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Sunday, September 16, 2018

Caterpillar Decisions

Last week I wrote about the caterpillars I found on my outdoor parsley plant.  Click here to  go to that blog.  Since then, the caterpillars went through a stage that looked essentially like the one above from last week, only bigger. 
Then this stage. Pretty, right? Click to enlarge. 
Then this. 
But there's another problem. I've been reading about the black swallowtail life cycle. After spending three or four week in their caterpillar stages they spin a chrysalis and emerge as adults after 10 to 20 days. That is, unless it is the end of the butterfly season, in which case they stay in the chrysalis for the entire winter. I don't know how to decide if this generation has enough time to emerge and lay eggs that can make it to the chrysalis stage, or if these are the last of the year. I'm not even sure how to decide. So I'm letting them decide. They've been liberated in this lovely field of queen Anne's lace; it's one of their favorite foods. There's enough here for many future generations. 
Here's how the grown caterpillars would have looked. 

This is an adult from another year. It was laying an egg as I snapped the photo.

One of the coolest things about swallowtail cats is that they defend themselves. See the yellow thing like a snake's tongue sticking out of this caterpillar's head? It's called a stink horn or osmeterium. Its appearance is startling, and if that's not enough, It flicks a bad smell around. Pretty cool, caterpillar. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Caterpillars on the Parsley

Earlier this summer I started growing butterfly weed, Asclepius tuberosa, from seeds. It's an orange-flowering milkweed that attracts butterflies. While I was in the hardware store picking up peat pots to sprout the seeds I bought a cute herb garden on impulse and started those seeds, too, including parsley. The butterfly weed grew great and I've planted it outside and am waiting for flowers. The parsley was growing so slowly in the window greenhouse that I thought it would be helped by time outdoors, so I put it outside. After a couple of days, I noticed there were little black caterpillars on it! Three caterpillars. 
This caterpillar is tiny, about one quarter of an inch long. It has spikes and a white saddlebag marking in the middle. I think it will grow up to be a black swallowtail butterfly. People say that this color pattern is protective camouflage that disguises the caterpillars as bird droppings. Click to enlarge. 
Here is the problem. My parsley plant is puny. Sure it can support baby caterpillars, but they will soon be big enough to eat the whole thing. And what then? Some caterpillars are very picky about what they eat. Black swallowtails want greenery in the carrot family: carrot, queen Anne's lace, dill, parsley, and all. They aren't nicknamed "parsley worms" for nothing. My little parsley plant is the only acceptable food in sight. 
So I have moved the caterpillars into protective custody. Here's their new  habitat, which I'm keeping clean, covered, and supplied with fresh parsley from the market. Can you see one on top of the foliage? Caterpillars grow in abrupt stages, called instars, emerging from shed skins bigger and, for these, with some beautiful color pattern changes. I'll photograph as it happens and hopefully we'll see these parsley worms to adulthood.
I was aiming to attract butterflies to my garden. Now I'm hoping to have some in my kitchen. :-)