The idea of raising butterflies never crossed my mind until I spotted two mature Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars lazily munching away on the fennel in our kitchen garden. Their cheerful deep jade green and black stripes were a welcome surprise, despite the deleterious consequences for the fennel.
In many ways, butterflies are like the rest of us, but on an accelerated timeline. They’re a mix of fragility, resilience, creativity, frustration, and beauty. Butterflies have four stages of life: egg, caterpillar, chrysalide, and adult.
They start out as fertilized eggs laid on their host plant. Their mothers use sensors on their feet to taste for the right one. After a few days and if the fates allow, they hatch out, eat their super nutritious egg sacks and start life on their host.
The host plant is their shelter and home, and the single food source biology obligates them to consume. Nothing else will do. It’s also how predators know to find them, but we’ll come back to that later.
Caterpillars go through a series of make or break stages of development, each punctuated by molting, which involves exploding off and unzipping the skins they’ve outgrown. Between molts, they’ve got to eat, sleep, dodge predators patrolling their host plants for food, and keep other caterpillars at a safe distance.
When the time is right, they molt one last time, dissolve in their own digestive juices (so gross!) and go into chrysalis. Chrysalides while away their time turning into butterflies. Some overwinter to become the first butterflies of spring.
Caterpillars are an important food source for birds and the bushes in our yard gave them a perfect base to hunt from. They’re also the sole host for parasitoid wasps, who lay eggs on caterpillars. The larva wakes up once the caterpillar goes into chrysalis, and feeds on it until maturity. Yes, parasitoid wasps eat caterpillars before they can become butterflies. The wasp punches a hole in the chrysalis and climbs out.
Honestly, it’s one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen in my whole life. And I don't mind telling you that all parasitoid wasps found in my house are executed by toilet flushing.
My first caterpillars succumbed to avian predation and parasitization because I didn’t know to cover them with tented mesh or bring them inside.
How can we become butterflies?
Take charge of your time and attention: It’s crucial to know the difference between food for the body and soul and distractions. As creatures of habit, we’re prone to falling into unhelpful patterns and behaviors that distract us from self-care, reflection, and personal growth.
Molt often: Caterpillars must molt or die. People need to molt relationships and situations that they’ve outgrown or no longer sustain them.
Keep good boundaries: We all need healthy boundaries to live well. Boundaries affirm for ourselves and tell others what we’re willing to be involved in and on what terms.
Skip the parasites: Parasites, energy vampires, and distractions all divert essential resources that the host needs to live.