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Lending Lepidoptera a Hand
Lending Lepidoptera a Hand
Published by MrILoveTheAnts
Default Lending Lepidoptera a Hand

The easiest Lepidoptera to rear in captivity are ones who can easily be found on plants at eye level or lower. There are a number of pretty swallowtail species out there as well as large beautiful silk moths but when one looks at their host plants we quickly learn most of them use every tree in the forest.

Rearing Monarchs
The Monarch Butterfly is the perfect beginner species. Anyone planting 3 to 5 Milkweed plants in the 1 to 3 gallon pot size is almost assured to get the attention of a female in their garden each year. Eggs are laid one by one under individual leaves. About 3 to 4 days later they begin hatching and nibbling a little window in the leaf. Caterpillars remain on the plant until they're in the last instar where they abandon the host plant. So many butterfly gardeners who have milkweed believe they've never gotten a caterpillar to maturity because of this fact. In truth they leave to get out of the way of the younger generation and will form their chrysalis up to 30' away from the milkweed patch.

HERE is one who's made a chrysalis under some Creeping Charlie, a creeping mint plant that doesn't get higher than 6 inches off the ground.
HERE is one under the siding of our house.
HERE is one under a milkweed leaf which is under the risk of being eaten by caterpillars, or else falling to the ground.

It's best to collect the caterpillars when they're large enough and feed them milkweed in captivity. A screened cage will work perfectly. It's best to keep them outdoors, or in the shed where the caterpillars can be away from the AC. The setup should have enough weight to it so it doesn't blow away, and the screen should be such a fine grade that young caterpillars can't escape. Fresh milkweed should be added daily, and it should be free of young caterpillars and eggs. The larger caterpillars can't distinguish between milkweed and eggs, and the younger caterpillars don't stand a chance of escaping.

When forming a chrysalis caterpillars will scale the top of the cage, unless you've given them sticks. They'll coat the glass with silk if it's too smooth for them to climb and a silk patch is even used like a net wherever they intend to morph. They form a J shape when they're ready and may hang that way for hours. The process of shedding their skin is FAST taking less than 3 minutes and it's easy to miss. From here their body takes on the consistency of silly puddy as they shift things around to the appropriate spot.

10 to 14 days later they will hatch, some early in the morning and others in the afternoon. The chrysalis will turn totally transparent. And the resulting butterfly will flop out. Their wings are very much like a swatch of silk meant to clean one's glasses, they drag along the ground flaccid and fordable. Having enough room to hang upside down is essential to getting them to expand. They inflate with a liquid that soon hardens. If they're unable to find an appropriate spot to hang then they run the risk of forever having a bent useless wing. Males have two black dots in the center of their hind wings; Females do not.

Monarchs migrate south in the adult stage and do not over winter in the northern part of their range.

Black Swallowtails

While some consider this to be a pest species it's none the less beautiful to look at. Their host plants include Carrots, Celery, Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Queen Anna's Lace, and Golden Alexander. The feathery leaves of Parsley and Dill are by far more prized by the females of this species to lay their eggs on. The first instar caterpillar is somehow smaller than the egg itself and resembles a microscopic leach more than a caterpillar. The next three instars resemble bird droppings before gaining their stripes and horn. Be advised, while many think the horn is there to produce a foul smell (I'd describe it as parsley breath) it's actually used rub acid in the eyes of attacking birds. One shouldn't put these caterpillars on their face, or hold them up to their eyes without protective eye ware.

They can be collected at any age, but don't mix and match the smallest instars with the largest! Considering how small the smallest instars are, it's important to inspect sprigs of the host plants you're feeding them carefully. At about the same size as one would collect a Monarch caterpillar is best.

Caterpillars of this species eat surprisingly little. The larger instars only seem to eat one sprig/stalk of parsley per day. While this can add up over the season, they actually have the option of forming a chrysalis at one instar sooner than their final instar. I've noticed ones that do this at the end of summer are the ones that go on to over winter.

The chrysalis is brown and with pointed tips about taking on the appearance of a flower bud waiting to open. Before entering this stage the caterpillar lassos a safety line, which makes their final molt like watching someone with a really bad sunburn remove a solid layer of skin. Hatching is anywhere between 10 to 14 days.

Males have a more perfect V of yellow dots.
Females have blue along the tail and the V isn't as strong or bold looking.

For those that over winter, they won't hatch for another 7 moths or so. They should be kept out of unusually high temperatures. It's okay if they're covered in snow but they shouldn't be drowning in water. Keeping the setup inside a shed, or unheated garage is best. Once the first Maples start to get their flowers on them they should be checked on every day.

Despite me listing Golden Alexander as a host plant, I know it's one that a lot of nature gardeners feel ripped off on. Caterpillars that were fed Golden Alexander that turn out to be females will be happy to lay their eggs on the plants, however, the tough leaves are harder for them to chew which is why parsley and fennel are favored. The young shoots to all their host plants when they emerge are always tender though so we most often see this plant being used in the spring time. Over the summer though I have found caterpillars on Golden Alexander and I feel this had to be the offspring of a female that I'd fed GA leaves to. In no other year prior have I ever found caterpillars on the plants.

Giant Silk Moths (disclaimer: I've never been successful with these)
Imperial Moths, Luna Moths, Polyphemus Moths, and Regal Moths are just some of the rarely seen jewels of the night sky. Along with being very showy, they are also massive with 3.5 to ~7 inch wingspan. Sadly the adult stage is short lived and dies after 2 weeks of life.

As the disclaimer read I've never been successful with these but perhaps someone could perfect my method. Lights at night are the enemy of the Giant Silk Moth! They distract them into hanging around under the light instead of doing what nature intended: Having Sex with as many women as possible so she can haphazardly spew eggs wherever she dam well pleases!

Having worked at a movie theater beside a forest I'd often find one or two of these hanging out at night by the lights in the parking lot. Doing my good deed of the day I felt compelled to try and get some eggs, photograph them for identification purposes, and lastly releasing them.

Having just locked myself out of the building to go home I found a Polyphemus moth one night. With nothing to put her in I scurried her into my car... where she was free to fly around while I drove us home. This was as bad an idea as it sounded. Sure enough I could feel her in my lap, slowly climbing up my shirt, up my collar, flapping to my lip, on my nose, and I slammed on the breaks because I was staring at the underside of some wings. The thought of me hitting something and pounding my head into the air bag went through my mind: of course the paramedics would wonder why I was wearing a cabaret mask. She eventually nestled herself between the drivers side door and seat, thank god.

In book I've read "Placing Silk Moths into paper bags over night will induce laying eggs if they're ready to do so." What they should have said was 'Females will begin laying eggs whenever they're in complete darkness.' Because upon reaching down to retrieve her I found the drivers seat covered in them. Some 60 eggs or so were dotting the door, the shaggy fabric between the seat, the gears under the seat, and the seat itself. WTF!? I eventually got her into a cardboard box for the night.

Eggs are laid in clusters and attach to whatever they're placed upon. If she doesn't lay anything over night then it's possible to put her in a bird cage and leave her outside where she'll hopefully attract a male, or several dozen. Bare in mind the limited time these moths have to do their thing though and if she isn't getting any attention for a day or two it's best to let them go in the woods somewhere.

Caterpillars to these are stupid. The main reason I haven't been successful with these is that I don't own a cage with small enough mesh to house the caterpillars in. Because their host plants include 60' tall trees they're in the habit to eat and run. They nibble here and there and then want to travel a fair distance away. Water doesn't stop them! Slowly they either escaped or died, and I'm sure the Air Conditioning didn't help things.

Releasing can have its benefits though. While I wasn't successful with any of the 200 or so eggs the Polyphemus Moth left me I later found a silk cocoon to one under the maple tree in our yard where I released her.

It just goes to show sometimes it's just best to own the host plant and be content.

For those of you who are successful getting Giant Silk Moths past the first few instars, bare in mind, some of them NEED to burrow in the ground before forming a chrysalis. Wood chips or loose earth will work. The Polyphemus Caterpillar needs to spin its cocoon on the ground among leaf litter under their host tree. Others though are happy to spin a cocoon anywhere they like among the branches but often still low to the ground.
Attached Thumbnails
Lending Lepidoptera a Hand-blackswallowtailmale.jpg   Lending Lepidoptera a Hand-monarchhatching10.jpg   Lending Lepidoptera a Hand-monarchskin.jpg   Lending Lepidoptera a Hand-polyphemuscaterpillarseating.jpg   Lending Lepidoptera a Hand-monarchcaterpillareating-1.jpg  

By havalotta on 09-24-2012, 02:26 PM

Nice article!
I like how you've included a side by side comparison showing the difference between the male and female swallowtails and ALSO the inclusion of how to distinguish between the male and females of the Monarchs...The males having two black dots in the center of their hind wings; The females do not.
Another good addition..... shows the difference between the monarch and swallowtail caterpillars.
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By KC Clark on 02-25-2013, 03:25 PM

Black Swallowtails and Golden Alexander

I have been growing GA for maybe 5 or 6 years. Last year was the first time I've found BST cats on it. That said, I love GA because it is what I raise most of my BSTs on. I grow dill because it is easy to find the cats on it. I grab the cats and raise them inside on GA. GA puts out lots of leaves so I can raise lots of BSTs. Also, GA handles hot summers better than dill, parsley, and fennel. If you are in deep south, I recommend Mock Bishops weed since it can take even more heat.

Giant Silk Moths

An easy way to raise these cats is to use rearing sleeves. You raise the cats right on the tree. Luna and polyphemus will build their cocoon inside the sleeve. For regals and imperials, you need to keep an eye on them. If you see them constantly wandering around the sleeve, they have to be removed and put into something where they can pupate (explained in original article).

To make my sleeves, I base them on the instructions presented here:

I've never used caulk, preferring to have my wife sew them.

You need some way of tying the ends of the sleeves tightly so the cats stay inside. My sleeves have have "pockets" sewn into them that holds parachute cord. Other people just use the sleeve as is and use rubber bands or something else to tie the ends shut. This is an example I found online.

Lending Lepidoptera a Hand-sleeve2.jpg

The tree in the pic is a sweetgum. It is my favorite tree for raising giant silk moths because if you are raising the cats inside, the leaves on cut branches hold up longer than any other hostplant I've tried. If you have just a few polyphemus eggs, I don't recommend sweetgum since I've found that 1st and 2nd instar polys have a higher mortality rate on sweetgum than other hostplants.
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black swallowtail, butterflies, butterfly, caterpillar, cats, golden alexander, hand, hand raising, instar, lending, lepidoptera, monarch, monarch cats, monarchs, raising, swallowtail, swallowtail butterfly, swallowtail cats

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