Raising a black swallowtail caterpillar to butterfly, part 2 – overwintering?

Early last August I blogged about how we were raising a Black Swallowtail caterpillar.  He ate like a pig, and then spun his chrysalis.  According to Wikipedia, the adult butterfly should have emerged from the chrysalis in less than 2 weeks.  We waited and waited.

Things being as they are, the kids were playing Frisbee in the house, and the butterfly container got knocked to the ground (about a 4 foot fall).  We set it back up on the fireplace mantle, and waited some more.  Sadly, I figured it must be dead, a victim of an unintended accident.  I put the container with the chrysalis out on our covered porch. We waited and watched for it to hatch all through the fall.

Soon it started snowing, and early winter was upon us.  I wanted to throw it out, but my husband (who tagged Monarch butterflies as a child, through a research group based in Canada) insisted it was “overwintering” – that the chrysalis was just fine, and would hatch once warmer weather came in the spring.  Yeah, right.  I rolled my eyes, but my daughter was happy to hear it wasn’t dead, so I went along with it.

All winter, through bitter freezing temperatures, the container sat under a bench on our porch – a small brown chrysalis attached to a dead twig, with remnants of dead flowers carpeting the floor.

Last week my daughter brought home a small caterpillar from school.  As part of a science unit, her class is hatching Painted Lady butterflies.  There’s a big mesh tent set up in the classroom, and after each child’s caterpillar spins its chrysalis, they are placed inside while the kids eagerly wait for them to hatch.  A couple extra caterpillars got sent home with kids, and soon her caterpillar had spun its chrysalis and I needed a bigger container for it to hatch in.

It was a very warm and breezy day as I headed out to the porch, and pulled out the container from last August with the old Swallowtail chrysalis.  And lo and behold.  There it was.

A gorgeous, perfect Black Swallowtail had just hatched and was gently airing out its new wings.  I screamed and got everyone out on the porch, ran and grabbed my camera and got a couple of shots in.  My daughter and my husband took the butterfly out to our flower garden and gently placed him on a flower.  He wasn’t there a minute before he was off, soaring high into the sky, arcing and swooping, until we couldn’t see him anymore.

“I was right, you know”, my husband said with a smile.  Yes, he was.  To my amazement.  And to my wonder at the resiliency and instinct of this tiny little creature who had managed to survive, and soar, off into a beautiful late spring day.

That was the happy ending.  Now, for the sad, melancholy ending.

The new Painted Lady chrysalis hatched yesterday – within 7 days, just like it was supposed to.  We placed a wedge of a fresh orange in the cage overnight, along with a handful of fresh flowers.  We didn’t want to let him go at dusk, so we waited until this morning.

It’s beautiful out – a sunny, warm morning.  I got a couple of pictures in, then my daughter and husband brought the butterfly out to our flower garden again.  He waved his wings a couple times, then took off, soaring high into the sky, arcing and swooping.  For about 30 feet.  Then, a small bird darted out of a nearby tree, caught our butterfly in midair, landed lightly on a branch, and ate him for breakfast.

We all just stood there stunned.  Seriously, it all happened in 10 seconds.  I thought my daughter would break into tears.  Though she was a little sad, she said “Oh well”, and went and got ready for school.  My husband on the other hand, just stood there in disbelief.  When he finally came in, he shook his head sadly and said, “Maybe, if I had walked out with it for a while…”

But, such is life.  Sometimes you go to all the effort, and you love and care for something, and it’s taken from you in an instant.  And it’s just not fair…

(Note:  Although it looks like it, that’s not blood on the bottom of the cage, by the orange.  After hatching, the butterfly squirts red liquid out of its body.)

5 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    J Freshwaters said,

    Thanks for sharing your stories. They are priceless observations of “nature” in action! I am a third grade teacher and I will be sharing your blog with my students this fall.

    I have two Black Swallowtail chrysalis right now and I have no idea if they will emerge as adults or overwinter and emerge in the spring. Guess I’ll have to wait and see!

    Thanks again for sharing!

  2. 2

    llww said,

    Glad you enjoyed them! A Black Swallowtail chrysalis is so small and plain looking, yet amazingly, this huge, beautiful butterfly hatches out of it. Whether you’re a kid or an adult, nature’s magic of changing a caterpillar to a butterfly is special every time. Good luck!

  3. 3

    Minnie Reneau said,


    I had a pot of ruda plants sitting on the porch and I saw a black, yellow and white caterpillar eat the leaves. It was in late august. I took the caterpillar and put it in a bug catchers cage. On September 5th 2012 it hatched into a beautiful black swallowtail butterfly. Me and my two girls released it in our back yard and it was breathtaking to see if fly away.

    • 4

      llww said,

      How nice!! It amazes me every time I see it – a true miracle of life. 🙂 p.s. I always take a photo before we release them, to remember them by.

      • 5

        Minnie Reneau said,

        I know. I should have taken a picture of the butterfly before I released it. I felt so good taking care of the cocoon until it turned into a butterfly. Many people don’t take the time to appreciate the smaller things in life:) Beauty is all around us it only takes a second to notice it.

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