If you've been following me and Noah on instagram or facebook you've seen that we've been raising a pair of black swallowtails, Gregor and Lucille. For those of you who aren't on social media (good for you!) let me fill you in on this incredible experience.
July 17, 2019
While planning some cool park signs, my friend Cathy told us all about a caterpillar she had found on a dill plant at Lowes that was getting ready to be tossed (because Lowes gets really excited about getting rid of old plants, it's a great place to find plants to nurture back to health - just add sun and water). So she bought the plant with the caterpillar (she only noticed one at the time of purchase) of course. Already raising many a number of caterpillars she offered up the plant which I graciously accepted. It's been years (maybe since kindergarten?) since I've done anything like this so I was pretty excited to do so with new more observational eyes. When I got the plant is when we noticed a teeny tiny second caterpillar. I took them and the plant home and excitedly showed Noah, he too was pretty excited.
As they were happy to just hang out on their plant and didn't seem at risk for venturing any further, we just let them enjoy the plant out in the open in a sunny window of our kitchen.
July 18, 2019
We wake up the next day to find they're starting to change. The little one named Gregor is still in the first instar stage - orange and pointy, about 3/8 in. but Lucille has turned black with orange spots and a whiteish-green 'saddle' - the second instar, she's measuring about 1/2 in.
The following day Gregor grows into the second instar, Lucille is much larger and beginning to show green under her skin.
As they progress through each instar stage they shed their outer layer of skin allowing them to grow larger. After the layer is shed they will eat the old layer.
July 20, 2019
Everyone knows caterpillars are very hungry (thanks author Eric Carle) and these two are no exception - eat, eat, eat! Lucille eats ravenously de-leafing entire branches then eats the branches themselves. Gregor is more modest and timid eating when we're not looking and just staying still when we're around. Both have grown so big so fast. They are now in the third instar stage.
One thing people don't tell you about when raising caterpillars is boy do they poop! Caterpillar frass (official name of caterpillar poop) has made it so we had to move these free range guys out of the kitchen (because, ew) and it's stinkier than one might expect, although dill alone can be pungent so it makes sense. Watching them we estimated they release frass once every 6 minutes!
July 21 - 24 2019
Eat and grow, eat and grow. Their first plant got chewed down to a nub so I had to dig up some dill plants we had growing along the driveway so they'd have food.
At this stage they've both got the beautiful green and black striping with yellow spots. Lucille has a larger face than Gregor, it's about the only way we can tell them apart. They're growing has slowed down to about 1/16th of an inch per day toping out at 1 3/4 of an inch
July 25,26, 2019
And then something happened... Lucille was gone!
There was an extraordinarily large blob of frass at the base of the plant... did she get scared? did the cat eat her? did she climb up into the Hoya plant that was holding up the potted dill stem? We moved furniture, looked through houseplants, moved curtains, interrogated the cat, all to no end. We just have to hope she's safe somewhere.
In the evening Gregor started acting strange, was he missing Lucille? He stopped eating the plant that by then had gotten pretty wilted (dill does not transplant well) so I picked him some fresh - no interest. He just kept wandering from stem to stem. So I let him be and start in on a project. Out of nowhere I smell this terrible smell (cat was next to me, did she fart?) and hear a squishy thud. I look to the dill plant and Gregor too is gone! Quickly I drop to the ground and find him cruising around under the plant stand. I pick him up and put him back on the plant and he does it again. So I gather the fresh dill from the garden, put it in a tall clear plastic soup container, add Gregor, poke air holes in the lid and let him be. He tried to climb out for quite some time but eventually settled down and got into the pupal position.
Upon reading into caterpillar behavior, just before they pupate they will release all the excrement from their bodies in a giant smelly green gob (the smell was not from the cat!) then they run around like mad looking for a proper place to be still while they transform for a couple of weeks.
July 27, 2019
Just like that, overnight Gregor shimmied out of his caterpillar skin exposing the chrysalis that will hold him as he changes into a butterfly. If you look closely you can see a fine thread loop he used to hold himself in position. At the bottom of the container rests the shed skin, his sweet little caterpillar face looking up.
July 27 - August 4, 2019
August 5, 2019
8:43am I hear a sound like tissue paper ripping, followed by a "pop". I look over to Gregor's container (now without the top on so he wouldn't get too hot) and this dark long-legged creature pulls itself out of the shell of the chrysalis and frantically begins climbing (and falling) finally making its way up the clothes pin clipped to the container. Bit by bit the wings begin unfolding. In the span of 30 minutes, the wings are fully stretched out and early flapping attempts are beginning.
With the wings open we can finally tell, Gregor is a female!
As I watch Gregor in awe, the entire process is just amazing, I hear a sound from the curtains. The sound is like that of a fly or a bee trying to get through a closed window. So I cautiously pull back the curtain, unsure of what I'd find, and tucked in a far back fold was Lucille!!!! She immediately climbed to the top of the curtain rod flapping her wings proudly, building her strength, getting ready for takeoff.
I run outside and gather some blooming flowers and some branches and vines and put them in a large container, carefully I coax both butterflies into the container and put a screen over the lid.
True to form Lucille is still the outspoken one, fluttering about, showing off her wings. Gregor finds a great branch and just relaxes there, she's had a big morning! At 3pm Noah gets home from work and we take Lucille and Gregor out to an area that has many of their host plants. We warn them of the dangers of birds and praying mantises, promise to come visit, then we open the container... They don't hesitate a second, a great breeze drifted by and they were up and out soaring along. We watched one find a tree to rest in, the other was out mingling with some friendly local monarchs, we can only guess who was who but it seems pretty clear.
Since 2015 we have been exploring and sharing all the amazing things we’ve found in nature.
Emily is an Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist who is most often found out in the woods.