No? Me either. Nor in the 176 other photos I took. Nor can I spot the little beast in actual real life. But we know he is there. He is apparently some kind of phantom ninja caterpillar. Or possibly a young Snuffleupagus. We are not sure, as he has not stayed visible long enough for us to make a positive identification.
When we started this venture, there was no mystery. The kids found two black swallowtail caterpillars on Jane’s parsley plant. We dug out our old butterfly jungle (thanks again, Grandma) and made them a nice comfy home. With sticks! And fennel! It’s like a Barbie Dream House for caterpillars. And for three or four days they milled around, chomping happily, or at least we assumed it was a happy kind of chomping. There was, for example, no belligerent waving of tiny black feet. (Side note: did you know that a caterpillar only has three pairs of legs? Just the three pairs closest to the head. All the rest, so Jane tells me, are not true legs. They are, and I quote, muscular warts. Muscular. Warts. Ew.)
So all was blissful in the suburban butterfly jungle, and as a testimony to his happiness, Caterpillar #1 (Homer to his friends) pigged out on so much fresh-picked fennel that he could continue no longer in his present state of six-legged-many-muscular-wartedness, and he hung himself. From a stick, I mean, as happy caterpillars do.
The next day he looked like this:
Meanwhile, Happy Caterpillar #2 (aka Herotodus) continued his milling and munching. Second-favorite pastime: scaling invisible walls. Occasionally he would grow bored with the fennel and, for a diversion, burst out of his skin and eat the old one. (Photo mercifully unavailable.)
Thus far, no mysteries. A degree of grossness, perhaps, but my younger children seem to believe that is the Best Part of adopting caterpillars. Look! Five hundred tiny balls of poop! Jane tells them that no, the miracle of metamorphosis is the Best Part, but Beanie remains staunch in her conviction that butterflies are nice, but they are simply not as riveting as Creatures Who Eat Their Own Skin.
Anyway. Now we come to the mysterious part. Rose was the first to spot a third critter in the jungle. There was a skinny little wormish looking thing lurking on the branch near Homer. Pressing our noses to the plastic wall, we decided the Little Thing was another caterpillar, an itty bitty one, possibly just hatched. Perhaps, we surmised, he had entered the jungle as a stowaway on the most recent fennel delivery. I ran for the camera, hoping the zoom function would help us to make an ID.
But he was gone. I swear, only thirty seconds had passed and we were all right there talking about fennel and butterfly eggs. One moment we saw him, and the next, he was nowhere to be found. We peered into the jungle, searching every inch. No wormy thing.
Over the next day, I bet I spent a combined total of two hours hunting for that thing. We scrutinized every bump on the branches, every shadow among the feathery fennel leaves. Nada. Maybe, Rose suggested, he had crawled out one of the airholes in the top. After all, he was small enough to fit. This is the point when Scott decided it would be funny to tickle the back of my neck with his fingertips. Ah ha ha ha. You will be relieved to know that caterpillars appear unaffected by high-pitched human shrieking even when it occurs two feet from their teeny tiny caterpillar ears. Also, any partly deaf toddlers in the vicinity will be highly amused.
Did you say something, Mommy?
So: for some thirty-six hours, the searching and the shuddering. And then suddenly, there it was. Still teeny tiny, still hanging out by Homer. On Homer, actually. Homer has a groupie! Because, you know, metamorphosis is cool.
This time I was the sole witness of Wormish Thing’s reappearance. I had to show the kids. Once more I sprinted for the camera. Twenty seconds later I was back, already zooming my lens.
And it was gone. Again. Gone! Poof! Forget metamorphosis, this creature can teleport!
Later in the day, Rose spotted him halfway down Homer’s branch. Her story is uncorroborated, but I believe her.
He’s toying with us, I know it.
After I wrote all this, I happened to be passing by the butterfly jungle, pointedly not looking for the Thing, when a tiny wiggling caught my eye, and there he was again. Back at his favored post, on top of poor old Homer. Who has yet, by the way, to shed that last caterpillar skin and be a really truly chrysalis. Frankly, I’m a little concerned. I cannot help but suspect the Thing of nefarious purpose. What if he is not a baby caterpillar at all? What if his affection for Homer is not fraternal but rather the sort of affection I feel for, say, chocolate? Is it possible that in addition to his ninja powers he possesses a taste for Pupa?
Well, this time I was too quick for him. If he is up to no good, I’ve got a photo ID. Police detectives still carry magnifying glasses, right? Because they may need one in order to penetrate his Cunning Disguise. Ha HA! I will hide as a bump on a twig! Their Giant Human Eyes will never spot me! *click* Curses! They have a zoom lens! Crafty humans…
Thus ends the first installment of The Great Caterpillar (or Possibly Not a Caterpillar) Mystery. Next chapter to come when someone metamorphosizes or pupates or gets eaten or something. UPDATE: Part Two is here.
Herodotus says: Look, Ma! No
hands muscular warts!
After my butterflies post, Love2LearnMom asked:
Do you know of a good site or book for finding plants that attract butterflies (and perhaps hummingbirds) well?
We are big fans of ButterflyBushes.com. Lots of good information about both types of plants necessary to attract butterflies to your garden—nectar sources and caterpillar food sources. Each species of butterfly seeks out specific plants to lay its eggs on, so you need to provide these host plants or you’ll just have occasional passerby butterflies sipping at your flowers. For example, black swallowtail larvae like fennel, dill, rue, and parsley. Baltimore Checkerspots like Turtlehead (which has quite a pretty flower).
ButterflyBushes.com also sells hummingbird-attracting plants. Cardinal flower is our favorite!
I have ordered from these folks many times and have always been pleased with their plants. We bought several little four-dollar butterfly bushes from them a few years ago, and now they tower over my head! (And I cut them back almost to the ground every March.)
But even if you don’t want to order from them, their site is extremely informative. You’ll have fun browsing.
Tags: butterflies, nature
My sweet friend Chari forwarded these incredible pictures of a clearwing butterfly because she knew that my resident lepidopterist and I would enjoy them. And how.
Butterflies are one of Jane’s passions. I discovered this quite by accident about three years ago, when she was not quite eight years old. If I’d had a blog at the time, I would certainly have written a post about it, but lacking one (and very likely never even having heard of weblogs at that point), I wrote an email to a dear friend instead—part of which, thanks to the miracle of hard drives, I shall now hijack for this post.
Yesterday I took Jane to a native plant sale at a nearby nature center while the other girls were napping. It took us forever to even get into the building where they had the plant sale, because there were a lot of booths set up for various nature clubs and societies, and she was fascinated by all of it. At every table she struck up a conversation with the people running the booth. The old lady at the Invasive Plant Display could not have been more delighted to have this little kid seeming so genuinely interested in how to avoid nasty invasives like multiflora rose and ailanthus tree. The lady gave us a really nice booklet with color photos, saying, “I don’t usually give these out to people, but you really seem to care!”
But the topper was the butterfly table. There was a man with three or four trays of butterflies under glass—unlabeled. Now, two weeks ago, I bought a field guide for insects and left it on the kitchen table. Another strewing success! I knew Jane had looked at it, but I had no idea how much. The butterfly section is just one small part of the book, but she must have studied it carefully. She pointed to a yellow butterfly in the case and said, “Is that a clouded sulphur?” And the butterfly man lit up and said, “Close! It’s a cloudLESS sulphur—see, this one here with the black markings on the sides, that’s the clouded.”
Jane furrowed her brow. “Hmm, that’s odd,” she said. “I have a book at home which has a picture of a clouded sulphur, but the black markings are only about half as thick as these.”
The man beamed at her again. “Right! That’s the FEMALE! I don’t have one here.” And they launched into this conversation that was totally over my head about the intricacies of male vs. female butterfly markings. The thing is, Jane completely knew what she was talking about. And I had no idea. We might as well have been at a Star Trek convention with the two of them speaking in Klingon.
They proceeded through a discussion of swallowtails and—see, I’m drawing a blank, I can’t even come up with the names. But she knew them. In a feeble attempt to join in, I pointed to a row of three orange and black butterflies and said, “Look, aren’t these monarchs?”
Jane smiled at me with affectionate condescension. The man gave me an encouraging nod, sort of the way you encourage a preschooler when she almost sounds out a word correctly, and said, “Yes, the two big ones are. This smaller one is—”
Jane jumped in. “It’s a viceroy, Mommy,” she said gently, obviously not wanting to embarrass me more than I’d already embarrassed myself by this display of ignorance.
I just stared at her. A lady who had been browsing at the booth but was now just standing there listening to the exchange shook her head wonderingly. The butterfly man grinned. Clearly he had found a kindred spirit.
“That’s right,” he said. “A viceroy.”
“Viceroys benefit from looking like monarchs,” Jane told me. (It sounds like I’m making this up but this is literally what she said.) “You see, Mommy, monarchs have a rather unpleasant taste to birds, and when a bird has once tasted a monarch it tends to avoid them altogether for the rest of its life. It avoids viceroys, too, which is unfortunate for the bird, because I believe viceroys actually taste quite pleasant to birds, isn’t that right?”
The butterfly man nodded, eyes shining. I think he was ready to adopt her.
“How old were YOU when you got interested in butterflies?” she asked him.
“Three,” said the man. “You’re getting a late start.” They both cracked up. Ah, lepidopterist humor.
He explained that he had older brothers who caught butterflies, and that’s how he got interested. She explained that she was the oldest child—thus her delayed education. He showed her a Golden Guide to Butterflies and Moths that he’d had since he was her age. She flipped through it with great interest, commenting approvingly on how it showed the caterpillars alongside their butterflies.
“Mine doesn’t do that. And yours has a lot more species. Mine only has THREE kinds of moths!” (This in a “Can you believe that? What an outrage!” tone.) They shook their heads in mutual disgust at the inadequacy of such a book. How dare it call itself a field guide?
“You should get her this book,” the man told me gently, speaking with delicate sympathy for my cluelessness. “It’s still in print.”
“I will,” I muttered, dazed.
“Look, Mom! A spring azure!”
She went back to the butterfly table three times over the course of our visit. Mr. Butterfly (very nice man, by the way, with two daughters running the lemonade stand) explained that he leads butterfly walks once a month at the nature center. Needless to say, we’ll be attending.
It’s just incredible, isn’t it, how your kids can constantly surprise you? I spend so much time with this child, and yet here’s a side to her I had no idea was there, this deep and absorbing knowledge of butterflies. I mean, we’ve been planting butterfly-and-hummingbird-attracting flowers, but I wouldn’t know a viceroy from a sulphur, much less what they taste like to birds. I didn’t even know there WERE viceroys and sulphurs.
You learn something new every day. Eighty or ninety of them, if you’ve got inquisitive second-graders around. 🙂
Back to the present. Jane’s enthusiasm continues unabated. We have a yard full of butterfly-attracting plants now, including a caterpillar nursery with fennel, parsley, and rue for the larvae of the black swallowtail, and a clump of milkweed for the prized monarchs. Every summer Jane grows broccoli to feed the caterpillars of cabbage whites—which means, yes, we are the only people in the neighborhood who encourage pests in our vegetable garden.
We also have several enormous butterfly bushes (shh, don’t tell the Native Plant Society), one of which was a birthday present to Jane from Mr. Butterfly and his daughters, the summer before last. His monthly butterfly walks are a highlight of Jane’s year. I trail along behind, usually toting a baby in a sling, listening with bemusement to the conversations of my young viceroy expert and her comrades-in-lepidoptery. I can more or less follow the drift of their discussions, now, and though I’d need to see a viceroy next to a monarch to be able to tell them apart, I’ve come a long way. (Just please don’t ask me to distinguish between a male and female clouded sulphur.)
See, this is another reason why I homeschool: because I get to learn so much.
Tags: homeschooling, homeschool, home education, unschooling, Unschool, butterflies, nature