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Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Raising Swallowtails - Part 6

I was so hoping to entitle this The Final Chapter but it was not to be. Yes I raised four healthy Swallowtail butterflies but didn't manage to witness, let alone photograph, a single eclosion! So I will just have to try again next year.

It wasn't as if I wasn't being vigilant. The first one emerged before 8am on day 11. The second one before 8am on day 12. So when the third and fourth (which both pupated on the same day) came to day 11, I thought OK, I'll keep the butterfly box on my desk with me first thing so I can watch it. Nothing happened. I then went off to do some things and next thing I know there is a freshly eclosed butterfly hanging off the mesh lid as it had only gone and done it mid morning!

By day 12 I was desperate and down to my last chrysalis, so decided I was going to watch it all day if needs be. It had changed colour and started to become translucent (I know for sure that chrysalis no. 3 did not change colour) so felt it was really imminent. Well by midday I was still in my dressing gown and nothing had happened other than a few false alarms when I saw it twitch! I took the box into the bathroom with me for a quick wash and to throw some clothes on. It turned more translucent and I still sat and watched, whilst doing some things on my computer. Around 3pm I glanced at the box after having forgotten about it for a few minutes out of sheer tiredness and guess what, yes there was a freshly eclosed butterfly! I can't tell you just how sick with disappointment and frustration I felt. I'd been watching it for nine long hours!

One thing this experiment has taught me is that butterflies will eclose when it suits them, just at that moment when you are not looking, so chances of actually seeing it happen are slim, and that they will not necessarily change colour hours beforehand to give you warning!

So here's what happened after they did eclose.

The last chrysalis turns translucent and the wing patterns are clearly visible.

A freshly emerged butterfly with wings all soft and floppy.
The block is in there to hold up the stick that the chrysalis was on,
which was too close to the bottom of the box.

At this point the butterfly cannot fly as its wings are all floppy and crumpled from having been folded up inside the chrysalis. It needs to spend several hours pumping blood into the wings to harden them and for them to dry off. A browny red liquid comes out of chrysalis when the butterfly ecloses, but I also saw a few of them excrete a thick brown liquid onto my windowsill after eclosion, whilst I was trying to help them onto a good surface to hang from. Three of the butterflies were happy to be transferred onto my African Violet pot plant on the kitchen windowsill and the fourth wanted to hang out on a stick.

You can see how soft the wings are here.

Wings have hardened up a bit but still not ready to fly, but happy to climb about on
our fingers and hands. You have to take advantage of this opportunity!

Still hanging around.

Not knowing exactly what happens the first time we were unsure as to when the butterfly would start to fly, so to keep it safe i.e. so that it didn't land on the floor and get eaten by an inquisitive kitten, my OH thought of the umbrella thingy which keeps flies off cakes!

Bright idea to keep butterfly from harm i.e. the cats!

Of course with four butterflies so close I had to take the opportunity for some macros!
Doesn't that curled up proboscis remind you of liquorice?

Close up of the wing pattern clearly showing the scales that cover the wing.

I didn't know at what point they would start to feed so for the first one I brought in a stem of Verbena bonariensis but all this one did was just perch on it! In fact out of the four butterflies, I only saw one extend its proboscis (tongue) indoors before flying away.

This butterfly is actually indoors and that's the garden through the window!

I wasn't sure when I'd know when it was ready to go outside, but when it started to flitter about and head for the window it was pretty obvious. For all I just encouraged them onto my finger, which was not hard, put my hand around them and took them out to the garden and popped them on a coneflower! They then sat for up to 15 minutes whilst I watched and photographed them, most times flapping about in the wind whilst they clung on to the flower. I should mention here that I know nothing about butterflies pooing or peeing, but two of the four 'peed' a colourless liquid all over my hand when I gently lifted them off the house plant to take outside!

And so I photographed them, again.

With strong dry wings now and nearly ready to leave.

I took hundreds of photos of the four of them!

The last one decided to flit off and land on a cosmos flower, on a very windy day so it was flapping about like crazy on the flower. Even holding the flower stem the petals were flapping over the butterfly!

Last butterfly ready to fly off.

Then off they flew, when they were ready, soaring off over the trees to their new lives. I saw one in the garden the day after I'd released the fourth one. I'd like to think it was one of mine. :-)

And now I have to repeat this experience all over again next year, because I WILL watch an eclosion. One day!

Part 5 here.


  1. Sorry you missed the eclosions but what fabulous photographs. The one of the wing close up looks like a piece of tapestry, absolutely beautiful.


    1. Thanks very much Philippa! I got over it eventually and had a laugh but I wanted to cry at the time! Shame we missed seeing you when you were here in Brittany - but I expect you were busy. Will have to scoot over to you know where to catch up with what you have been up to. :-)

  2. They have such fantastic colors and markings! Such a great post :-)

    After missing the process several times, I finally figured out the ONLY way to not miss it is to do a timelapse or video. If you have to walk away, you rest assured you can watch it later. The best part is you can watch it over and over and slow it down to see the incredible process at crucial stages. Very cool.

    The SX40 did a fantastic job of capturing it on video without turning off so I'm assuming the 50 would be equally good. You've see my videos, right?

    1. Hi Marianne and thanks very much! I think I may have to work something out for next year - technical stuff like that is a bit complicated for a technophobe like me, like wondering how to put a camera inside a butterfly box or do I set up some kind of studio in a cat free room.... I will check out your Youtube videos as I guess that is where they are!

  3. Oh...I forgot about the cats but you'll figure it out. My computers are all off but my YouTube account is ez to remember. You just add ezpixels

    Choose to see "all" videos and you will find the queen pupating and eclosing videos not far down.

  4. Spotty internet so here are the two link. The second is my favorite as I had NO idea that's what happened! It was almost painful to watch it writhing inside.



    1. Thanks for the links Marianne and I've watched your caterpillar pupating now too! Fascinating stuff as it's a completely different shape to Swallowtails. That was one thing I did manage to witness last year and took photos through the whole process (Part 4 I think). I didn't manage to see an actual caterpillar moult from one instar to another though but hopefully next year I'll find some smaller cats and can go through the entire metamorphosis and be better prepared as I know what to expect now. Saw another Swallowtail in my garden yesterday and like to think it was one of my babies! Have fun :-)