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Hatching Butterflies | Kevin Rye.net - Main

Kevin Rye

Geek Extraordinaire. Yeh, I said it.

Hatching Butterflies

07/31/11

My wife loves growing vegetables in her garden. Everything from tomatoes, to cucumbers, to eggplants. She also likes to grow dill, cilantro, oregano, as well as some other herbs.

Her dill was growing fantastically until she looked in the pot one day and saw that it was covered in caterpillars. Six to be exact. While she was a little grossed out, I was amazed. Up until then I'd only ever come across the occasional black fluffy caterpillar. I've never seen a white/black/yellow stripped caterpillar before. I immediately though they were monarch caterpillars. It's a common mistake. Monarch caterpillars look a lot like that of the Black Swallowtail. A quick search on the internet showed me the difference, and proved them to be as such.

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I was so exited! I thought it would be a great learning experience for my boys to see caterpillars grow up into butterflies. I'm sure it's not something a lot of people get to experience first hand.

I didn't want the caterpillars to get away, so I took the dill plant and put it inside a 10 gallon tank. That way I could bring them inside and keep an eye on them

08/02/11

After a few days, they had gotten pretty big and plump.

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Such amazing looking little creatures.

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These things are such ferocious eaters! They had completely consumed the first dill plant. I had to actually go out to the grocery store and buy them more. (Which they also completely ravished.) I threw some lettuce in there until I could get to the store. They didn't care much for it.

I had searched online and read up on the lifecycle of the Black Swallowtail to get a better idea of a timeline. As the time approached for them turn into chrysalises, I put a bunch of sticks into the pot so that they'd have something to hold on to.

caterpillar discovery_0103

08/08/11

After almost a week, they had all pretty much stopped eating and assumed the position within hours of each other. With that, I had taken them out one by one and put them in some cut up plastic cups. I filled the cups with soil so I could better position the sticks.

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Within a day, they had all shed their outer skins to reveal the chrysalis underneath.

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I always thought the chrysalis formed over the top, not underneath.

Once I knew the time was close at hand, I had set up my camera on a tripod and set it to take a picture every minute. I then stitched the images together to form a time-lapse. Here’s a video showing two of them attaching themselves to the stick with some silk strands.



Here's the process of one shedding it's outer skin to reveal the chrysalis underneath.



There were two little guys that already made the transformation in the dill pot but never took to one of the sticks. Some of the caterpillars had to be coaxed up onto a stick. I did what I could to make sure they all grabbed onto one, but these two little guys made themselves comfortable at the bottom of the pot and changed while I was at work. I just hope they make it just laying there.

Then again, I'm sure even in nature caterpillars don't always find a good spot, or end up blowing away in the wind. They only seem to be held onto the stick with 2 tiny little silk strands.

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After a day or so, they had all made the change.

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To make it easier on the time-lapse, I moved all six chrysalises into one cup.

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08/20/11

The first one to hatch was a male. The males have more yellow than the females. The females have more blue than the males.



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My research showed that if you soak a paper towel in sugar water, they'll take right to it.

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He wasn't really going for it, so I took some flowers out of the yard. Those he liked.

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Soon afterwards, another one was ready to hatch. The chrysalis takes on a translucent appearance before it hatches. When that happens, it's only a matter of hours. You can really see the wings underneath.

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And the magic...



They really didn't care much for the sugar water, so I added some boysenberry honey. They really liked that. You can see this little guy sucking it up with his proboscis.

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Boy, did they make a mess of it! They tracked the honey all over the tank and made a huge sticky mess. I guess the honey was a bad idea.

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One by one, they all hatched.



Well, all but one.

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I had a nice mix of males and females. Here’s a female.

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Once they were all ready to fly, we took them outside to set them free. The kids really enjoyed watching them grow up and change from caterpillars to butterflies. It would be really cool to keep a bunch of butterflies in a terrarium and see if we could get them to lay eggs, but honestly, I’m not equipped to feed them properly and they’d probably just end up dying. It’s better to return them to nature.

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All three boys got to take turns holding one and letting it fly away.

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And off they went.

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Of the six chrysalises, five hatched. One did not.

late butterfly day 1

I didn't know if it had died or if it was just a late bloomer, so I kept an eye on it for another week. Nothing happened. Surely it should have hatched by now! I feared the worst. All the other ones were pretty much toe-to-toe through the whole process. It was a little saddening to see that this little guy wasn't going to make it. I really though I was helping them along; keeping them safe from the elements.

I did a little research online and I found out that they can fall into a state of hibernation if the conditions aren't right for hatching. If they "think" it's winter, they won't hatch until the next season when it's warmer. The chances of a butterfly surviving when there's 3 feet of snow outside is slim. You can't exactly add to the circle of life when there's nothing to eat. (Or no other butterflies, for that matter.) I don't know why this buttery-to-be decided to hold off another season. I could see if it was late fall with winter rapidly approaching, but it's August and it's still really nice out.

I decided to keep it safe until next spring. I put it high up on a shelf in my computer room where it would be safe and out of reach. I'll just have to keep my fingers crossed for the next 6 months.

UPDATE:

04/10/12

It's been six months since this little caterpillar turned into a chrysalis. Five of his brothers and sisters hatched and flew away. I feared that this last one died and was no more.

For six months, I hung on to hope and crossed my fingers that it had entered a state of hibernation and that it didn't die. Since it's now April, the weather is getting nice, the flowers are blooming, and the birds are chirping. I figured I'd move the chrysalis a little closer to the window. I didn't want to bake it in the sun; just let it feel that warm spring air.

I kid you not, the very next day the chrysalis had taken on that familiar translucent appearance. It's alive!

A hatch was imminent.

late butterfly day 3

The next day when I got home from work, I immediately went into my computer room to have a look. What is this? An empty shell!

late butterfly day 2

I looked around the computer room to see where it was hiding. There it was: a beautiful new female Black Swallowtail hanging off the side on my desk organizer.

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I managed to get her to walk up onto my hand. What a big girl. It really is amazing that they fit into those tiny little shells.

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I put her back on the stick from where her chrysalis was in order to take a few more pictures.

What a beauty.

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Again, my wife and my three boys took her outside and watched her fly away.

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I was so thrilled that this butterfly made it. I really feel like I saved her. I know it's just a silly little bug, but I kept her chrysalis safe all winter and made sure that she matured from a caterpillar all the way to a butterfly.

You can read about it in books all you want, gloss over it in science glass, but there's something deeply satisfying/moving about being able to witness the whole process first hand. It really is something beautiful.