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The Caterpillar Nursery


EggBlSwal.jpg (80034 bytes)
Black Swallowtail egg on parsley

I've been raising caterpillars in my garage since finding them in my garden earlier this month.  I learned not to let nature take it's course, after the last batch of Monarch cats appeared.  Of all the cats (I counted 8 on one milkweed plant alone), I only got one butterfly.  I decided to raise all the cats inside.

I've been taking almost daily notes on all my babies.  Some were tiny cats when I found them and some were still eggs.  I was suprised to find 6 baby black swallowtail caterpillars on 2 Rue plants.

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Tiny cats on Rue

I've made a caterpillar nursery from a 5 gallon aquarium with a screen lid made to fit the top.  I have those new disposable freezer bowls filled with wet potting soil.  I punched small holes in the lids, and stick cuttings of parsley, dill, fennel and rue thru the holes down into the damp soil.  This keeps the clippings fresh.  Daily, I remove all the old stems, clean off the lids and wash out the aquarium, and put in fresh food for the eating, pooping machines.

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My caterpillar nursery

They change daily.  You can see growth in only a few hours.   The black ones get more of their big caterpillar color in just a couple of hours.   They grow at amazing rates.

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Newly hatched caterpillar

I have a couple of chrysalis' now.  It's interesting to watch the cats looking for the perfect spot to go into the next stage of their lives.  After relieving themselves, and leaving a big pile of poop, they crawl around the aquarium for hours!  This is the time to place a small branch in the aquarium, or move the cat to a smaller container.  After finally selecting a place, they 'shrink' and spin the silk girdle that holds them in place.  In about 24 hours, the final molt happens, the skin is shed and the chrysalis has emerged.  If another caterpillar happens to crawl near the chrysalis, it will shake, in an attempt to frighten the intruder away.

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Black Swallowtail caterpillar    Preparing for the chrysalis stage
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 Shedding the skin for the last time   Brand new chrysalis.  Happened just 2 hours before this was taken.

I've found out that the color of the chrysalis varies as to the surroundings.  If the caterpillar chooses a brown twig to pupate on, the chrysalis will be brown.  If it chooses a green bush, the chrysalis will be green.  Right before emerging, the chrysalis will become transparent, and you can see the wing markings through it.  There is a 'seam' in the chrysalis, and it will split, and the last stage of life begins.

ChryClear2F.jpg (42482 bytes)  Emerging1.jpg (61655 bytes)
Emerging2.jpg (69538 bytes)   Emerging3.jpg (67004 bytes)
Emerging4.jpg (66497 bytes)   Emerging5.jpg (64542 bytes)  Emerging6.jpg (73855 bytes)

The egg takes about 6 days to hatch.  The caterpillar stage lasts about 10 days, then they go into the chrysalis stage for 8-12 days.  It takes 24 hours to totally get into the chrysalis stage, they 'hang out' for a day before shedding their skin for the last time.  The butterflies normally emerge in the morning, before 10:00AM.  I've always thought it was a great struggle for the butterfly to emerge from the chrysalis.  Upon observing this one, I saw it was really sorta like crawling out of bed.  She only took about 20 seconds to get out, and her wings were fully extended in 15 minutes.  I think the real struggle is for the caterpillar during the last molt.  It has to really wiggle to get out of its skin.

   BSwalFreshF.jpg (39973 bytes)
  A newly emerged butterfly beside a
       new chrysalis (note the old skin beside it).



This page last updated 30 Jan 2000

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