hillary! We wish you a short but useful lifetime of pollination and flapping around looking gorgeous.
A great and simple project that our whole family got something out of. I’m still reeling at the metamorphosis bit. Nature, eh? And we get to be a part of it. Lucky us.
- Orchard Swallowtail life cycle and description
- Orchard Swallowtails at the Coffs Harbour Butterfly house
- Goo and you – a podcast about metamorphosis
- If you can’t find a suitable caterpillar, Butterfly Skye sells them. She’s also the lady you want to talk to if you need a locally grown stash of cricket flour. Check her out.