Sunday, June 20, 2021

Adventures in Pupating, Part 2

In his book “Photography and the Art of Seeing,” Freeman Patterson points out that one of the major barriers to observation is our own familiarity with the subject at hand. By adolescence, he says, we tend to be too quick to catalogue everything we see in accord with our own understanding. “We rule out visual exploration,” Patterson writes, “and seldom discover the myriad facets of each object.”

A swallowtail freshly out of the cocoon.
The wings will take a bit of time
to dry and spread out.
I've been thinking about that a lot this summer in the midst of our attempts to raise swallowtails. From elementary school on, the metamorphosis of butterflies seemed to get a lot of airtime in class. It's one of those facts that gets hammered into your brain, like the water cycle or the order of the planets. 

Despite that, it turned out there was still a lot I didn't know. Some of it pretty dramatic! Some of it pretty disgusting. And some of it was just unexpected, presenting new challenges to what we were doing.

Here are five things we've learned since starting a caterpillar ranch.

  1. Those aren't monarchs.
    The very first lesson I learned was that the caterpillars I assumed were monarchs were actually swallowtails. Despite similar coloration and bandings, the critters crawling around on our dill were not what I thought. But because I thought I knew what they were, it took me a long time to fact check. (Forgive me, Freeman!)

  2. Caterpillars only have six legs.
    This was another thing I never looked at that closely. Whenever I saw a caterpillar crawling around I always thought it was on two long rows of legs, kind of like a millipede. As it turns out, though, they only have six. Those grippers that run down the rest of the body are something called “prolegs,” which are more like squishy little nubs that will disappear later—not real legs at all.

  3. Caterpillars dump their guts out before they build a cocoon.
    The surest sign a caterpillar is about to build a cocoon is that it will completely void its bowels in a huge, slimy splatter of poop shortly before it sets up a perch. I had no idea! The first time we saw this we thought one of the caterpillars was ill. If we'd known what was actually happening, we might have made preparations for what happened next.

  4. Caterpillars get really antsy when it's time to transform.

    After a little while
    the wings are dry
    and fully spread. You can
    see goo (#5) on the mesh
    behind him.
    We learned this the hard way after two caterpillars vanished in our kitchen, and I found a third making its way across the tile floor. Up until that point, they'd been content to crawl up and down stalks of dill, eating their way from one side to the other. Once it was time to build a chrysalis, they set out to discover new ground. While we've since moved the remaining caterpillars into a safer enclosure, I do expect one day soon to walk into the kitchen and find an unexpected swallowtail waiting.

  5. Butterflies also dump their guts out.
    Ah, some disgusting symmetry! I would have thought, based on the quantity of the caterpillar poop from #3, that their tanks would be empty by the time they emerged from their cocoons. Wrong! Because one of the first things a swallowtail does once it climbs out is to blast a long streamer of goo out its butt. There you are, appreciating the subtle beauty of a butterfly wing as it gently unfolds, when all of a sudden you find yourself inside the splash zone.

So there you have it. I knew none of these things until now, and that's been the fun of observing them daily. As Patterson writes, “new conceptions arise from your direct experience.” And if there's been this much to learn about swallowtails over just a few weeks, how much more is there to learn about, well, everything else?

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...