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I got a lovely compliment from the mail carrier the other day: she said my garden always looks interesting, and she made a point to ask what the castor beans (Ricinus communis) ‘New Zealand Purple’ are. When one considers how many gardens a postal worker sees every day, I think that’s something.

…or maybe I’m just highly susceptible to flattery, who knows. But it’s true that if you want to butter up a gardener, complimenting the garden is the surest way to do it.

Summer maintenance continues. I cut down the wild black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) canes that fruited this season, and the first of the tomatoes are in. I suppose I could get a few potatoes now, but I’m not desperate and I’d rather let them keep growing until the vines die. What I really ought to do is harvest all that peppermint (Mentha x piperita) and spearmint (M. spicata) and the lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), but every time I decide to do it, something else catches my attention.

Monarch11CaterpillarDay14-18The monarch caterpillar on Day 18, about two inches long plus antennae. The leaf is included for a size comparison. The frass (caterpillar turds) are now the size of grape seeds. Considering they come out of something the thickness of a pencil, that’s…I’m not sure impressive is the right word. When I took this picture today, I was sure it would soon enter its final ecdysis into a chrysalis.

Monarch caterpillars pupate hanging head down from a horizontal surface, so they have an annoying habit (when raised in captivity) of crawling around and starting the process from the ceiling of whatever enclosure they’re raised in. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it does make for awkward photo ops.

Because I was following this particular caterpillar, I kept it separately in a large vase and covered it with a piece of cardboard. The caterpillar is now hanging from the underside of the cardboard spinning itself a network of silk; this will provide an anchor for it while it moults and as a chrysalis. I’ll have to keep an even closer eye on it now to get pictures of all the significant stages.

This one is pretty much right on track; monarchs generally spend about two weeks as caterpillars, although of course several factors play a role.

MonarchSkinThis is another of the monarch caterpillars I’m raising. I keep going on about this thing called ecdysis; this simply means the process of shedding its old skin so it can grow.

I mentioned previously that when the moult itself begins, the face of the caterpillar falls off, and then the caterpillar essentially walks out of its old skin. In this picture, you can see the old skin on the left, just behind the caterpillar. I suppose it does resemble a large pile of poo. Generally the caterpillar will consume a shed skin – there’s a lot of nutrients in one, and it removes the evidence – but I didn’t check to see if this one did. I did have to disturb it by removing the leaf from the stalk to take the picture, so it might not have, and it doesn’t always happen anyway.

As an aside, a very general way of assessing if ecdysis is imminent is to look at the caterpillar’s head. Although the skin can stretch and grow a small amount, the face won’t. If the caterpillar’s face looks disproportionately small compared to its overall diameter (and this will vary by species), it may well enter ecdysis soon. It takes a bit of practice to tell.

EBS03Finally, here’s the Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar I’m following. The spots of brown are becoming more obvious, and it’s about a centimetre long now. Or it would be if it straightened out.

I’m slightly concerned because I seem to remember that the EBS caterpillars I raised in past years grew a little faster than this, although memory does play tricks and mine isn’t the most reliable. It might be interesting to see if they grow faster on dill (as this one is feeding on) or on carrot leaves (which I always used before).

It’s struck me in recent days to think about caterpillar personalities. I know it sounds bizarre and crazy to assign a personality to a little eating machine, but over the years I’ve noticed that caterpillars (of the same species) often react in slightly different ways to the same stimuli. For example, I’ve had some that would crawl quite happily onto and over my hands, while others wouldn’t touch me with a ten-foot pole (figuratively speaking). Some will obliviously continue eating when disturbed (even while you’re moving them), while others will get agitated and move away, and yet others will simply freeze.

There’s probably much more to it than ‘personality’ but it bears thinking about.