Monday, November 30, 2009

Nature Study -- Black Swallowtail Caterpillars and Butterflies

This fall we also got the opportunity to keep some black swallowtail caterpillars and observe them. We found three on our carrot plants!

A gallon glass jar was a temporary home, with a bunch of carrot tops to munch on and some cheesecloth secured on top with a rubber band.

Papilio polyxenes -- that's the scientific name. It has an orange organ called an osmeterium (not pictured here -- see links at bottom if you want to see what it looks like -- one of them has incorrect spelling) which it can stick out of its head if it's alarmed. That's interesting to see if you can get it to show you.

This is a poor-quality shot of what it looks like when getting ready to pupate. You can see better shots at some of the links below. It attaches itself to its spot of choice with a strong threadlike substance, and stays that way for some time, not moving.

This photo was taken while one was changing into a chrysalis, which we were blessed to be able to see in part. It was interesting. It wiggles around and sheds off its outer skin to reveal this new and quite different covering, all while hanging from those strong threads. Then it becomes perfectly still again as though it's doing nothing. But inside another transformation is taking place. Incredible.

We got some video of part of this process, but I'm not sure it's worth trying to get my computer to upload it. Since we didn't get the whole thing anyway, it would probably be more fun to watch someone else's on YouTube.

The chrysalis is pretty cool-looking. Two were green and one was brown. The two in the green chrysalises have emerged, but the brown one hasn't yet.

A few things I want to make note of for the future, and to share in case others consider doing this :

1) Make effort to see that they choose to attach themselves to something more solid than carrot tops.

We put a stick in the jar, but they still chose the carrot tops. Then there was trouble because we hated to move them, but they of course didn't last and two of the chrysalises sank down to the bottom of the jar as their place of choice began to decay. I rescued them and put them in a new jar with what remained of their carrot stems taped to craft sticks (didn't take a picture of that), but was unsure whether they would survive or not. One of them had become detached from its top threads and was therefore hanging upside down. But, it did emerge, just a few days ago (pictured below)!

2) Provide an even larger container or some other way of ensuring that they have plenty of room to spread their wings when they emerge AND something they can walk on/climb well enough to get back to a height if they should happen to fall.

The butterfly that hung upside down survived and thrived well enough, but it did have a slight handicap. One of its wings had a little damage at the bottom. We were concerned for a time that it wouldn't fly, and it took much longer than the first one which had perfect wings. We're not sure what led to the damage. It could have been because its chrysalis wasn't hanging properly when it was trying to get out, or it could have been due to the glass jar somehow, as it fell just afterward and struggled and slipped on the glass, or to my help as I tried to free it and then rescue it from the places it wandered to after that (we were afraid it would get hurt more if it stayed in the jar).

3) Don't detach them from where they choose to attach!

We learned this the hard way in a previous year when another black swallowtail caterpillar we found crawled out of a container the children had it in and attached itself to our dining room wall! Not wanting it on the wall but failing to research properly, I cut it off and stuck it in a container, just lying there. We forgot about it and went about our daily lives, but that butterfly emerged, beautiful, but with wings so bent at the bottom that it couldn't fly. It was such a pathetic thing and I felt so bad I wished I'd just left it on the wall! Possibly it would have been okay if it had had something to climb up on in the container, though, in spite of being detached? I don't know. I've learned that some people will glue them carefully to something somehow if they become detached. I haven't tried that yet, although on further consideration I perhaps could have tried with the one that hung upside down this time?

By the way, I've missed the emerging of both of these butterflies. Hard to know when it will happen, of course. Bethany said she saw the end of this one emerging, but I wasn't in the room until it was out. Here's someone else's video of one emerging.

It hung out on our aloe plant for a while.

We finally had to put it back in a jar so it wouldn't accidentally die (we discovered that our home is not at all butterfly-safe! Making it so would be far more challenging than baby-proofing! I'm thankful babies don't have wings!), after it tried to explore a lamp. We put a wooden spoon in for it to climb on and a dishrag to give it some footing (which happened to go well with the blue in its wings, eh?). In my amateur opinion, this seems to be a female because females have more blue on their wings. You can kind of see the damaged spot on the bottom of her left wing.

Letting these creatures go is fun, watching them fly away from where they spent their caterpillar life, to a new world beyond. It's another lovely picture of a spiritual reality, and I feel blessed to have been able to watch it twice this fall. The one pictured above flew over a couple neighbor houses to a lovely large tree, which is where we lost sight of her.

Here are some links for the black swallowtail:



  1. Hi Amber,
    This was beautiful. We did several Monarch's this year. Did you know they are called Monarch because on the chrysalis is a golden crown? I was utterly amazed.
    Thanks for participating in the carnival.

  2. What a great resource!