The Metamorphosis of Butterflies from 2014 came together from my finally digging through archives of Flower Hill Farm photographs from last summer. Witnessing the metamorphosis of butterflies is a treasured ritual I share with thousands of other individuals who hold dear these remarkable beings. Raising butterflies nourishes my imagination and opens it to change and an ever present sense of wonder. Hour by hour and day by day convey countless small miracles to observe – bringing light and hope into my life.
In this article, I share glimpses of the metamorphosis of Monarch Butterflies, Black Swallowtail Butterflies, and Giant Swallowtail Butterflies that were raised during the summer of 2014. These remembrances rekindle the quivers in my mind from the time I was there in the moment with these delicately painted creatures.
For over thirty years, I have raised Monarch Butterflies. It was only three years ago I raised my first Black Swallowtail Butterfly. In September of 2014, a dear friend shared Giant Swallowtail eggs and a few of the caterpillars that she discovered munching on her garden rue plant. I have over a dozen dozing in chrysalis state along with two Black Swallowtail chrysalises, and all are safely placed in our coldest room. So, of the 20,000 species of butterflies in the world — I now know three intimately.
Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)
My old friends the Monarch caterpillars bring smiles to my heart and keep me running into the gardens each summer. My indoor plants are grateful for the bounty of frass or poop they give us. They constantly renew my cognizance of our connections within this larger world of life. Knowing them only affirms my awareness of how all living creatures are unique, with their own quirky antics and needs. The obvious necessities for these caterpillars and others are their assorted host plants. It is mostly common knowledge, by now, that the Monarch Butterfly can only survive if there is milkweed of the Asclepias family and protected over wintering sites high in the center of a boreal forest in Mexico or along coastal California. There are monarchs who reside year round in Florida too. Perhaps, as I write this, there are small colonies of monarchs stirring in hidden protected forests we have yet to discover.
Both the host plant and winter habitats are under attack. Parts of the tapestry are becoming unraveled. Our insane corporate agricultural system is failing all life on our beloved planet. We are all creatures of habit and migrating butterflies are not finding the bounty of milkweed that once grew within the midwestern corridors that linked them to our northern gardens and fields. The migration may recover if another corridor is created away from the poisons of Monsanto.
It is the migration north not the monarch that is endangered, but the loss of having monarchs floating back lit into our gardens and watching their metamorphosis would be heartbreaking to me and many others. There is a movement to save the migration by planting milkweed and hopefully when everyone comes in from their gardens they will call congress and the FDA to demand the banning of Roundup or glyphosate.
All butterflies, bees and wildlife habitats are threatened and all need to be protected. We can make that happen by planting native host plants and demanding the end of poisonous agricultural practices.
Living with these sentient jewels for almost two weeks every year, is a gift I never fail to recognize as wondrous. Though I may have seen the metamorphosis hundreds of times, I am ever in amazement at the exquisite beauty of the Monarch Butterfly chrysalises. I have written more about these exquisite pupae earlier on my blog.
Finally, as butterflies appear within the clear casings of the chrysalises, the miracle of complete metamorphosis’s unfurl before me. I watch and wait as black abdomens plop out and four of each butterfly’s six legs hold on for their lives to the empty chrysalis casings. Essential fluids are pumped from the over large abdomens into the veins of the brightly patterned wings and they hang to dry like the finest fabrics one could ever hope to find. Like so many newborns, the wet winged butterflies are helpless during this time and vulnerable especially in the wild.
A few hours can go by depending on the weather before the Monarch Butterflies are ready to be released into the gardens. This is an experience I am eternally excited by. Each is his or her own little being and take their own time to lift off my fingers for their first flight. How amazing it all is. How scary and what an adrenaline rush to go from crawling to flying and then finding their way to Mexico. I try to imagine it and to feel the emotional surge.
Raising butterflies indoors does not allow them to experience the sky they will learn to navigate in. When I observe them — as I hold them outside away from the high ceiling barn studio and under the sky — I notice a change in their anticipation or readiness to fly. It takes the butterflies I am holding a few minutes to sort it all out, to find their place or bearings, even though the doors were open and right next to their rearing space.
Imagine going outside after being indoors for weeks and stepping beneath a capacious canopy of sky. It can be daunting. Like teeny airplanes, the fresh butterflies start up all their new parts moving them and turning their heads back and forth. Mostly, I am able to take the time they need and be with the butterflies until they are confident and say goodbye. Being a bit of a butterfly whisperer, I send each off with a near silent swish of thanks and good luck. I feel so blessed every single time. I will not forget how the year of 2013 brought not a one monarch egg into my garden. There was plenty of milkweed but no takers except for young deer and rabbits.
Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
Black Swallowtail caterpillars surprised me the first year I got to know them. Their appearance changed so drastically from the first instars to the later and final ones. Also, they were not as peppy as the monarchs who are voracious eaters. First, second, and third instars were content to graze on a single flower head or one cluster of leaves for days. Fourth and fifth instar swallowtails then began consuming more of their host plant. I have come to know Black Swallowtail cats better and to expect that they will be less demanding than monarch cats.
Akin to canny chess players, they know their Queens and Bishops. I have found Black Swallowtails eating Queen Anne’s Lace, parsley, and even found eggs on cursed Bishop’s weed. All of these plants belong to the family of Apiaceae.
When the cats felt their time had come to roam and seek out that perfect spot for unveiling their chrysalises, the caretaker was on high alert. I sometimes had to moved over zealous adventurers back to a bouquet of sedum stems or my sweet olive tree, where I wanted them to pupate. This year, I had one cat that did not appreciate my interfering with her wanderings and she let me know it by ejecting a mild fragrance and orange horns or forked glands called osmeterium. This hidden arsenal is carried by all of the Papilio species.
Another surprise was when I noted a substantial pile of poop below where a swallowtail was resting. Like all swallowtails, these cats will diminish their weight and size by a fair amount right before they begin spinning silk lassos to hold their chrysalis. Both Black and Giant Swallowtails empty their digestive systems before revealing their chrysalises.
Monarchs do not appear to need this cleansing, but their poop too gives a hint that the final change is about to happen. When monarch poop has four segments it is time to pay close attention for they will begin to wander around in search of a particular spot to weave their silk node before hanging in a J and unveiling their chrysalis. The swallowtails position themselves in a modified upside down J but instead of hanging they lean out into the silk thread or lasso they create.
Though their chiffony chrysalis casings are textured I could still see the colors of the forming butterflies within hours before they emerged. I have added one chrysalis photo above from another year to illustrate this point. Instead of falling as monarchs the swallowtails simply crawled out of their chrysalis casings.
Most caterpillars that I have raised emerged as butterflies the same summer. Now, I have two Black Swallowtail chrysalises that have spent the winter with me. I hope to see two more perfect butterflies emerge this spring.
Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)
Giant Swallowtails are the largest and most interesting caterpillars I have yet to know. I owe my acquaintance with these chocolate and white larva wearing elaborate headdresses to climate change and my friend Eva. Recently there have been significant sightings of Giant Swallowtail Butterflies here in Western Massachusetts. These migrant Lepidoptera were considered rare sightings before and would not have laid their eggs towards the end of the summer for our winter would be too severe for the survival of their later formed chrysalises. In 2014 I had more sightings of the butterflies in my gardens than any other year. Amazingly, they seemed to survive the birds for more than a day. My gardens did not offer their host plant Northern Prickly Ash or the non-native Rue but there were a couple small non-native Dictamnus or Gas Plants they must have determined insignificant. All three of these plants are in the Rutaceae family.
These more tropical butterflies have been fooled by our milder winters of late. This winter, however, has proved to be more like the frigid ones we used to have and has even set record cold temperatures that would surely have been too severe for any over wintering pupa. But we shall see when spring warms up the New England landscapes.
Caterpillar and chrysalises composed in camouflage. The cats from certain angles look like bird poop and the pupae resemble bark. Color varies in the different giant chrysalises as shown in the images above. Since the caterpillars and butterflies of the Giant Swallowtails are larger than most of the butterflies I have seen in our gardens and fields, it was no surprise to me to see the portly pupas.
I was startled the first time I saw these wonderful butterflies the summer of 2012. Other butterflies and bees in our gardens seemed to be taken aback too, as odd as that must sound. It must have been something to do with territorial urges when I saw other butterflies and even bees flying up to the giants seeming to check them out.
I enjoyed several Giant Swallowtail butterflies last August while they were visiting the gardens in constant fluttering mode. One afternoon, I happened to look out at the right moment to see one just outside my barn studio. I grabbed my camera and ran out. The butterfly wavered her wide wings rapidly which made it hard to capture a good portrait. But the fast movement helped protect her from birds that only had eyes for her plump abdomen.
I had brief encounters on three separate days and was able to get quite close. Once, while I was photographing a giant sipping nectar from a late blooming lilac another giant joined her. That was a thrilling moment. As of writing this piece, I do not know how to determine the sex of these butterflies. I prefer to defer to the female gender, inappropriate as it may be. I cannot refer to these beauties as it.
It was fun to raise three different species at the same time. A first for me. I do not raise these wonderful critters because I think I am helping to save them but more to save myself and others of my species, as well as, precious wildlife habitat. I feel deeply certain that butterflies will outlast humans (Monarchs have already lived through chaos for millions of years) and that we need them more than they need us. It is vital, I believe, for people to have this special link to the natural world and it is being stolen from us by profiteers in the guise of corporations. Stepping back into a reverence for nature and rewilding our landscapes will come closer to saving all wildlife including ourselves.
Right now, I look forward to spring and enjoying witnessing the Black and Giant Swallowtail butterflies emerge from their chrysalises.