Black Swallowtail Overwintered Six Months

Overwintered Black Swallowtail

Black Swallowtail butterfly

Black Swallowtail

Black Swallowtail Ecclosing

Winter is truly over. A butterfly decided.

Last fall I brought home an early instar Black Swallowtail caterpillar from Wild Peace Farm. I wanted to determine what the its instar stages looked like. It turned out to be a small and abnormal looking caterpillar, and I braced myself for its probable death. It never developed the brilliant green stripes of the 5th instar (last stop before pupae), instead it had whitish stripes. I was surprised when one day I came home and the little guy had made a silk hammock and was hanging in position to pupate. The little chrysalis, formed in early November, turned brown instead of green, which often means it plans to overwinter. This is especially likely in November when winter is basically here. Monarchs fly to Mexico for the winter, but every single other insect that is here during the summer is also here in the winter, albeit in well-hidden and perhaps inconspicuous form. The Woolly Bear remains a caterpillar during the winter. It accumulates nature’s own antifreeze (sugar) in its cells, then hangs out under a rock or log until spring; pulseless, frozen, and alive. The members of Swallowtail Butterfly family, including my sweet old friend the Spicebush Swallowtail, spend the winter in a horned chrysalis, hung in a silk hammock, parallel to the ground. When my Spicebush friend came into my life just before forming a chrysalis in late fall, I read that an overwintering chrysalis kept indoors often emerges too early, or dries up and dies. So I put him outside. He was immediately eaten by a very hungry bird, so this year I decided to test out these indoor chrysalis concerns. I did occasionally drizzle cold water on my friend, but otherwise left her to hangout in my apartment… literally.  It has been nice to have a small hibernating friend stay here with me, and when people have asked me whether I have pets I told them that I have an overwintering chrysalis. Particularly at my new (indoor) job, I am not sure how well I was able to convey what this meant. But you know, experience is the best teacher. Friday morning I glanced at my chrysalis, curious if the time was coming for an emergence, and it had turned black! Or nearly black; the chrysalis was actually turning clear, and the butterfly was visible inside. This is a sure sign that a butterfly will be coming out soon.

What else is there to do in such a situation? I brought my chrysalis to work! Everyone was very curious to see what I had in my container, and the teasing I received was all very good natured and moderately amusing. One co-worker offered to get a stroller out of her car so that I could keep the chrysalis with me at all times. Good one.

But wouldn’t you know, right at lunchtime the chrysalis starting to wiggle. Only a few minutes later many of us got to witness the new butterfly slip out of its winter home. The wings were crumpled but straightened quickly in the sun, and then the butterfly was strong enough to hold her wings and antennae up. I left her on a plant and I hope she will get out there to meet another Black Swallowtail and make new Swallowtail babies. Maybe one of them will come home with me again. Yesterday near a Pawpaw grove along the Potomac I saw a rarer butterfly, the Zebra Swallowtail, zooming over. Perhaps all of these cousins have just come back out to play.

Like my last Black Swallowtail, who was in her chrysalis for a mere 8.5 days… It’s a Girl!

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