houston, we have a problem

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) butterfly. Click on image for larger view.

Those of you who followed last summer’s posts about my project to raise Monarch caterpillars, and tag and release butterflies, might remember that on August 11, during one of my insect walks around the farm, I found the caterpillar of a Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) butterfly feeding on Queen Anne’s Lace. I decided to bring it home to study and photograph.

I kept the caterpillar in a separate container, alongside the many trays of Monarch caterpillars, and fed it Queen Anne’s Lace for about a week. During that time, I wrote this piece about about the defensive head gear being displayed by the caterpillar in the above photo.

About a week after bringing the caterpillar indoors, it pupated, forming the above odd-looking chrysalis, which I wrote about on August 21st.

As you know, I went off on my journey to the west, leaving the Swallowtail chrysalis attached to a piece of screen along with those of the Monarch caterpillars that Don continued to care for, tag and release as late as early October. When I returned from the west, I cleaned up all of trays and bits of screen, and soon rediscovered the Swallowtail chrysalis. In hindsight, I should have put it outdoors somewhere, but I was a little afraid that it might be eaten by something, or become parasitized by some insect. I decided to hang the screen with the chrysalis in a very cool spot next to the sliding door that leads into our sun porch. I was actually a little dubious of the viability of the chrysalis as it looked small and sort of dried up compared to a typical Monarch chrysalis.

As it turns out, I need not have been concerned. Yesterday, while working in the room near the sliding door, a healthy black butterfly suddenly appeared out of nowhere, startling me slightly as it emerged over top of a stack of books next to my elbow. It marched around for a bit and then launched itself into the air and flew to the sunny front window of the living room. It spent yesterday hanging out on the back of a chair. For its own safety, I put it under an upside down screen collander for the night — in case we or Sabrina were to step on it during the night.

Unfortunately, the butterfly’s emergence is far too early — no doubt triggered by too much warmth and sunlight in the spot where the chrysalis was stored. At best, I think we can’t expect the butterfly to live more than about 20 or 30 days, which won’t be anywhere near spring-like in our region. So, we’ll have to keep the butterfly indoors, feeding it and letting it fly about the house.

I should mention that we’re not alone in having a Black Swallowtail emerge indoors. Back in late November, this one of my posts received a comment from Laiku Oh. Laiku wrote with some questions about caring for a butterfly that had emerged from a chrysalis made by a hand-raised caterpillar. Laiku then reported that a second butterfly emerged on Dec. 5 and survived until Dec. 26th. For those who are interested, you might enjoy reading the comments on that page as Laiku reported some nice observations about butterflies, and also about some type of parasitic wasp that emerged from one pupae.

So, what’s to be learned by this experience? In future, if I were to rear Black Swallowtail caterpillars again, I’d store the chrysalids outdoors, or in a colder location. I have read that some people over-winter Sphinx moth cocoons, etc… in refrigerators, so that might be a good option if one were concerned that the butterfly chrysalids might be parasitized (a distinct possibility if they are stored outdoors).

For now, we’ll enjoy our butterfly visitor and provide for it as best we can. Its presence does seem to make it feel like springtime is not so far away.

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34 Responses to “houston, we have a problem”

  1. Duncan Says:

    Nice one Bev. You’re looking forward to Spring, and we’re looking forward to Autumn and Winter, hopefully with some rain.

  2. Ruth Says:

    I had no idea the Black Swallowtail emerged in the spring. What would you put out for food indoors? As usual,the details in your photos are exceptional.

  3. pablo Says:

    Fascinating! Always worth a visit.

  4. burning silo Says:

    Duncan – Thanks! I hope you get some rain over the winter this year. Maybe *this* will be the year!
    Ruth – There are two broods of Swallowtail butterflies each year — this is a common thing with many species of butterflies. According to Butterflies of Canada (Layberry, Hall & Lafontaine), the first flight over-winters as pupae and emerges in mid- to late May and flies until late June. A second brood emerges in mid-July and flies throughout August. In answer to your question about feeding butterflies, I’ve just put up some photos in a new post.
    pablo – Thanks! Glad you dropped by to check out the butterfly activity!

  5. Laura Says:

    Gosh! I can just imagine how surprised you must have been, Bev. Seems like a nice companion to share the last days of winter with, however improbabale.

  6. pablo Says:

    Last days of winter? Really?

  7. burning silo Says:

    laura – It was definitely quite a surprise to have the butterfly eclose this early. As mentioned, I was also dubious about its chances as the chrysalis seemed very small. The butterfly is a bit on the small side too, but I think that has more to do with the size of the caterpillar when it pupated…. it seemed smaller than it should have been.
    pablo – Our last days of winter are still a good ways off. It’s generally not spring-like until around April 1st. However, much as it is cold right now, we had such a warm winter and there’s so little snow, that I suspect we may have an early spring unless the air stays really cold for a few more weeks.

  8. robin andrea Says:

    OMG! That is simply incredible. I can’t imagine seeing a butterfly emerge in winter like that. What a surprise. It’s great that you’ll be able to feed it. Sad though, that it won’t see the outdoors or a real flower or any other swallowtails.

  9. burning silo Says:

    robin – yes, it is sort of incredible — but then, I find everything about butterflies a little incredible anyhow!

  10. Cathy Says:

    A breath of Spring – a whisper of soft beginnings. Beautiful pictures that warm a winter heart.

  11. Laiku Oh Says:

    It was totally suprising when one butterfly came out of the cocoon. We all noticed when my mom said, “What’s that?” And we all scurried over to investigate. It was very weird, because I think at least 3 insects died. One hatched one just died from old age, another caterpillar that way too, one caterpillar-in-waiting got eaten by the wasp(as Burning Silo told you, one caterpillar just died for no reason earlier. Burnng Silo, that story is cool! I like the title too, and everyone knows why. As Burning Silo already knows, I’m going to the Fort Totten park in Bayside, New York with my class to study entymology. And just a random comment-Cathy, your comment is beautiful, practically poetry. Well, it IS poetry.

  12. Laiku Oh Says:

    By the way, the butterfly probably hatched in the early winter because of the warm heating.

  13. burning silo Says:

    Cathy – As Laiku says just below, your comment is poetry. (-:
    Laiku – Thanks for writing a bit more information about your caterpillars and butterflies. I think it’s great that you’ll be going on the field trip to Fort Totten park. Maybe you can post something about it here after the trip! By the way, I meant to mention something to you. On this page from the Massachusetts Butterfly Society website, it mentions that the chrysalis of the Black Swallowtail may be either green or brown and that the colour variation seems to have something to do with where the chrysalis is formed. This is what it says:

    the color variation has been shown to relate to the season in which pupation will occur and the surface on which it takes place, i.e. the chrysalis will tend to be brown in winter and on rough surfaces and green in summer and on smooth surfaces to blend in with the most likely background.

    Interesting! Do you think that applies in the case of your caterpillars as you had both green and brown chrysalises, didn’t you? Do you remember what each was attached to?

  14. Laiku Oh Says:

    The brown ones were on a brown stick, and I think the reason why one was green is because it was on a wild Korean sesame stick that had browned, and it was green before.

  15. Laiku Oh Says:

    *brown. I always make mistakes.

  16. burning silo Says:

    Laiku – There, I fixed the “brown”! That’s very interesting about the brown ones being made on a brown stick, and the green one on a stick that was green before. I guess that explains why they can be different colours!

  17. Laiku Oh Says:

    Yay, you fixed the “brown!” I’m really not sure when the entymology trip is. I just cannot wait for it! Yes, I guess you’re right. I cannot wait for the caterpillars to arrive. By the way, the weather today was just outrageous. Today sleet or hail, whatever, fell today in little balls. They didn’t hurt or anything, but they were what you call “sugar snow” and it was extremely slippery, and in the breakfast cafeteria I slipped once. My hip hurt, but now it’s alright. And just a little while ago, the hail stopped. Or is it still going on? I’m not sure. Also, in some places, the snow was ankle-deep, and it was so fun to run through- no matter where you ran through, you would never fall. (My friends and I had fun throwing powdery snow in each others faces.=P) In the nearby playground/park, there was a lot of untouched snow, and if you walked on it delicately enough you could walk without breaking the brittle and hard plate of snow/ice on top.

  18. Laiku Oh Says:

    Postscript-Happy Valentine’s Day!

  19. WrenaissanceWoman Says:

    I’ve read and loved all three of the butterfly posts. What a special experience.

    Your photos are always both interesting and lovely – thanks for sharing them.

  20. burning silo Says:

    Laiku – Happy Valentine’s Day! I heard that you were getting some snow or ice down in New York. We’re just getting snow at the moment. Today, I think about 6 inches of snow fell. We might have about a foot of snow on the ground (total) for this year. That’s not actually very much for this region. I like fresh snow too. I got my snowshoes out today as I’ll need them to go walking in the fields after today’s storm.
    Wrenaissance Woman – Thanks very much.. I’m glad that you enjoyed the photos.

  21. Laiku Oh Says:

    That’s a lot for New York, since there’s so much public transportation and so many people. Today, a woman walking her puppy walked over a manhole. All of a sudden, the puppy yelped, and just fell over dead. In 2004, a woman got electrocuted while walking her dogs over a grate. My sister said it’s becasue of the amount of salt the people use profusely, and salt sparks electricity. That’s a little traumatic for that lady… Today, after school, I went directly to the yard where we would play for recess, and I had some fun sliding on the hard ice. And yes, I like the amazingly detailed and clear photos too! When I take a photograph, and it seems clear, I zoom in and then I see a lot of noise. I cannot perfect my skills for some reason!

  22. burning silo Says:

    Laiku – That’s so sad about the dog being killed by the electricity coming through the grate. I’ve heard about that happening in the past. Regarding the camera and the noise — when you zoom, you actually lose some of the pixels in the frame. It’s difficult to explain. The effect is much worse if you use the digital zoom as well as the optical zoom, so be sure to keep the digital zoom turned off. I don’t know why they include that feature on cameras as it’s not really very useful — the same effect can be done during editing on a computer later on.
    We got quite a bit of snow here yesterday. I went snowshoeing this morning. I decided to write about the snowshoes as some people have never used them. The post is here on my blog. I even included a little .mp4 movie clip of it. If you listen to the sound, you’ll hear how cold the wind and snow are — although there’s also a lot of noise from the wind blowing into the camera’s microphone.

  23. Laiku Oh Says:

    I know that you shouldn’t put zoom on, but for some reason, when you look at the picture at its max, it still has some signs of fuzziness. So many blogs to check now! I don’t like the flash either- I only use it when necessary. I like having the natural color. But even if you don’t use flash, it still discolors a little bit. I guess there’s no way to get the fully real color, eh? I guess that even the original cameras are better- they’re clear and very easy to develop. The only problem is the moolah! =)

  24. Laiku Oh Says:

    Isn’t is funny how we start with one topic, then trail into another? Just saying…

  25. burning silo Says:

    Laiku – I almost never use the flash as it changes the color too much. That’s especially a problem when you’re shooting nature photos as correct color is so important. You asked about a way to get the full real color of objects. There’s an adjustment you can make to your photos — it’s sort of the equivalent of using the exposure settings on a film camera. Most digital cameras call it the AE lock (autoexposure lock). I always keep mine turned downward (into the minus range… usually -3). That will make the photo a little darker, but also help to capture more color in the image. You can then use the photo as it comes from the camera, or put it into a digital editing program such as PhotoShop or Adobe Elements, etc… and carefully adjust the brightness and contrast of the image to whatever level you like. In bright conditions (bright sun), sometimes you have to go to a setting such as -7 to get much color in an object. I don’t do any shooting with a film camera anymore – since I switched to digital in 2001 and I find the processing too expensive and can get better results with a digital camera. They are better able to capture available light, so I find that an advantage (a flash is rarely necessary). Also, you can just shoot all the photos you want, which means the practice will help you to get really good a lot faster than you will using film (due to the cost differences). Just keep on shooting plenty of photos and experimenting with settings, and you’ll soon get your techniques perfected! (-:

  26. burning silo Says:

    Laiku — Isn’t is funny how we start with one topic, then trail into another? Just saying…

    Yes, and that’s one of the fun things about blogs and the internet. Subjects can “grow” into new ones. Very interesting!

  27. Laiku Oh Says:

    Thank you for the tips.

  28. TAW Says:

    Just one little nitpick- you mean “pupa” not “cocoon”. butterflies (with the exception of skippers) don’t make cocoons. Cocoons are what skippers and some moths make AROUND themselves for protection (usually with silk and dirt and stuff), and THEN pupate inside.

  29. burning silo Says:

    Thanks, TAW. I think it just cocoon just appeared once in the post, the rest as chrysalis. I’ve corrected that reference now.

  30. Laiku Oh Says:

    oh…I cannpot wait for the caterpillars. When my sister heard about raising more, she was saying, “What?!? You wanna raise s’more?”

  31. Laiku Oh Says:


  32. Lee Says:

    We are blessed with our very own Black Swallowtail butterfly, currently living on our window pane facing the sun. We noticed Isabelle’s presence on Sunday, March 18th and have been providing nourishment such as water/raw sugar/blackcurrent syrup for color, thin slices of mandarin, which she plows into like a jackhammer. A beautiful experience indeed!

  33. Ken Says:

    I am keeping watch on a Black Swallowtail chrysalis here in South Florida. I hope it does not wait until next spring to emerge! My blog has several pictures of the various instars.

  34. bev Says:

    Ken – I would think you’ll see those ones eclose sometime soon, and they should be the generation that lays the eggs that should pupate and eclose next spring — at least, that’s how it would work up here in Ontario, Canada. I’m not sure how the cycle works in Florida.