Friday, January 8, 2016

Lessons from an Autumn Leaf butterfly

Some time ago, the boys and I went down to the park to meet some co-op mates for lunch. On our way there, Lil J spotted a caterpillar wandering on the bicycle path, and scooped it to safety. We went to the nearby restaurant where we were supposed to have lunch, and asked if they could spare us a plastic container, and we ended up placing Mr Caterpillar into the box. 

The caterpillar generated a fair bit of excitement, and one of the mummies mentioned that she spotted a whole lot more of them. Turned out she was right: there was a caterpillar infestation on a stand of bushes, and there were probably a hundred of these black, wriggly fellows crawling everywhere! Many had actually wandered off (I've read that caterpillars sometimes start wandering and leave their host plant just before pupation, as they don't usually pupate on their host plant.), and a fair number of them had been run over on the bike path next to the bush. We figured it would be ok to catch another fellow, since there were so many and they had eaten the bush almost bare, and another (very brave) mum helped us to catch it. There were so many, that quite a few of the leaves that we plucked off the bush actually had small caterpillars on them! (That lead to a fair bit of screaming, but those caterpillars got returned back, and we only chose the large ones, since that would mean a shorter time for pupation.)

The boys were really excited about their caterpillars, and named them Wriggly and Squirmy. One mum managed to identify the caterpillars as those of the Autumn Leaf butterfly (this page was really informative). Both caterpillars seemed to be doing pretty well the first few days. However, we forgot to place branches inside our container, and poor Wriggly decided to pupate on the floor of the container, and only managed to pupate half-way before stopping. We hurriedly transferred Squirmy to a larger tank, gave him some branches, and he seemed quite happy for a few days. 

However, we ran out of food. I read that caterpillars can be really fussy about food, only choosing fresh leaves, and they may starve themselves rather than eat other types of leaves. Those leaves we had brought back from the park had already wilted, and we were unsuccessful in our hunt for suitable plants to feed them (as listed here), even though the boys went searching every day. 

It was a really busy period for us, so we didn't manage to make it back to the same park until a few days later. We decided to bring back two more caterpillars with us, along with fresh leaves for Squirmy, only to find Squirmy dead from hunger when we got back. 

The boys were upset. However, with those lessons learnt, we were able to better take care of the two new caterpillars, which they named Creepy and Crawly. We had brought back a whole lot more leaves this round, and kept some of the leaves separately with their stems in water, to ensure there was always a fresh supply of food. 

Creepy pupated about a week ago, and the boys were really excited to see him hanging upside down in preparation for the process. However, he didn't seem to finish the pupation process, and there was a section above the chrysalis that remained as a caterpillar. We were disappointed, as we thought he was a goner! However, we left him as he is, since Crawly was still in the tank. 

We continued feeding Crawly fresh leaves, and he pupated a few days back. This time, we finally had a complete chrysalis. We left the tank alone after that, since pupation takes approximately a week. Imagine our surprise when yesterday morning, I spotted some movement and discovered that Creepy had emerged from his chrysalis!

Everyone was really, really excited. I had tried researching on what happens if caterpillars do not seem to finish their pupation process, and had come up with nothing, so I didn't have much hope that Creepy would make it. But there he was, a perfect Autumn leaf butterfly, gingerly fanning his wings while clinging onto the tank. 

After about half a day, Creepy started flying around in the tank, so we brought him down to release him. I was so worried he would knock Crawly down!

I think the process of metamorphosis is such an amazing one: how a rather ugly-looking squirmy creature wraps himself up, then proceeds to turn into enzymatic mush, which then re-organizes itself into a delicate creature with wings. Seeing it happen before our very eyes made us appreciate it even better. Being surprised with the transformation, which we thought would never happen in Creepy's case was the best part though. It reminded me of how God works in all things. Even though sometimes we think things are hopeless, when we think that change is impossible... with Him all things are possible. It gave me hope, to keep trusting in Him. It reminded me that while sometimes bringing up our children with their quirks, tempers and bad habits can be challenging, we should keep hoping in God to bring about change, though we cannot see how change can happen. 


On a more practical note, here are some tips if you'd like to keep some caterpillars to observe their life-cycle:

1. Try to identify the caterpillars, and collect those that are larger, and at a more advanced larval stage. Those caterpillars we collected were at their 5th and final instar larval stage, and usually pupate in a few days. This means you'll have to feed them for a shorter period of time, and the larger ones tend to be hardier. 

2. Caterpillars may be wandering away from their host plant just prior to pupation, but it would be good to collect caterpillars which are still feeding, so that you can identify their host plants. Ensure you have a fresh supply of leaves. Collect some leaves that are still attached to their stems and keep those on water. Crawly ate almost one leaf a day, and rejected any that were wilted. 

3. Have branches for them to crawl on, and ensure that the container has sufficient space for the butterfly to emerge and spread its wings. 

4. If you're using a regular food container, ensure the holes you poke in the container do not have sharp edges, which can scratch the caterpillar. The best is to cut a hole in the cover and use a gauze to cover the hole. 

5. These were the resources we enjoyed while learning about the life-cycle of butterflies:
- Autumn Leaf Butterfly (Youtube video of the different stages of the Autumn leaf butterfly)
- Autumn Leaf Butterfly Eclosure (Youtube video of the emerging of the butterfly from it's chrysalis)
- Life Cycle of the Monarch Butterfly (Youtube video of the stages of the Monarch butterfly)


  1. So cool! Reminds me of our super fun experience with the Leopard Lacewing caterpillars and butterflies.

  2. We just recently collected two caterpillars, and they turned into beautiful lime plant butterflies! Yours seem a tad more difficult to look after, but how satisfying it must have been, to see Creepy emerge as a beautiful butterfly, after the previous problems with the first two. Your boys are really good at naming the caterpillars, I must say! We just call ours #1 and #2. Haha.

    1. Adeline: Oh that must have been amazing to witness! And yes, my oldest tends to be very creative wrt names heh!

  3. Brilliant!!!! I love that. My son brought back some caterpillars as part of a class group project last year, but he didn't get to observe the whole process, only part of it.

    1. Debs: I hope he managed to witness the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis?



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