Bringing caterpillars inside to encourage minds-on opportunities while experiencing a metamorphosis
A swallowtail caterpillar happily munches away at some dill.
“Well, I must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Change is everywhere. Almost everything changes, eventually. This entire blog entry is changing in front of my eyes as I type and think about the next thing to say or write. This is not the direction that I had intended to take today but it seems like it was the one that decided to show up.
How do we talk about change with each other, and, especially with children? We can talk about it in abstract ways or lay a leaf on the table and watch it dry out. But it is really just decaying. For something ordinary, almost mundane, to change and become something magical—now that is something to see with your own eyes. A wonderful opportunity for children to experience change in a way that will inspire them is to watch a truly mystical metamorphosis of a caterpillar (or worm/larvae) into a butterfly (or moth). So this month, much like a few times last year, we found some mini beasts in the garden and we will be watching them as they eat, grow, and change into something completely different.
Does a butterfly even remember what it was like to be a caterpillar? It no longer crawls and munches on greens in the garden, many butterflies only really have a very long tongue-like or straw-like mouth part called a proboscis. Yes, there are many types of butterflies and some of them don't even eat after they change into flying insects, some only live long enough to fly around, mate, lay eggs, and then die. What a life. But for today we'll talk about butterflies with a proboscis because I am hosting a horn worm which will turn into some sort of hawk moth or hummingbird moth and some variety of swallowtail caterpillar.
Just imagine, you pop out of a little egg on the bottom of a leaf, you eat the leaf, then you eat everything you can touch while you are awake for several days to weeks. Then you grow and grow and finally shed your skin, eat your skin, wrap yourself up in silk or some type of malleable case that hardens, your insides turn to goo, you completely lose your identity, and a few days-weeks-months later depending out conditions outside of your control, you burst forth with tiny, skinny legs, a huge fluffy belly, and colorful wings. Is this what it is like to turn 40? I guess I'll have to wait to find out. But back to invertebrates.
Hornworm / Sphinx or Hawkmoths
These creatures are quite intriguing and yes, while I notice in some areas they can be quite "harmful" to crops and other planted goods, let's face it, it is the end of the harvest season. If I eat one more tomato, I may actually inflate and roll away. Seriously, though, I'm currently limiting my nightshades. So, if I find an insect that is eating—gasp— garden greens I'm going to bring that little guy inside, put him in our butterfly tent, and pick his favorite foods and create a predator-free sanctuary. Our garden is like a bird playground. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there. There is nothing quite the same as watching a worm/caterpillar change into a moth/butterfly. Nothing else really turns into goo, then emerges with stained-glass designed wings and flutters all over spreading flower dust. Well, nothing else that also does not sting. The hornworm eats a lot. I get it, they can terrorize farms. But something to consider is everything has a purpose (everything except mosquitos and ticks, I'm serious, just leave us alone). The hornworm also can turn into one of several thousand types of Sphinx moth, hawk moth, or hummingbird moth. They have a very specific proboscis and after watching this amazing talk through the Thursday night chats—which are free and online— at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, the talk was entitled, "Night of the Living Moth" because Mike Weilbacher is super knowledgeable, funny, and a great performer— this talk informed me of something that I already knew but needed to hear again. Every single pollinator, is made for specific plants. This has been accurate to the point where every plant has a preferred pollinator whose mouth parts, beak, tongue, etc is made exactly for that flower. Hmm... I thought, I read about something like this in, "Flower Confidential" as part of the Rodale Book Club this summer. We read about how the flower industry is really changing the nature of flowers, and along with genetic engineering in an actual lab and changing what a flower does, how it looks, how long it blooms, the colors, the size and shape, the flower's genetics are changed and altered. The flower retaliates by no longer having a scent. WHAT?! no scent? No scent. The punishment for scientifically choosing what characteristics a flower does or doesn't display results in the flower turning off the scent. If that isn't irony, I don't know what is. This is different than open-pollination, cross-breeding, or cultivars because nature chooses how to combine the variants, not scientists. But when a scientist changes the characteristics of a flower... that also means there may not be any pollinators for that new plant because now the stamen is different or the stigma is longer or the pollen isn't the right color or it doesn't even have pollen. So these flowers must be hand-pollinated.
Where am I going with this? I have recently been noticing online that people find horn worms and they're like, "OH NO! How do I kill this?!" Responses normally fall along the lines of, "Freeze it! SPRAY IT!!! Throw it away! Feed them live to your chickens! Deep fry them and eat them, they are low in fat and high in protein. Tastes like crab or chicken!" EEEK, guys. This is getting violent. What if, here's an idea, what if we planted some additional plants for them off to the side or away from our prized garden area, if we find them we pick them up and take them to the new area? What if we let them eat and clean up and just live their very short lives because when they turn into a type of hawk moth or hummingbird hawk moth they have a very specific type of mouth that may only be able to pollinate a very specific type of flower?
There was a flower in Madagascar—a beautiful and rare Star orchid with a ridiculously long spur with its reproductive parts and nectar deep inside the flower, almost 11 inches deep. Scientists have been baffled, "What in the world pollinates this in the wild?" Interestingly enough, Charles Darwin had noted more than a 100 years ago that there is a very special insect or bird that has the precise mouth or beak for this flower. Many people shrugged it off as lunacy because they couldn't imagine any animal or insect flying around with a mouth long enough to reach, it must look absurd. Then just recently, while on expedition in Madagascar, a group of photojournalists witnessed a rare hawk moth and as it approached the flower at night, almost out of no where, a proboscis/tongue of extreme measures unraveled and entered the orchid for an exact match. A hummingbird moth that came from a horned worm. I take this and wonder, what are the consequences of my actions? There is an insect doing its job of eating nightshade leaves, and it can cause a nuisance for some people, yes, but what is its purpose next? What does the moth do what does it coevolve with? Who needs that moth next? How many chains of life will be interrupted if I just exterminate this caterpillar or worm right now? How many rings in the microsphere of this life form will be negatively affected if I get rid of it or if I leave it alone?
What if I take it home and study it with my children, we watch it grow, we tend to it, we nurture it, and then we set it free in our garden? Sphinx moths can pollinate during the day and the night and their wings have an amazing triangular shape. What are the things we can learn from watching, observing, and aiding in this metamorphosis? What will we learn about empathy and the delicate food web chain? Are there extremely dangerous insects that can devastate plants, trees, or food sources? Of course, but this isn't a tent worm, gypsy moth, ash borer, pantry moth, or terrible beetle. This turns into a pollinator with a very specific mouth part to pollinate just the right type of flower. Which flower? We may never know if they all get killed before we get to see.
“It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world.” —Unknown
For our hornworm, we have placed various nightshades in the butterfly tent. This includes greens from tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers. We have also placed in some dandelion greens as I have read they will eat these and we will not be feeding these to reptiles or birds so the fact that they are eating nightshade greens and they will become toxic doesn't pertain to their life cycle with us because we will allow them to morph into the sphinx / hawk moth.
Here you can see several stages of the swallowtail as a caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly.
Oh, the beauty and the majesty of the Swallowtail butterfly. There are so many different varieties each with their beautiful individualized attributes—a little blue here, lines of black there, splashes of red or yellow over here. They float and flutter around our flowers every year. We have also seen them fight each other, butterfly fights are not something you think of when considering the majesty of the paper-thin wings of these colorful insects. They fly around like they have no cares in the world and then they spy another butterfly on their favorite flower and they just dive in. Learning about nature though observation is such a thrill especially when you catch glimpses you didn't know possible.
We always have so many swallowtail butterflies in our garden but I never see the caterpillars in our garden. I can never find them. We find eggs occasionally and we watch and observe them, then one day they hatched and the caterpillars are just gone! So when I found a whole bunch of swallowtail caterpillars today, I was so excited to bring one inside so that we could share this experience together. Last year we had several cabbage whites and they are so cute, I know people don't like them in their gardens either but we grow a diverse ecosystem; and, for us, that includes allowing the usual pollinating insects.
We have found black, yellow, black and white, black and yellow, black with yellow-red-and blue swallowtails in our garden. We love to try to get close enough and see if they are males and females. We love to hold out our hand and see if they will land. We plant many types of flowers and plants in all colors so we can attract more butterflies to our garden and of course we have milkweed for our monarchs. But then again, we never find monarch caterpillars in the garden. Is it because of how many birds? I don't know, I know their coloring helps to keep birds away but they are still so good at hiding.
Something interesting I have found out about Swallowtail caterpillars is how they change. They make a J shape with their body and attach it to a branch with a tiny thread. Then form a case that hardens. I didn't know what their change process looked like before but I am pretty sure I found some while clipping basil earlier this year which you can see in the gallery image above. The caterpillars today were found in a large patch of dill, happily munching away. When they are done eating, they crawl as far away from their host plant as possible and find a sturdy, safe, dry place to continue their change.
For our swallowtail caterpillar, we will be providing fresh sprigs of dill, carrot greens, celery greens, celeriac greens, fennel fronds, and some basil, if needed. We clean out the greens or add greens daily and some climbing sticks. The caterpillars don't need additional water as they could drown and they receive all of the moisture and hydration from the moist, fresh plant-based diet that is provided for them throughout the day. We add fresh greens 2-3 times a day depending on how quickly they are consumed.
Taking care of caterpillars and butterflies is a great way to integrate nature into your home whether for homeschool, learning extensions, or teaching tending and empathy skills this experience offers so many wonderful benefits for children of all ages and can easily be used to teach multiple subject areas such as nature-based studies, observation, science, life cycles, change and transformation, literacy with related books and written stories, math, language skills, and various types of art. The possibilities are limitless.
Remember to release butterflies in a safe space with lots of available food. While you have the caterpillars in your home be sure it is not too cold or too dry. They prefer warm, slightly humid areas. If you do not give your caterpillar enough greens and fresh food and you have multiple caterpillars in the same butterfly tent, they can turn to cannibalism.
Thank you for tuning in this week as we discuss hosting a butterfly tent indoors for hours of learning and exploration. These are my own opinions or topics that I have researched and tried on my own, but of course there is always more to learn. All images in this entry were taken on an iPhone by me. Remember take what you need, and leave what you don't need. See you next week.