Caterpillar Fierceness

black swallowtail caterpillars

If you watched the caterpillar shed video in the earlier post, here is a little background info. As caterpillars grow, they shed their skins. The period between each shed is called an instar. Monarchs do this too as they grow, but what's fun about black swallowtail caterpillars is that they change color. When tiny, they start off resembling bird poo and not a protein powered snack a bird might want to eat and as they get larger, the coloration switches to help them blend in with parsley stalks. The caterpillar that shed was in its third instar and then shed into the fourth looking completely different. Pretty cool huh? Here is a cool site that helps explain it.

One of the cool things about black swallowtail caterpillars that I neglected to mention during last year's ranching season was their crazy defense mechanism. When threatened, two little orange protuberances that resemble horns pop out. Note the horns on the above black swallowtail caterpillar? They have a strange aroma and they whip their heads around flashing their horns. I think the smell is supposed to repel potential predators, but in my case, it just fascinated me.

They even have them when they are tiny caterpillars. Beware the mighty black swallowtail caterpillar! And of course, I corralled Non Birding Bill into helping me video it. I've read that you can squeeze your swallowtail cats to get them do this, but I don't recommend it--why risk the injury. Sometimes just brushing parsley near their butts results in the stink horns coming out. In the video, NBB is just barely grazing the cat with a Q-tip. Here is the video:


Swallowtail Caterpillar Shedding Its Skin

Okay, time to get back to blogging as usual. I'm currently on my way to some interesting travel. I'm on my way to Rhode Island and will be here for a few days and take a side trip to Cape Cod, then come back to Minneapolis late Friday night and leave Saturday morning around 7am for a whirlwind jaunt to South Dakota.

In the meantime, it's Butterfly Ranchin' time at Chez Stiteler and below is a video of a black swallowtail caterpillar shedding its skin:

Black Swallowtails Growing Up

Howdy, peeps, I write to you from a hotel in the lovely state of South Dakota. Tomorrow starts our shorebird workshop. I'll blog when I can, but most of my time will be dedicated to unlocking the id secrets of tiny shorebirds.

"You can't see me!"

Time to catch up on the swallowtail madness. Well, if you couldn't find the black swallowtail caterpillar in the last post, HellZiggy did a masterful job of pointing it out. Here's an up close view of the cat:

It's amazing that in less than two weeks it went from a tiny thing resembling finch poop to this big squishy thing. You can really see how the stripes work to hide its lardiness amongst the parsley stems.

Right before I left for Indianapolis, all of our swallowtails were forming chrysalises and Non Birding Bill had to help with the ranching as well as maintain the blog. I wanted to try and get a photo of the swallowtail chrysalis formation because they make such interesting little structures.

The first thing they do is find a place that looks like a good spot to hang for a couple of weeks, then they scatter silk all over to secure themselves in place.

After they have their rear ends secured, they somehow emit two silk strings from either side and use that to help attach to the stem or stick. They lean into it and eventually shed their skin to look like this:

This particular caterpillar decided to form its chrysalis on a milkweed stem and the green and yellow really blended well with the plant. There were times when I walked into the kitchen and couldn't see it right away. I was so fascinated by the silk strings and really wanted to try and see how those formed. I had one swallowtail cat left and kept close tabs on it. Alas, I lost it at one point when it decided to go on a walk about and went behind the radiator in the kitchen, it eventually reappeared on the table:

It made its way to a candle holder in the center of the table. Now, one of the upsides of having a camera with a great macro feature is that you get awesome detailed shots of small objects. The downsides is that you get more detail than you bargained for. The candle holder and cat is coated in a layer of dust. The cat picked up most of the dust behind the radiator the holder is an example of my contempt for house cleaning. But, ignore the dust and not the silk coming out of the black spots--must be a special gland that produces the string that will hold the cat in place. Eventually, this caterpillar shed its skin and if you read NBB's entries while I was gone, you'll know it looked like this:

Whoa! What happened? It's brown instead of green? This the massive amount of dust the caterpillar picked up in the kitchen cause it to turn such a dingy color? No! As someone pointed out in the comments, swallowtails can form their chrysalis into either green or brown--the color depends on where its made to keep it camouflaged. I had read about this, and was hoping I would get my cats to do this--one of the reasons I let them out of the Butterfly Garden and let them go where they wanted, to see if they would change color--and they did! I love it when a plan comes together.

When I came home, the chrysalises started to change color. Just like the monarch chrysalis, the swallowtail caterpillars darkened and you could make out the butterfly wings on the inside about 12 hours before they emerged. See the black and yellow through the green skin?

I put the chrysalis into the Butterfly Garden and the next morning the black swallowtail had emerged, ready to take on the world.

I got a chance to get some photos and really notice the splotches of color on the under wings--so beautiful! Something interesting about the swallowtails--when they first emerged, they smelled like moldy parsley--beauty does come with a price.

The swallowtails took their time to leave. We placed them on the ledge, they pumped their wings and eventually took to the air after about twenty minutes. I tell ya', after this, I'm gonna inspect my parsley a bit more closely from now on. I do wonder how many eggs and tiny cats Cinnamon has eaten.

We still have a few monarch caterpillars left, but I think it's time to be winding things down at the Stiteler Butterfly Ranch. Now, it's off to bed to get ready for shorebirds.

Swallowtail and Monarch Report

I just saw a promo for Mr. Neil's movie on tv. I can't believe I know someone who wrote a book that's being promoted as a mainstream summer movie. The "in a world" guy is even narrating the trailer. Ooooooo.

Poor Cinnamon, first she's losing blog time to birds and bees, now she's losing her parsley to the black swallowtail caterpillars.

Well, the black swallowtail caterpillars are proving to be very exciting compared to the monarchs. If you recall from the last entry, I was having trouble initially identifying the cats because they didn't look like the photos of black swallowtail caterpillars in my books. That has changed in the last twenty four hours. Here is one of the caterpillars from yesterday.

Here they are today! Some of the cats are finally looking like they do in my caterpillar field guides. Two still look like bird poop, but they're growing up so fast. Another exciting development is that I thought I only had four, but discovered that I in fact, have five swallowtails to watch grow.

I broke out my Nikon 4500 to get some macro shots of the caterpillars. The bird poop looking ones do have some color when you look at them up close--little dark orange spots with spikes coming out of them. I think since the young caterpillars spend so much time on the top side of the leaf, the bird poop look helps them avoid predators (no one wants to eat that).

Then compare that to the more colorful older ones. They are very garish and look as though they would stick out like a sore thumb. However, I noticed that they tend to stay on the stems of the parsley and if we were looking at parsley bunched together, the yellow, white and black stripes would help them blend with the stems.

Even their little caterpillar toes are cute!

While I was taking macro photos, one of the bird poop looking cats, shed its skin to reveal the older cat coloration--it happened too fast for me to get a photo, but you can see the old skin right behind it. Freaky.

The photos might make the caterpillars look much larger than they are at the moment, so I used a pen as a size comparison. That is one of the older cats munching on some parsley--still quite tiny. I bet next week it will by ginormous.

The monarch caterpillars are still going strong. Almost all of my eggs have hatched. This tiny egg was showing signs of getting ready to hatch yesterday. You can see the dark head showing through the top of the egg.

This morning the egg was empty, the cat was out and about.

It had already fattened up quite a bit by noshing on some milkweed and leaving some frass (caterpillar poop). Monarchs are cool, but it's fun growing caterpillars that change color.

New Caterpillar Madness

I've been monarch ranching for awhile, but I've always wanted to ranch some swallowtails. Some species of swallowtail caterpillars feed on parsley. Earlier this spring, I found out that we had accidentally had a black swallowtail living in our apartment (we guess it came in as a caterpillar on some of Cinnamon's parsley) but I wanted to it right this summer, and find the caterpillar and watch it grow. Mr. Neil has some parsley (above) in his garden, so I decided to see if I could find swallowtail caterpillars on that. I find that locating caterpillars takes a long time the first time you look for them, but once you find them, your eyes become trained and in the future, they are easier to find. I sat down and studied the parsley.

After a good ten minutes of study, I found six small caterpillars. They looked nothing like any of the swallowtail caterpillars in my books. I looked up the general characteristics of the black swallowtail: caterpillars are found on parsley (check), on the top side of the leaf (check), and early stages resembles bird poop (check). But still, if you look at what a large black swallowtail looks like, the books show you this. This tiny thing doesn't look like that at all. Fortunately, with the magic of google, you can narrow your search of images on the internet and I found photos of young black swallowtail caterpillars and they look just like what I found in the above photo--success, we have swallowtails!

I took four of the six swallowtail caterpillars and put them in my butterfly pavilion. You can see a water bottle inside, holding a bunch of curly parsley for them to feed off of, right along side a water bottle full of milkweed and monarch caterpillars. Next to the pavillion is a bunch of milk weed in a different water bottle--those are plants with monarch eggs on them. I keep the eggs separate until the caterpillars hatch so I don't confuse leaves with eggs with the leaves for feeding. Should be an interesting couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, we've had an early sampling of our dangerous honey from the Olga hive. Mr. Neil told us to mix some of our honey and comb with some plain Greek yogurt. YUM!

It's like a decadent dessert, only it's yogurt...and honey... from our own bees--that's got to be healthy, right?