Our caterpillars are back for Year 3! Officially, the pillars are our Pandemic Project™️. We've learned a lot from our experience thus far, and our operation is now more streamlined and efficient. I'm especially proud of the fact that we are able to take natural-born caterpillars from outside and finish raising them indoors.
Our first year, in 2020, it was a complete surprise when we discovered an Eastern swallowtail butterfly laying eggs on our parsley. We went with it, learning the whole way, and this impromptu project provided unexpected joy in the midst of some dark times. We were not prepared for how quickly five caterpillars could consume even a large and thriving herb. And we didn't realize how many dangers lurked outdoors that might prevent a caterpillar from making it all the way through its lifecycle to the emergence from the chrysalis: wasps and other predators, wind and rain, disease. It's a complete miracle that any of them make it, let alone that this has been happening for millions of years. (Between 1-2% of eggs eventually become butterflies.)
Last year we bought plenty of extra parsley, dill and fennel, and we carefully noted the first appearance of the butterflies, and their tiny yellow eggs clinging to the leaves. It was midway through the summer when we noticed that the baby caterpillars and eggs both tended to disappear within a few days, and that this was correlated with increased wasp activity. We ordered some mesh enclosures online, stuck some fresh parsley plants in there, and moved a couple of the remaining caterpillars inside to their new home. This was a big success, because in addition to keeping them safe indoors, we were able to watch and enjoy them much more closely. And most importantly, we actually hatched a butterfly!
Spring was late to take hold this year, so it wasn't until a few weeks ago that we finally planted our herb garden on the back deck. (I have photos from this time last year of nearly full-grown caterpillars.) The butterflies found it almost immediately, and within days we had at least a dozen eggs; that was thanks in part to our monstrous fennel, which is already the size of a small bush. A lot of the eggs don't make it, for whatever reason, and even though we've had some caterpillars survive all the way to make their chrysalis outdoors, we got pretty nervous as soon as the first couple of babies appeared last week. We've had to accept the fact that most of them will not make it, and it's hard not to get attached, because they are so simple and lovable.