Monday, September 3, 2012


Black Swallowtail Butterfly laying eggs on Fennel
Wow! The butterflies in our yard are going nuts! There are eggs all over!  I had started to wonder if we'd have many this year. But that was early in the summer, when it was dry, back before the rains returned. Now the flowers are blooming, the sun is hot and bright, and the butterflies are flocking in. I have been slowly luring them in over the years. You see, we have a butterfly garden, with a broad variety of nectar and host plants to attract them. Butterflies and moths need a food source for the adult, as well as a very specific food plant for the caterpillars to eat. When you have the right mix of the two, the result is a bustling riot of wings and color. It's simple, if you have the plants they need, the butterflies will come.

Polydamas Butterfly Eggs on Hostplant, Wooly Dutchman's Pipe

Gulf Fritillary Egg on Hostplant, Corky Stem Passion Vine
A long time ago, maybe 20 years or so, my friend Ivy told me that she was planting a hummingbird garden. I'd never encountered the concept before and I was curious. She planted vines and plants with lots of long, red flowers. Her yard was a beautiful jungle, with lots of hummingbirds, and butterflies too. The garden worked! Around the same time I started hearing about butterfly gardens, too. It was an intriguing concept, and so novel. The idea of planting flowers and plants to attract certain animals was very strange to me. It was especially odd that you would want to encourage caterpillars to eat your garden. Up to that point, I had always planted vegetables for eating and flowers for yard decorations, and did my best to stop the caterpillars and other critters from their wanton herbivory. Boy, have things changed! These days, if you tell someone you have a hummingbird, butterfly, or even bee garden, no one blinks. It's become the norm. And how wonderful that is!

Polydamas Caterpillar committing wanton herbivory
As habitats disappear, the importance of patches of refuge for pollinators becomes ever more important. I like to think that we're doing our part for nature by having a butterfly habitat in our yard. I know it brings us a lot of happiness, too. I love to relax in the back yard as a Giant Swallowtail circles lazily overhead. When I walk out the front door, I'm greeted by the hum of bees as they bop from bush to bush. I often have to brush them and the butterflies out of my way as I work outside. It's fascinating to watch the butterflies feed, mate and deposit their eggs on the special leaf that they've chosen.

Monarch Butterfly laying egg on hostplant, Milkweed. Note monarch caterpillar eating.

Black Swallowtail Butterfly Egg on Hostplant, Fennel

Once I spot the eggs, then I visit the plant every day, watching for changes. First the eggs pop open and the teeny weeny caterpillars emerge.

Hatched Black Swallowtail Butterfly Egg

New Black Swallowtail Caterpillar chowing down on Fennel
Then they set to work devouring the special plant their mothers chose for them. As I see it, caterpillars are basically a stomach with a mouth and 6 legs to move around. They are eating, pooping machines. As they eat, they grow and change. At each growth stage, they shed their old exoskeleton. For each kind of caterpillar, there are 5 or 6 stages of development, and lepidopterists can determine the stage of development by their size and markings.

Cloudless Sulphur Caterpillar, early Instar

Cloudless Sulphur Caterpillar, later instar

When they're fully developed, the caterpillars make their final instar change into a pupa, also know as a chrysalis (for butterflies) or cocoon (for moths). The caterpillars climb to a safe branch and then attach themselves to the branch with a web.

Gulf Fritillary Caterpillar preparing to Pupate
Then they shed again, but instead of a new caterpillar underneath the old exoskeleton, there is a chrysalis.

New Polydamas Chrysalis with caterpillar shed
One of the many things I'd like to know more about is the metamorphasis that takes place inside that chrysalis. It's utterly amazing. Inside the shell of the chrysalis, the caterpillar re-forms itself from a worm-like stomach with 6 stubby legs and numerous pseudopods (all those other legs that make you not believe that this critter is an insect at all), that chews and eats leaves, and emerges as a delicate insect with 4 wings, antennae, 6 long legs, 3 separate body parts, a nectar sucking mouthpiece, and is covered with scales and hairs. Fabulous!

Newly emerged Black Swallowtail, drying its wings
I have spent countless hours watching and photographing the butterflies in our yard. Every season, every day, I see something new. The more I learn about their behavior and habits, the easier it is to know what plants to put in the yard to bring them in and how to observe them. And more and more butterflies show up. When I think back to my friend Ivy, I'm really thankful that someone was there to introduce me to the idea of attracting wildlife. I hope I can do the same for people who encounter my yard or my blog.


  1. Gorgeous pics, Katherine. You've got to be pretty perceptive to spot butterfly eggs!

  2. Thanks, Mike! I watched the butterflies lay the eggs, so that helped to see them better. But I love looking for the tiny things out there.