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.


Raising a black swallowtail caterpillar to butterfly

One night while eating dinner, my daughter looked at the bouquet of wildflowers on our table, and exclaimed “Look!  A caterpillar!”  Sure enough, there on a Queen Anne’s lace was a tiny, tiny caterpillar – the same size as the tiny, single dark red flower in the center.

We carefully placed the flower and caterpillar in a large plexiglass bug cage, and went out and picked a handful of fresh Queen Anne’s lace flowers.  With the stems placed inside layers of soaking wet paper towels and secured in a ziplock baggie, the flowers will stay fresh for days.  We also placed a stick diagonally inside for when he (she?) is ready to crawl up and form the chrysalis.

He ate like a pig for over a week, and we kept adding fresh flowers every couple of days.  This morning there was a chrysalis.  In less than 2 weeks the butterfly should emerge, stretch out his wings, then wave them slowly up and down to dry.  We’ll have to be sure to release him soon after this happens.

Raising a butterfly, and watching him change from tiny little caterpillar to big fat caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly, is fun and awe inspiring.  If you find a caterpillar you can probably figure out what type of butterfly it will be based on the plant you found it on.  For example, Queen Anne’s lace = most likely black swallowtail; milkweed = most likely monarch. 

Be sure to have a safe, spacious environment that allows room for a butterfly.  Make sure the kids know not to handle the caterpillar or butterfly unless you’re watching (don’t handle the chrysalis at all).  Place the cage in a safe spot, where it won’t get knocked over by accident.  Check online to see what your caterpillar likes to eat, and keep plenty of fresh food available.  According to Wikipedia, black swallowtail caterpillars eat a diet consisting of dill, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, and parsley.  Once the chrysalis is formed, check often (4-5 times a day) to see if a butterfly has started to emerge.  Be ready to let it go once the wings are out.  When it starts to fly, it will need to go and find food right away.

And don’t forget to take lots of pictures, so your kids can remember this miracle of nature!

Some pics from Wikipedia: