I just want to recap the exciting day that I found my first caterpillar last fall — Sept. 11, 2015 (Facebook post):
Three years ago, I started turning a patch of lawn into a native plant pollinator micro-meadow with the hopes of providing a healthy habitat for Monarchs and other butterflies. I let Common Milkweed and Butterfly Weed spread throughout the yard. These are the host plants for Monarch caterpillars. I let native thistle, goldenrods, Iron Weed, and other native meadow plants spread, too, as they provide nectar for the adult butterflies … I’ve waited and waited for the butterflies to find us — checking every few days in late summer since I began this project. I’ve been looking on top of the leaves for caterpillar scat (aka “frass”) and gnawed leaves and under leaves for actually caterpillars. Hoping, hoping, hoping that this little piece of urban green space would provide a small island of what the Monarchs have lost to development and the loss of native plants to non-native plants and mono-culture lawns. Low-and-behold — finally, finally — I checked my plants and found caterpillars!!!!!! So far I’ve counted five of them.
And this on Sept. 13, 2015 (click photo if you want to see it bigger):
Monarch caterpillar party!! The internet suggests bringing Monarch caterpillars indoors to protect them from predators and increase their survival rate. I have five right now with a Monarch tent on order for the next phase. These jokers are prolific poopers! I’ve changed the papers under their fresh milkweed twice a day. I’ve also combed through all my other milkweed plants hoping for more, but no luck. I do have a few leaves that I think may have eggs on them.
After one night indoors, I moved them to the front porch to avoid indoor light pollution and fluctuating temperatures. I searched the internet for the best enclosure for caterpillars. Several people suggested a pop-up mesh laundry hamper. I order one and hoped that my caterpillars would stay put in their cardboard box until the mesh enclosure arrived. Many of you have had the pleasure of raising Monarchs in grade school or with your parents. I never had that experience, and I savored every minute with my caterpillars this fall. Yet, without that experience, I didn’t realize that the first caterpillar I’d found was only days away from its next developmental stage.
Once an egg is laid, it takes the Monarch caterpillars three to five days to hatch.
Oftentimes, the baby caterpillar will eat its eggshell. Mmm … protein!
I had trouble identifying eggs on my milkweed plants and for good reason. In her book “How to Raise Monarch Butterflies: A Step-by-Step Guide for Kids” Carol Pasternak explains that when the caterpillar hatches, it is “barely the size of the writing on a dime,” and “it takes a week for the caterpillar to grow bigger than a sunflower seed.” To avoid predators, the caterpillars normally make their way to the underside of the milkweed leaf as soon as possible to gain protection. Out in my milkweed patch, I would look for little holes in the milkweed leaf and hope to find a caterpillar on the underside. Another good way to find a caterpillar: looking for milkweed leaves with little piles of frass on them — a sure sign of a monarch baby happily munching and digesting in on the underside of the leaf above. When I found a caterpillar, I would flag down any neighbor passing by the fence to show them my newest addition to my monarch nursery. Yeah, I know. I’m a dork, but … caterpillars!!!!
After hatching from their eggs, the monarch caterpillars grow fast — yet their skin doesn’t grow with them. So they molt their skin four times and then …
The fifth time they shed their skin is the most dramatic. It is called pupation.
It’s the stage when the caterpillar morphs into a chrysalis, and
it’s a spectacular thing to witness live.
On Sept. 14, 2015:
An epic journey from milkweed to amaryllis has taken place this afternoon. One of the caterpillars said, “Adios,” and took to the road — away from its food source and over to the amaryllis. It seems logical to think that it’s time for the caterpillar to pupate. Now it’s just hanging there (resting?). The butterfly condo should arrive tomorrow so, hopefully, this little thing will stay put. The other four continue to eat and poop like they’re getting paid for it.
Once the caterpillar emerges from its egg, 14-18 days of eating ensues.
A healthy caterpillar will measure about 2-inches long before it gets ready to molt its skin a final time. At that point, it will generally move 10-30 feet from the milkweed patch to ready itself for pupation.
Rocket and I kept an occasional eye on our lovely and mysterious little caterpillar:
I can’t tell you how long Little Trigglet stayed frozen upside down on the porch beam. At some point, Rocket and I went outside to find that the little caterpillar had spun a pad of silk to the wood beam, then released one side of its body to hang upside down in the form of a j-hook:
How amazing that this little insect could spin something this strong! (For a more detailed description of this phase, click this link.) The caterpillar will stay in this position about 14 hours. Look at its antennae in the photo above; plump and firm. Once the caterpillar is ready to pupate, it will drop its antennae. They shrivel up and collapse as you can see in the photo below (taken of a different caterpillar that I raised):
I had already gone to work when Trigglet’s antennae dropped. Can you imagine the amount of energy needed to make this metamorphosis? All the liquid in the antennae moves into the body to help with the transition. Once this happens, the caterpillar will pupate within the hour. It’s a wondrous thing to watch in person. The caterpillar starts wiggling and shimmying. The skin spits in the back and within minutes the pale green pupa emerges. It twirls and finally settles. In the end, you’re left with a gorgeous green chrysalis with golden trim. It looks like a jewel.
Here’s what I reported to friends on Sept. 17, 2015:
“Trigglet,” my first baby caterpillar, morphed into a chrysalis at about 2:30 pm this afternoon. I rang Ben (call him for all your real estate needs!) every few hours to get an update. On my last call he said, “The antennas have drooped.” That’s the physiological signal that “it’s on!” (aka time to become a pupa). It happens pretty fast. By the time I rushed over (with my boss in tow), we missed a lot of the action where the skin splits and is mostly absorbed into the pupa. But we did get to see the end of this stage where the pupa wiggles around as it’s drying out.
I’m posting a video below and will take up the rest of the story in my next post. Until then, cheers!