Articles
Emerging from the Chrysalis
2014-01-02
By Geni Certain

My daughter’s first encounter with a caterpillar ended badly for the caterpillar. She was 3. We’d planted some lettuce seeds in a flower pot, and one day we found a green inchworm had chewed up all our seedlings. She dispatched it with the sole of her sandal. I tried to conceal my horror. 
 
“Why did you do that?” I asked, hoping I kept my voice even.
 
“Because it ate our plants,” she said, explaining the obvious with a show of patience.
 
At that time, all I knew about butterflies was what I retained from ninth-grade biology class. I recognized this inchworm as a caterpillar, but I didn’t know whether it was a butterfly or a moth. Since that long-ago class, I had not given any thought to butterflies and the miraculous life cycle that transforms them from worm-shape to angel-shape. But in this moment, something changed, for good and forever. I would teach this child to respect the life in all the creatures she met. She would step on no more caterpillars.
 
The lessons were casual, offered as opportunities occurred. One that I particularly remember was a few months later, during a visit to my parents’ home in New Hope. On my way to my father’s vegetable garden, I noticed that a patch of damp soil had attracted hundreds of the bright yellow butterflies I later came to know as Cloudless Sulphurs. I pointed them out to my daughter as we approached and asked her what they were.
 
“Flowers?” she guessed.
 
“Let’s pick some for Granny,” I suggested, and stopped where I was so she could enter the patch alone. As she took her first step into the circle of yellow, all the butterflies rose in a cloud around her. Her gasp of surprise blossomed into peals of laughter. “You knew they were butterflies!” she happily accused.
 
As I continued to the garden, my daughter wandered a little distance away, intent on something she’d picked up from the ground. I found her sitting on a bench, carefully wiping the tattered wings of an aged butterfly. She’d found it in a puddle, its wings wet and covered with what she thought was mud. By the time I reached her and she had told me what she was doing, she had wiped the wings completely clean.
 
Again I found myself measuring my words. I lifted her into my lap and explained that a butterfly’s wings are covered in tiny scales that — I thought, wrongly — enabled it to fly. She started to cry and I guess I cried a little, too. We tried to think of something positive we could do for the dying butterfly, and finally she lifted it gently to a flower and left it there.
 
That experience might have turned her away from butterflies, but later that summer, or maybe it was the next summer, she found a clutch of caterpillars in the yard at her daycare and brought them home in a cup. I had no idea how to care for them, but it was suddenly important that I figure it out. I put them in a shallow bowl with a lid to keep them in and a paper towel in the bottom to catch any waste they produced. I didn’t know what they might eat, but I thought they were probably tent caterpillars, so I tried leaves from trees and various weeds in the backyard. The caterpillars ignored everything except the leaves of a pesky weed, greater plantain. And after a few days, they wrapped themselves in those same leaves and began their metamorphosis into Virgin Tiger moths.
 
Over the next two weeks, my daughter lost interest in the apparently unchanging cocoons, but when the moths began emerging, she delighted in releasing them. Sometimes she’d invite friends over to witness the ceremony. She’d point her index finger into the bowl and let a moth climb on board. Then she’d hold her hand high and watch the beautiful pink and black and cream-striped moth lightly take to the air, as her friends oohed and aahed.
 
I don’t know how much of an impression these preschool lessons made on my daughter. She did develop sincere compassion, but not a particular interest in Lepidoptera. My interest, however, flourished.

First, I planted a Buddleia bush, a shrub guaranteed to entice butterflies into my yard. It attracted all the butterflies that I recognized, Tiger Swallowtails, Monarchs and Cloudless Sulphurs, and, to my delight, it brought me species I had never seen before.
 
I bought a book, the first of many, to help me learn their names, imagining that my “butterfly bush” was attracting species unknown to the area. When brilliant orange Gulf Fritillaries showed up, I thought my Buddleia had lured them all the way from the Gulf of Mexico.
 
That fantasy faded as I read about the butterflies’ ranges and habitats. Instead of dreaming about attracting exotic species, I began concentrating on growing host plants, those that caterpillars eat. Herbs I once grew for the table became primarily butterfly food, and I sought out trees and vines that are the only foods for some caterpillars. A troublesome slope that refused to grow grass became my first designated butterfly garden, filled with milkweeds, lantana, coneflowers, sunflowers, zinnias — the nectar-filled blossoms that butterflies like best.
 
Before long, I began seeing eggs on some of the host plants. I cautiously collected a few and brought them inside. After a few days, I had tiny caterpillars. In a week, they increased their size several times over. Toward the end of the second week, they made chrysalises, each following the pattern peculiar to its species. And after about two weeks in the chrysalis, butterflies emerged, bearing no resemblance whatever to the caterpillars I had lovingly fed.
 
The first time it happened, I was afraid. Afraid I had done something wrong, that the butterflies would not be healthy, that they’d have been damaged somehow by captivity. They were fine — more than fine — they were spectacular. And the exhilaration of seeing a butterfly lift off my finger and zoom to a treetop was immediately addictive.
 
I began collecting lots of eggs. Online friends described rearing species I had never seen, and I envied them. But soon I learned to find the eggs of three of the butterflies that were common in my garden: Monarchs on milkweed, Black Swallowtails on parsley and fennel, and Gulf Fritillaries on maypop vines. These I could reliably identify and rear through to adulthood; so reliably, in fact that it became a problem to know when to stop. 
 
Inevitably, the host plants play out before the last generation of caterpillars is through eating. Early fall finds me scouring plant nurseries for their last overgrown pots of herbs and some forgotten milkweed. I’ve never had any caterpillars starve, but every year I heave a great sigh of relief when the last one starts its pupation ritual.
 
I’ll admit, sometimes the butterflies have taken control of my life. I have packed up containers of caterpillars and carted them to the beach and back. Once when I ran out of milkweed, I delivered 25 Monarch caterpillars to a friend in Elberta, six hours away. I have released butterflies over the length of the state because they were in my car when their time came. I have given chrysalises to co-workers, college professors and most recently, Susan Brewer’s students at Munford Elementary School.
 
Last winter, the Munford students took over babysitting some of my Black Swallowtail chrysalises while I traveled for a couple of months. This summer, just after school started, they got caterpillars. They sat with incredible patience on the gym floor and endured yet another slideshow on the Black Swallowtail life cycle, stealing glances at the fat caterpillars chewing on fennel next to the podium. When I finally stopped talking and asked, “Who wants to play with the caterpillars,” every hand shot up. By that time, I was satisfied that these kids already knew how to handle the soft-bodied larvae and that they would pay attention to my instructions.
 
“Don’t pick up a caterpillar between your thumb and finger. Put your hand in front of it and let it crawl on.”
 
Soon every student had a caterpillar crawling over a hand, up an arm, across the front of a shirt. No child was squeamish. No child was vicious. Every child was curious. Every child was compassionate. No caterpillars got stepped on that day.
 
Three weeks later, Mrs. Brewer let me know that the first butterfly from this group had emerged from its chrysalis.
 
I am happy to be teaching kids about butterflies again, and now I know a lot more. Still, the students always uncover gaps in my knowledge.
 
“That baby caterpillar looks like it has barbs — why don’t the older ones have them?”
 
“Do butterflies sleep in their chrysalises?”
 
“Which butterfly lives the longest?”
 
I’ll have to do a little research before my next visit to the school.
 
Looking back over all these years of little biology lessons, I wonder who reaped the greatest benefit: the butterflies, the kids or me?
 
Geni Certain was the first editor of Longleaf and wrote about the migration of Monarchs in the second issue. Most of the time, she and her husband live in Munford, though Mexico is always on their travel agenda.