I’ve been away from my blog for a month and I have no excuse except that I have been tending to my caterpillars. I have so much to share about my recent experience raising swallowtail butterflies, but first and foremost I must share an experience that brings tears to my eyes even now. It’s a story about a swallowtail. And me. And true love. And magic.
First let me say that raising swallowtails is so much easier than raising monarchs! They don’t seem as susceptible to nasty parasites or diseases, and they eat a lot less. Less food means an easier feeding schedule and a lot less poop to clean up, both of which I appreciate. Nevertheless, there is always a chance that something can go wrong, and this story begins with a poor Anise Swallowtail who was stuck in her chrysalis.
Unlike monarchs which will hang out until you forcibly (gently, of course) remove them from your hand, shirt, head, or wherever they happen to land while they test their wings, swallowtails are extremely timid creatures. I knew this because I’d had the pleasure of watching two healthy swallowtails climb from their chrysalides, dry their wings and fly off. I found that when I went to release them from their enclosures they were absolutely terrified and flew off as fast as
humanly butterfly-ly possible. So when I went to check the enclosure one morning and saw that a newly emerged swallowtail had a piece of shell stuck around her wing I wasn’t sure what to do.
I knew her wing couldn’t expand and dry if she didn’t get it free so I decided to remove it, despite her obvious discomfort at having me anywhere near. Her wing free, she began trying to pull herself out of the chrysalis. She pulled and pushed but was clearly stuck. I allowed her to struggle for a while knowing it would be better if she released herself.
I noticed that in her struggle the chrysalis had come loose from the branch it was tied to, giving her no leverage to pull her body free. I also saw that the silk strings they produce to attach the chrysalis with were still attached to her abdomen. None of this boded well but she she was fighting so hard and seemed so strong that I had to help. Eventually she tired and when she did I held her chrysalis and tried to remove it, first with pliers then with tweezers, gently peeling the shell from her body. Neither of us enjoyed this process but eventually I pulled her free and she was able to hang and dry her wings.
Unfortunately, one wing had dried before straightening completely and her little body was deformed. Nevertheless she was driven by instinct and she soon took flight… and landed in my potting tools 2′ away. A few more attempts proved futile so I scooped her up walked around the garden with her, speaking quietly, telling her how pretty she was and encouraging her to fly. Eventually I placed her in a high spot in the garden to see if she would take flight. Several hours later she was still there so to protect her from the phoebes who hunt in the evening I placed her back in the enclosure with the door propped open. The next morning she was gone. I was hoping for the best, but fearing the worst. I looked everywhere but there was no sign of her that day or the next. The day after that is when the magic kicked in.
I was working in the shop in the back yard and had gone into the house for a drink. On my way back I was lingering in the garden. I stopped to pick some beans (at least I eat healthy snacks while procrastinating) and I was talking to the beans, telling them how pretty they were, when suddenly something leapt onto my stomach. Fully expecting something terrifying I looked down and there was my little deformed swallowtail, clinging to my shirt and staring up at me! I couldn’t believe this timid little creature had attached herself to me. I put out my hand and she climbed onto my finger then made herself comfortable in my palm. I wasn’t sure what she needed, so we just strolled around the garden.
We hung out for about five minutes when suddenly a strong breeze kicked up. It whipped around us and slowly she began flapping her wings. Moments later she was up in the air! She did a quick loop-de-loo, landing on the side of the house probably as shocked as I was. A second later she took off again and sailed up and over the house! I just about burst into tears. It was pure magic.
I like to think that she wanted to let me know she was okay and that I could stop worrying. Who knew swallowtails were so thoughtful? Of course as happy as I was to see her fly off I missed her immediately and haven’t stopped hoping to catch sight of her, as unlikely as it may be. But for me this story is proof that unlikely doesn’t mean impossible, and so I keep looking, smiling every time a swallowtail flutters overhead.
And that’s the story of how a little deformed swallowtail stole my heart. Next up… Giant Swallowtails and their mysterious transformation from tiny pokey caterpillars that look like bird-poop into the largest and possibly most dramatic butterflies in North America. Is the suspense just killing you?
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