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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