For some gardeners, the most fulfilling aspect of gardening is raising plants from seed. For others, it’s growing one’s own vegetables or fruit. For yet others, it’s getting things to the point where one can just sit in the garden and relax and look around with total satisfaction with the job done.
For me, it’s raising caterpillars into butterflies. The first time I did it, there was such a feeling of accomplishment, it was almost cathartic. All the things you read and see in textbooks suddenly come to life.
Last year was a bad year for butterflies in general in these parts. I saw one Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) in the garden all summer, and that was one more than most people did. I saw no Eastern Black Swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes), which I also usually get a lot of. Predictably of course, the one butterfly that did make its regular showing was the unwanted, unwelcome, and pestiferous Cabbage White (Pieris rapae). Lepidoptera non grata. Last summer I raised no butterflies because I simply didn’t find any eggs (other than the Cabbage Whites, which I crushed).
Better luck this year. I saw a Monarch visiting my milkweed patch several days ago and collected some eggs. In so doing, I found that she wasn’t the first in the garden, because at the same time I found a newly hatched caterpillar. So this year, because I have this blog, I think I’ll run a Monarch diary, complete with poorly taken, grainy pictures (my photography skills are lacking to say the least, and my camera isn’t the best at macros).
Horrible picture, I know, taken roughly seven and a half hours after the last one. The egg hatched very early on Day 5. Like many butterfly species, Monarch caterpillars eat the eggshell upon hatching. That’s what this one is doing. It is barely 2 millimetres long.
The same caterpillar, twelve hours later. Believe it or not, it has almost doubled in length, and the body is beginning to show the pattern of stripes that will later turn into bands of white, yellow, and black. At the bottom of the leaf you can see a bit of frass, which is a highly scientific, technical term that means caterpillar droppings (and sometimes insect crap in general).
More to come as this guy grows. Currently I have one caterpillar older by several days, this one and another at the same stage of development, and one unhatched egg. I’ll do another check of the plants to see if I can find more eggs tomorrow or the next day. Not that I’m complaining, but so far this has been a pleasantly wet summer. In case you get the wrong idea, a wet summer in this area is if it rains once a week. Some summers (such as the past two), there’s not a drop of rain for six weeks, but somehow it manages to be hellishly humid. I almost feel spoilt this year.