We got home late last night from a quick trip to Omaha for Yom Kippur, thus the email lateness. The first thing we did when we came into the house was to check up on the butterfly in our living room.
Yes, as it turns out, we raised caterpillars again this year. I apologize for neglecting to write about this as it happened, but after last year's difficulties, I've been continually tamping down my hopes. We weren't necessarily planning to give this project another go, but we did plant parsley on our deck again, and we knew that for the black swallowtails it would be an attractive egg-laying target.
Sure enough, after a few weeks, several eggs appeared, and one of them hatched into a caterpillar. Since the herbs are rather exposed, and one of the biggest problems last year was wasps picking our little guys off the leaves, we bought a second parsley plant and potted it in a more hidden corner spot. At the garden shop, I noticed that one of the plants already had a little caterpillar hiding within the leaves, so naturally that's the one I brought home, and we now had two pets.
Our first idea to provide additional protection from flying predators was to drape a mesh bag—a lingerie wash bag, in fact—over the plant. That worked fine, but it also made it difficult to water the plant, and we could barely even see what was going on in there. Ashley bought an actual caterpillar enclosure online, and when that arrived, we brought the parsley plant and our two friends inside and transferred them to their new home.
Now they were protected from the elements, and they could still chow down at will on this delicious parsley. The older caterpillar didn't make it, unfortunately—the eggs are susceptible to virus and fungus problems, the effects of which might not appear until a later developmental stage.
The younger one kept trucking along, even though we'd get nervous every time he stopped moving for a few hours (which is normal). He sat on our coffee table while I wrote code during the day and while we read books in the evenings, munching away. Once he reached the third or fourth caterpillar stage, we gave him a name: Peter the Pillar.
Eventually he began preparing to form his chrysalis. This is where things started to go haywire with our first brood in 2020: we'd thought they all bounced because they ran out of parsley, but probably they were just looking for a safe place to pupate. Peter did the same thing; he lost interest in the leaves and started wandering all over the mesh walls of the enclosure, and he even tested out the ceiling, which was excruciating to watch.
The day before, on my walk around the neighborhood, I'd grabbed some thick sticks and jammed them into the parsley's soil. After what felt to me like an excessive amount of deliberation, Peter chose the thickest of the sticks for his metamorphological home. He assumed the position, and another 24 hours went by, during which time we again fretted about whether he was okay or not.
The next morning I woke up and suddenly there was a chrysalis. It was dark brown and not particularly healthy-looking, but it turns out that a swallowtail chrysalis can mimic the color of the support that it's suspended from. But given that these butterflies take 10-14 days to emerge, there were still plenty of moments in which I doubted whether it was going to happen.
Ashley moved one of our interior Nest cams into the cage, so we'd be able to monitor any stirrings. This came in super handy when we had to head to Omaha, and Peter hadn't eclosed yet. On Friday she noticed that there had been some slight vibrations, which you can only see via time lapse, so we knew that something was likely to happen. Waking up on Saturday morning, we discovered that overnight, just after 1:30 AM, this happened.
We wouldn't be home until the following evening, so we asked our wonderful neighbors to try to feed him some sugar water (I'd left some in the cage on Wednesday but it evaporated). When we finally arrived back in Chicago last night, he was going a little crazy, flying haphazardly around the enclosure and beating his wings incredibly fast.
We let him out onto the porch, but he didn't seem to totally understand what he was supposed to do, and it's not like we had any better information. Since it was already dark out, maybe his instincts were telling him to hunker down in a safe area until sunrise.
So he spent the night perched on the wall behind our patio furniture. When I woke up this morning, I went straight out there; I had a feeling he was still hanging around. He wasn't moving, but I nudged him and he climbed a couple steps further up the wall.
By this point I was pretty sure he needed nutrition badly, so I put some sugar water in a bowl and wet a paper towel with it. I balled it up and held it out, and he crawled onto it. I brought him over to the bowl, spooned up some liquid, and he put his feet in there and then he must have drank a bit.
All of a sudden he flew up and out of the porch and across the sky, over the top of our building and out of sight.