Cocoons and Chrysalises on the Front Porch
Living where we do, we come in contact with plenty of insects and plenty of learning opportunities. Within our homeschool, we wish to better understand the world around us, and insects, particularly butterflies and moths, give us a glimpse into a very different, miniature world.
Each year we keep a chart of the butterfly species we spot around our yard. We are far from expert entomologists, but we are learning to recognize our local butterflies. Our average number is 18 species; including the Spring Azure, Red Admiral, Monarch and Eastern Comma. These insects do have some interesting names!
One year we ordered a Monarch kit from the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory and reared a handful of Monarchs from caterpillar through to adult butterfly. The little ones enjoyed this so much that we’ve kept the butterfly cage on our front porch each year and raise moth and butterfly caterpillars.
Last fall we found four Polyphemus Moth cocoons and two Promethea Moth cocoons and put them into our cage. Both of these species of silkworm spend the winter as pupae within the cocoon so we left them all winter on our front porch. Finally, in June, the adults emerged. My little ones looked into the cage each morning to see who they might find fluttering about. The Polyphemus Moths were huge and spanned the width of two 8-year old palms. They were also cooperative and did not take flight immediately but remained on her hands for several minutes for a close-up look. When the Promethea Moths emerged we learned that we had a male and a female. Even though they emerged a day apart, they soon found each other again and proceeded to start the next generation right in our garden.
This summer we discovered the caterpillar of a Cecropia Moth munching on our plum tree. It too went into the cage, along with some plum branches for sustenance. Unlike the other two moth species, we were able to watch this caterpillar anchor itself to a branch and spin its cocoon. It will sit on our porch all winter long and we look forward to seeing its again in June. I find these large silk moths very interesting to observe since the adults are nocturnal and are about their business for only a short time in late spring. Keeping the cocoons in our butterfly cage enables us to study and come to know creatures that are seldom experienced any other way.
And of course, we also raise butterflies in the butterfly cage. In addition to the monarch kit from the Butterfly Conservatory, we also reared in our butterfly cage some Monarch caterpillars we found living on the milkweed in our field. The little ones were excited to find the caterpillars because the previous fall they opened and threw into the wind every milkweed pod they found. I encouraged this dispersal because Monarchs need all the help they can get; their populations are threatened by habitat loss and the butterflies are a Special-at- Risk here in Canada (sararegistry.gc.ca).
The Monarch caterpillars only remain in the chrysalis for 9 to 18 days before emerging, fuelling up on nectar and beginning their marathon migration south to Mexico. So unlike the silk moths, it is easier to keep the little ones engaged in the the Monarch’s life cycle. Although they can’t really grasp the distance the butterfly has to fly, they come to appreciate how delicate the butterfly is and how amazing is its journey.
Another butterfly we’ve reared in our cage is the Black Swallowtail. We find the caterpillars on dill, parsley and carrot plants in our garden and move them into the cage. An interesting feature of these butterflies is their ability to form a uniquely patterned chrysalis to match the object to which they are affixed; grey wood grain to match the greying Red Cedar. Depending on the season, the caterpillars will either emerge as adults within a few weeks or spend the entire winter as pupae within a chrysalis before revealing themselves in May. We've hosted both chrysalises in our cage.
My children find insects fascinating and I’m glad we have a butterfly cage. It has given them opportunities to study moths and butterflies up close. When the adults emerge, the girls sketch them in their Nature Notebooks and I read to them some interesting tidbits about the creature they just met. They come away with a deeper knowledge of the insect and a wider appreciation for the magnificence of creation. When they next see a Black Swallowtail caterpillar or a Polyphemus cocoon they will recognize them as familiar friends.