Pet Sitting

A good friend of mine had to leave town for a while and I agreed to care for his critters while he was gone. The thing is, there are dozens of them. Really. I’m now hosting three species of very hungry caterpillars! One is a single tiger swallowtail, Papilio glaucus. It is a beautiful green and if you look closely you can see a tiny red bindi between its crossed false eyes on its sixth chakra.

The other two species are are giant silkworm moths, a group of large moths with beautifully patterned wings often with large eye spots. Some are polyphemus moths, Antherae polyphemus. These are housed in a converted aquarium so I wasn’t able to get a decent picture and I didn’t want to disturb one by dragging it out. Maybe when they’re larger. And they do get large. By the time they’re ready to spin cocoons they’ll be at least as big as my thumb.

The other species is the promethea moth, Callosamia promethea. These are sort of blue-green right now but will be much greener with red knobs when they’re big.

Last summer I took hosted some promethea cocoons for the same friend and got to see several of them emerge over a period of a few days. I hung them on a little potted tree while they finished drying and expanding their wings. This species displays sexual dimorphism, meaning the males and females look different. The males are the dark ones.

Raising butterfly or moth caterpillars is really pretty simple. You need some sort of container or cage that allows air exchange but doesn’t let the caterpillars escape. Put a layer of paper towels or newspaper in the bottom to make it easier to clean out the droppings. Provide them with whatever leaves they like to eat. To keep the leaves fresh you can use those little water vials florists use for corsages if you’ve got just one or two small caterpillars. For larger numbers, cut Xs in the lid of a deli container and use it like a vase for stems of the food plant. The key is to make it so the caterpillars can’t crawl into the water and drown. Replace the food in fresh water when it’s skeletonized or when it gets stale. Toward the end of their larval stage you’re going to be doing this pretty much daily. They will eat a lot of leaves so have a reliable source. Once they’ve spun their cocoons or formed a crysalis you just wait until the adults emerge either this season or next year after overwintering them outdoors in a rodent-proof container.

I’ll try to keep posting pix of the kids as they grow up. The transformation in size and coloration is a remarkable thing to watch.

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