Updated: May 3, 2020
Guest Blogger - Mary Kihslinger. Mary is a former Professor of Music at the University of Toledo and is now retired. She also raises champion Shelties along with the butterflies she talks about in this article
Photo Mary Kihslinger
Why are those caterpillars eating my parsley? A few years ago I was startled to see caterpillars munching on the parsley in my hanging herb basket. They were pretty colors and didn’t eat much so I harvested around them. Later I learned that they were Swallowtail caterpillars and with a little luck would turn into beautiful butterflies. This was cool! I did some research and became familiar with the different types of butterflies and their caterpillars. Swallowtails do indeed eat parsley and also dill. Luck has a lot to do with caterpillars becoming butterflies as I learned from various articles on the subject. I subscribe to “Birds and Blooms” and enjoyed the articles and pictures. One butterfly can lay 400 eggs. Out of those eggs, only about 8 live to become adult butterflies. I decided, after reading about the diminishing Monarch population, to help at least some of the caterpillars become butterflies. I purchased a butterfly habitat and set it up on a table outside on my deck near the house. I placed a brick inside (covered it with plastic after finding a poor caterpillar had tried to “hang” inside the the brick hole). I took sticks and made a structure to allow them to hang from a stick or, as it turned out, for me to reattach the chrysalises that needed help. And so the adventure began. I looked for caterpillars on the dill and parsley (swallowtails) and checked the milkweed for Monarchs. I went to my favorite garden center to buy a very nice type of milkweed called “Cinderella” which has a pink flower and a vanilla scent. A bonus was that there were caterpillars already on these plants and I could add them to the few I had. There were also eggs on the plant leaves but I decided it was easier to wait until they became little caterpillars. Every morning I hurry out to check on the little guys, give them some new food (dill and parsley for swallowtails, milkweed for monarchs) and clean up the cage. If caterpillar droppings (frass) stay in the cage they can get sick and die. Another pet to clean up after!!! (I have three Shelties that produce much bigger “frass”).
Photo Mary Kihslinger
One day I found a chrysalis on the bottom of my butterfly habitat. Oh dear! That meant it would not be able to open its wings as it emerged. So, with he help of a YouTube video I attached it to a stick so it could hang down. I have always looked for the butterflies and planted flowers that would bring them to my large garden. Milkweed is known to attract Monarchs so I planted some Swamp Milkweed. Fellow gardeners warned that some species of milkweed could be very invasive so I was careful in my choice. The milkweed was indeed attractive to the Monarchs and one year I saw four large caterpillars on the plant. After watching their progress for a week or more they all disappeared one night. I thought maybe the birds had taken them. Mother nature at work! Not so! The caterpillars eat themselves silly making giant holes in the leaves until they reach proper size. Then they leave the plant and go as far as 30 feet away to find a good place to “hang”. As they hang for a day or two, they form a “J” with their bodies and then spin a Pupa (chrysalis). This hardens within a day and is attached with an extremely tough “thread” to the surface. I eagerly waited for my caterpillars to climb up in the enclosure and hang from the top. The first one (a swallowtail) attached itself to the zipper. Great! Now I couldn’t open it all the way. Two Monarch caterpillars did attach to the top. One day, after the chrysalises turned a very dark color, three butterflies emerged from their pupas, one swallowtail and two monarchs. After letting them dry their wings, and waiting for the sun to come out, I released them in the garden. They were immediately attracted to the butterfly bush, phlox, monarda and Mexican sunflower that are still blooming. If you don’t mind sharing your dill and parsley and have some milkweed around, you may consider getting one of the butterfly containers and helping the caterpillars. I’ve learned a lot and really enjoy having these little “pets” for a while. Gotta go, I’m expecting three more to emerge today.