As we near the end of caterpillar season (though the Wooly Bears are still going strong) I am left with one. The baby Monarch flew (or is flying) south, his pal sadly died of a butterfly disease after a few days of flightless butterfly-hood, and meanwhile the Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar chrysalis is showing no signs of emergence. It is hanging on a Redbud twig, the nearest branch-like thing I could find when my friend came into my life, desperately walking her little legs off in search of an acceptable spot to set up shop and pupate.
Her chrysalis turned a reddish brown, while many in the Spicebush Swallowtail species turn bright green. The internet alleged that this was a sign that she wisely planned to overwinter in seasonally fashionable camouflage.
This is a shot from below of my very beautiful friend.
Unlike the Mexico-loving Monarch, most butterfly species found here stick around the area, in one form or another. Whatever form it may be, the dude has to tough it out and basically hibernate like many of our creeping friends. Some go underground, some stay in their eggs, and this one likes to hang out in a little hammock and imagine that she is at the beach and that it isn’t below freezing and windy.
The chronicle of how me and this spicy friend came to share a kitchen is detailed in another post. It wasn’t my intention to take in a caterpillar and spend the winter watching tv/metamorphosizing together in front of a gluten-free pizza box fire. But that is the direction things appeared to be taking when the days grew short and the nights got cold and the pretty pupae had not budged. Although I did once witness it wiggle into a crescent moon shape and straighten back out which I agree sounds unbelievable. No drugs were involved.
I did a little research (aka googled) to determine whether there was a chance that staying indoors could confuse the little lady into popping out early and dying a tragic virgin death, never getting the chance to do it like they do on the discovery channel and produce little fake snakes (caterpillar’s appearance, not a euphemism) of her own.
The internet taught me (so there is no doubt about it) that the big problem with keeping an overwinterer indoors is that heating can dry the guy out. And possibly indeed trigger an early arrival, although coming out as well as deciding to overwinter are both governed by a number of mystery factors including temperature but also sunlight, and how the Sassafrass or Spicebush leaves tasted during the caterpillar’s childhood. Those leaves contain some chemical signals, discernible not to my human perception, though I can’t say I’ve done a taste test.
Diapause is what it is called when a creeper, Walt Disney-like, enters a period of suspended animation and does a whole lot of not changing for awhile. That is the state that my friend is presumably in. Then at some point she will snap out of it and finish going through her inner changes and break free to fly off toward flowers and pheromones. Most likely she will time all of this well. Still I am a nurse and I sought to disconnect her from whatever her body might naturally experience. When a nor’easter came and poured rain for 3 days straight (worse than Portland y’all), I postponed my plans to expose her to the guiding light of the elements. Today the rain let up and it is officially not warm out so I decided to stop messing and set her free. Of course she is somewhat stuck where she is so I had to set her twig free along with her. In order to set a twig free, I did not realize before today, you actually have to tie it down.
This has been accomplished with two twist ties, pictured below.
I will be able to monitor the chica’s progress out there since the tree is in my yard. So if all of you birds could just not eat her please, thanks. Her camo is pretty good I think. If we pause for a moment of tree ID you can see that this is a Redbud not only based on its heart shaped leaves but also the lovely legumes that form its fruits. Those will be dangling all winter long. Do birds eat them? I am going to look into this and if so I may untie my friend and move her to a Sassafras tree, where I imagine she would have preferred to hang her hammock anyway. I’m still a nurse and I don’t want curious beaks nearby.
For now, there she is, you can just see her through the fruits and leaves.