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The Appetite of a Caterpillar

Updated on October 9, 2012
A Swallow-tail butterfly lays an egg and cements it in place with a leaf of sweet fennel. Art by Jerilee Wei
A Swallow-tail butterfly lays an egg and cements it in place with a leaf of sweet fennel. Art by Jerilee Wei

Sometimes you just don't truly appreciate something for what it is, and more importantly for what it will be in the future. You'd think we all would have learned that in kindergarten when someone read us, Hans Christian Andersen's, Ugly Duckling.

Yet, I must confess there was a time when the sight of one would send me running. Usually, that was because my little brother was chasing me with it.

Then, there was the dreaded chore of having to hand pick caterpillars off Gram's plants that I was most unhappy about being assigned. They were ugly (so I thought) and yucky. Still, I'd have to grow to be an old lady before I understood the miracle of how a butterfly is born and the real beauty found in a caterpillar..

Years ago when I spent a long stretch of time housebound in a wheel chair, I had a lot of time on my hands. I'm not one to accept boredom and am never bored.

I kept myself amused by studying nature in the most intense way I could. The end result were a lot of sketches, and experiments in recreating what I was learning visually while making notes about what I learned in journals.

One of my more serious butterfly studies was that of the Swallowtail butterfly, which is found on all continents except Antarctica. They prefer the more temperate climates and some of the largest members of this butterfly family are found in Australia.

I thought it might be fun today to look at one Mother Nature's picture books and explore visually more than with words, just like we did when we were children.

 

 Let's Start With The Caterpillar's Enormous Appetite

Catepillar Egg Art by Jerilee Wei
Catepillar Egg Art by Jerilee Wei

The egg, cemented to the branch of sweet fennel is the size of a large pinhead. It is pale yellow at first, but soon changes to green. Now, because it is so very small and is colored like the plant on which it lies, it cannot easily be detected by predators.

Catepillar grub - Art by Jerilee Wei
Catepillar grub - Art by Jerilee Wei

From the egg, is hatched a grub, or caterpillar, with a spiny black coat. First it eats the eggshell. Then, it starts an astonishing career of eating the plant upon which it lives. It gorges until its skin becomes too tight and splits off.

Catepillar - Art by Jerilee Wei
Catepillar - Art by Jerilee Wei

After ten days of eating and shedding its spiny skin, it comes out in a moth green and black skin with orange spots. Now it eats more than before, and casts its skin whenever it becomes too tight. This is the life story of the swallowtail butterfly.

Catepillar - Art by Jerilee Wei
Catepillar - Art by Jerilee Wei

The swallowtail grows a pair of hollow horns, called ejectors. When irritate, the caterpillar throws the fore end of its body from side to side, and protrudes the horns.

From them comes a sharp odor which probably keeps some of its enemies away. Not all caterpillars have this protective weapon.

The Story Of  Living Death In A Swallowtail Caterpillar

 

Swallowtail catepillar - Art by Jerilee Wei
Swallowtail catepillar - Art by Jerilee Wei

From a gland in the body it spins out a silken thread, cementing the ends to the stalk of the plant. It ducks into the loop and wriggles until the loop is around the middle of its back. Here it pushes against the thread to test its strength.

Catepillar casting its skin - Art by Jerilee Wei
Catepillar casting its skin - Art by Jerilee Wei

It casts its skin for the last time, without disengaging the body from the supporting loop of silken thread. What emerges is no longer a caterpillar but a chrysalis, or pupa. You can see how the skin splits down the back, beginning at the head.

Catepillar chrytalis - Art by Jerilee Wei
Catepillar chrytalis - Art by Jerilee Wei

Slowly the chrysalis frees itself from the old caterpillar skin, first the head, then the tip of the abdomen. This is the most difficult moment of all. The tip of the abdomen (called the cremaster) now fastens like an anchor on the stem. The chrysalis is almost ready to begin its period of "living death."

Catepillar chystalis - Art by Jerilee Wei
Catepillar chystalis - Art by Jerilee Wei

The chrysalis at last hangs from the plant supported by the loop of silk and the tip. It is soft and helpless, gray in color, and as it hangs, looks like a dead leaf. The outside is called a pupal case. This gradually dries out. The pupae of moths rest snugly in cocoons, while butterfly pupae do not have cocoons.

Freedom -- A Swallowtail Butterfly Is At Last Born!

Birth of Swallotail - Art by Jerilee Wei
Birth of Swallotail - Art by Jerilee Wei

The chrysalis seems to be dead, but inside the shall something very wonderful is happening. The internal parts soften to a kind of "soup," from which is formed the body of a butterfly. Then the pupal case cracks and the butterfly pushes up one end.

Swallowtail emerging - Art by Jerilee Wei
Swallowtail emerging - Art by Jerilee Wei

Slowly the butterfly works itself out of its cradle. Here it is almost free from the pupal case. All six legs are out. The wings and abdomen are still imprisoned and the insect must fight to free them. It is a difficult moment for the new insect.

New birth swallowtail - Art by Jerilee Wei
New birth swallowtail - Art by Jerilee Wei

The insect is free, but soft and damp and weak. After a short rest, the butterfly feebly moves its wings until they unfold. It also flexes and coils its tongue in preparation for the liquid meal of nectar. It has lost all memory of its former life as a greedy caterpillar.

Fully emerged swallowtail - Art by Jerilee Wei
Fully emerged swallowtail - Art by Jerilee Wei

Only two hours have passed since it freed itself from the old pupal case. The perfect butterfly is ready for a trial flight, its body hardened, its tongue coiled up in place, its wings expanded and beautiful. The butterfly is called an imago, a true picture of its own perfection.

Life Cycle of Pipevine Swallow Tail Butterfly

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    • Tia Maria profile image

      Tia Maria 

      6 years ago

      I love butterflies, but never really liked caterpillars despite knowing that the two creatures are essentially one and the same, in a different stage. As a child, to help get over my fear of caterpillars my mom and I collected various types of caterpillars in a jar and fed them to see what beautiful butterfly would emerge. Sounded like a good idea in theory, but long story short - it didn't end well, I actually ended up liking butterflies less after that. Great info on your caterpillar research.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      8 years ago from United States

      Thanks frogyfish!

    • frogyfish profile image

      frogyfish 

      8 years ago from Central United States of America

      Wonderful again, Jerilee Wei! Thanks for beautiful pix and music too!

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      8 years ago from United States

      Thanks Sally's Trove! You are right, very interesting!

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 

      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      I recently heard a spot on the NPR radio garden show, "You Bet Your Garden", about swallowtails and how they got their common name.

      The accepted origin is that the wings appear to have the split tail of a swallow bird. But another version of the name origin is based on the butterfly's constant wing vibrations when it settles on a flower to draw nectar. These vibrations are the most apparent in those small pointed tails. When a bird becomes interested in dining on a swallowtail, it is most attracted by the constantly moving wing tails and attacks them first. Since the tails easily detach from the rest of the wing, the butterfly escapes. And that is why it is so common to see a swallowtail butterfly with missing tails and ragged, torn, wing tips. This second name origin idea is derived from the tails being swallowed.

      Thought you might find that tidbit interesting, Jerilee.

      Thumbs up on this delightfully informative Hub.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      8 years ago from United States

      Thanks Les Trois Chenes! I'd like to see more hubbers do the same, adds richness.

    • Les Trois Chenes profile image

      Les Trois Chenes 

      8 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France

      I love the easy way you personalise all your topics.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      8 years ago from United States

      Thanks eonsway! It flows, which I suppose is the way it is supposed to be. Butterfly watercolors and nature watercolors are some of my favorite to do too.

    • eonsaway profile image

      eonsaway 

      8 years ago from New Mexico, USA

      Your writing is excellent, it seems to be so natural and easy for you. Your hub with the 'You Tube' clips have inspired me to do some butterfly watercolors.

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