Best of WNY.com
 Wild Things…
Raising Butterflies Pt. 2
By Karen Vizzi
     Which came first, the butterfly or the egg? It can be argued in much the same manner as the chicken, but nevertheless, the egg is the best place to begin to observe the life cycle of the butterfly. 
     In most cases, the first sign that butterflies are breeding in your wild garden is when you discover the caterpillars. Although caterpillars employ all sorts of camouflage, the astute wild gardener will eventually find them. But unlike caterpillars, butterfly eggs are next to impossible to find…unless you know what you’re looking for. Butterfly eggs are incredibly tiny, rarely larger than the head of a pin. They can be white, yellow, green, brown or opalescent. They may be laid singly on individual leaves or in clusters. They can be smooth, cone-shaped or resemble tiny beehives. The best way to find them is to actually observe the female laying them on the host plant in a process called ovipositing. When a butterfly seems more interested in the leaves of a plant than its flowers, then it is likely a female looking for a place to oviposit. She accomplishes this by curling up the end of her abdomen and placing the egg/s onto the host plant, usually on the underside of the leaf.
     The egg can take anywhere from 3 to 6 days to hatch, depending on the species. Once the microscopic caterpillar emerges, it will eat the eggshell and then proceed to spend the next 2 to 3 weeks of it’s life devouring large quantities of the host plant. During this time, the pillar will shed its skin several times (in phases called instars) to accommodate its rapid growth. It may even change its appearance drastically through these moltings. During the egg and caterpillar stages, these insects are extremely vulnerable to predators such as birds, spiders and wasps. The observable predation rate in my garden is very high. In other words, for all the eggs and caterpillars I know are out there, almost none will survive if I don’t raise them in a predator-free environment. Obviously, many do survive somehow or there would be no butterflies to begin the process in the first place. But it is an eye-opening  experiment to actually monitor them and see just how many never make it.
     If you are able to find eggs, you can “harvest” them and start the process of hand-raising butterflies. I make a regular habit of examining the underside of the leaves of many larval plants in my garden with a magnifying glass. When I find eggs, I will cut a small sprig of the host plant leaves (including the leaf containing the egg!) and place it in a container of water small enough to fit inside a large Mason jar. Empty pill bottles or camera film canisters with a hole punched in the lid are ideal. You must keep the food leaves alive and fresh, but you also want to cover the makeshift “vase” so that tiny pillars do not accidentally drop into the water and drown. Push the plant sprig into the hole in the film canister or pill bottle, then slide this assemblage into the Mason jar and cover with a small piece of old pantyhose. Alternatively, other ideal “cages” for this project are small plastic Critter Keepers that you can find at pet stores, or an old fish tank with a cover. You have now created a tiny little ecosystem to observe this miracle of nature. 
     By placing sprigs of leaves, as opposed to just one leaf, you provide enough food for the first several days of life. This is generally a good idea, because the less you disturb the system when the pillars are very small, the better. Also, be sure to include only leaves from the plant that the egg (or caterpillar) was originally found on. This is likely the only plant it will eat. Your first sign that they have hatched will be when you start to see tiny holes in the leaves.
     If you find your butterflies already as caterpillars, you can create the same type of set up. But the larger the caterpillar is when you find it, the more vigilant you must be with adding fresh food. During the last days of the caterpillar stage, they eat enormous amounts and you may find you need to add fresh leaves 3 or 4 times a day. Oh…and one more thing. Pillars are poop machines. You will want to clean out the bottom of the cage or jar every few days. Next week, we will talk about the last two stages: chrysalis and adult.
    Bird Brainers: Baby birds just fledged from the nest may be the same size as the adult, but have different colored or drabber plumage the first year.
    Butterfly Bullets: The American Painted Lady uses the licorice plant as its host. The licorice plant (helichrysum) is a popular addition to window boxes and hanging baskets.
    Plant Pointers: Pinch back chrysanthemums now and once more by the Fourth of July…it creates bushier plants and postpones blooming till fall.

 
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