Sunday, October 10, 2010

The butterfly farmer

It's a boy!
If you've been wondering what I've been up to lately, well, I've been raising butterflies. In my apartment garden, of all places!

(warning : this post is photo-heavy. It is also definitely not for the squeamish )

I had moved most of my plants to my other garden before the monsoons because the apartment is too close to the sea and all that salt spray flying around in this season is bad news for them. Just 2 pots were left behind. One was a pot which originally housed a small curry leaf plant and I later planted a passionfruit vine in the same pot. Well, the vine took off like a rocket, climbing all over the grilles. So I let it stay.
Actually there was no option. It had conquered the kitchen window, and there is no way I can move that pot without severely pruning the passionfruit vine!
The curry leaf plant, though was not so happy with the situation. Now in the shade of the vine, it settled down to a life as a runt.

Then recently, I saw that my kitchen window had a visitor. A Common Mormon (who doles out these names, I wonder) butterfly was hovering around my Curry Leaf plant.
Now this is one butterfly that I would like to see more of. It is large and has such dramatic-colouring , especially on the female. However, it is also one of the most frustrating to photograph since its upper wings are always in motion.

Voila! A perfect pearl laid on the newest leaf. And several more to keep it company.
I think butterflies have a sense of order. They like to lay their eggs on the new leaves so the newly-hatched caterpillars can munch on tender food (think of baby food!) and work their way up.

On the third day, it hatched, barely bigger than a baby's eyelash. All bristly and quite frankly, very ugly!
I'm continuously amazed by the ingenuity of Ma Nature. Here was an abandoned baby, all alone in the world (except for his six brothers and sisters on some other leaf, but they don't count... they're too busy eating!). But looking the way he does, which bird or lizard would even consider eating him?
Incidentally, that leaf is less than an inch long so you get an idea of how tiny he is.

About four days later he is much bigger but still quite yucky looking in that gross 'bird-poop' stage.Ingenious!
He can just lie there on top of the leaf, exposed to every insect-loving bird but not one can work up an appetite or the inclination to snap him up. And that, in spite of there being several birds with nests full of hungry, demanding babies close by!

A few days later and a whole lot bulkier, Common Mormon Junior suddenly decides he has had enough of disguises and hiding his true colours. So he decides to do away with his 'bird-poop' look.

Much better! Our Common Mormon has gone green with a vengeance. The old dark skin is left behind while he tries on his new avtar.
By the way, did you notice how big he has become? These older leaves are much bigger than the baby leaf he was on in that initial photo.

Hmmm .... looks like even baby (okay, teen maybe) butterflies have issues with facial hair. And hairy legs. But seriously, I had no idea!
And did you know they looked like this? I didn't!
This photo was taken immediately after he had moulted so there was a break from the non-stop chomping. He almost looks vulnerable, doesn't he?
I am fascinated by his eyes. Who knew baby butterflies have what look like a cluster of pin-point eyes?
I'm in total awe when I discover things like this.

Major house-shifting took place in the next couple of days. I woke up one day to find five of the caterpillars missing from the curry-leaf plants. I suspect the work of some sneaky mynahs which had been hanging around the last day or so. Someone should really teach them the difference between good bugs and the bad!
So that day I got a big leafy curry-leaf twig from my other garden (there's a jungle of them there so I can get as many as I want), put it in a vase of water and transferred the remaining two caterpillars indoors. Sure I had to keep adding new leafy twigs every day but it was worth it! It helped my curry leaf plant in the apartment garden recover a bit too.
Quite frankly I doubt whether I would've let them go on chomping their way to obesity if they had tried it on any of my prized plants. Curry-leaf plants are common here and easy to grow. Plus , my other garden has so many of them that I can easily replace them.
If I were to try raising any other butterfly, I think I would buy multiple host plants so I could reserve 1 or 2 just for them to munch on.

One of them still managed to disappear and I have no idea how. Maybe he fell asleep and let go of the twig and couldn't find his way back later. I think that must be it because I found the last one doing the same and looking comatose and he had to be helped back up the twig later.
Nine days later, this is what I found. He had definitely gone to sleep. Or was very close to it. He scrunched himself up accordion-like and even wove himself a safety-harness so he wouldn't fall off, I guess.
Doesn't he look like he's snoozing in a hammock?
And the eyes ... look at the eyes. They definitely look asleep, don't they?

The next day I couldn't find him. I went into full-scale panic and hunted frantically. Then I spotted him. See if you can.
No? Look closer at the lowest set of leaves on the left, he's the hanging 'leaf' closest to the twig. He'd metamorphised again!
I'm running out of synonyms for ingenious. Seriously!
One good thing, though. I don't need to keep replacing the curry leaf twigs with fresher ones. He's not going to be eating anything more. Definitely not for a long time.

A look from another angle at the Common Mormon pupa. He's still got his safety-belt on!
Don't you think there's a resemblance to Batman here? And I can definitely see what looks like the outline of his adult legs.

Then, on the ninth night after he turned himself into hammock, he started changing colour to a dark blackish-green. For a minute I thought I had killed him. Maybe I had left the air-conditioner on and it got too cold for him?
But no. Then I noticed that the space between the rings or segments at the top were widening. Sure sign that there wasn't much time left for his coming out party.
Oh great! This looked like an all-nighter but there's no way I would miss out on this.

Close to midnight, I looked again and saw what looks like his wings. Can you see it? I can even see the dots / scallops at the tip of his wings!
This is so exciting!
Every once in a while there are tiny little jumpy twitches that tell me that my butterfly is in a hurry to come out too. This is infinitely more fun than staring at a motionless chrysalis which I've been doing the last few days. But since that's all that's happening for a very long time, and maybe because I'm long past the age of sitting up all night with a baby, I take long breaks. Awake, but inspecting the chrysalis every hour to check if anything new has happened.
Absolutely nothing really noticeable except for a gradual darkening of the butterfly in the chrysalis (which has by now become almost translucent in areas near the 'Batman ears' so that I can see exactly where the head starts). This is definitely not good for an impatient person.

And then around 6 in the morning, I go to the table where the vase with the twig is kept ... and there he is! Hanging delicately from one of those by-now leafless twigs, waiting till his wings are firm enough to open and he can take his flight into the new world.
After maybe an hour or so of just hanging there and building up his strength, he is ready to flap open his wings. And later, to crawl onto my fingers.
This has to be one of the most amazing moments in my life. To hold a butterfly , or rather, to have a butterfly hug my fingers ... pure magic!

Today, I checked my curry-leaf plant again. There are 3 new baby caterpillars on it. Here we go again ... I'm loving my new role as a butterfly farmer!
Or should that be butterfly nursemaid?

I must add, if anyone is lucky enough to witness the emergence of a butterfly, please do not handle the butterfly in any way. You are likely to damage its fragile wings and leave it crippled for life.
(The second and third photos were taken from an earlier post, "A gardener's dilemma")


  1. Hey Sunita, isn't it a special feeling seeing the full life cycle of a butterfly?

    I have also helped in the birthing process when the outer shell wouldn't open. I can see the butterfly through the clear casing trying to get out and the casing won't open. I quickly got a straight pin and gently opened the casing from the bottom . The butterfly came out perfectly hung itself and dried its wings.

    It never gets old seeing the births early in the morning. Wonderful post!

  2. What a blessing for you to witness such a miracle of life.

  3. So lovely...
    I had it once, in my sleepingromm with a very simple german Butterfly, but I loved to see the Metamorphose...


  4. thank you for that lovely post - what georgous photos! I too have been following along with the process, but they have been eating my small lime and kaffir lime leaves. I cut a branch off my neighbours bigger tree, and have a chrysalis there, but have been anxiously waiting and watching. I even brought it to work one day and then thought the moving might be bad for it.

  5. Oh, how special. I would LOVE to experience this. I'm way impressed with your photos, too. Thanks for sharing!

  6. How much fun!!! Fantastic photo shots!

  7. Fantastic post and the effort to capture this entire cycle. This post can be easily used in a school to teach kids about the lifecyle of a butterfly.

  8. WoW. You are an amazing caterpillar-butterfly Mum.
    As a school kid in Panchgani, I used to pick caterpillars that had fallen from trees (have no clue how they did such acrobatic stints) and put them back on the mulberry trees where they blissfully continued their chomping.
    Apart from the miracle of seeing a butterfly emerge from its cocoon another wonder is seeing a tadpole turn into a frog.
    Thanks for posting this. It is a beautiful post.

  9. so well documented.. i remember seeing a brightly shining green pupa hanging to a karen plant as a child.. it was so beautiful, looked like a gem stone.. do you know, butterflies, because of the fantastic metamorphosis they go through, are considered symbols of rebirth?

  10. Those are lovely pictures Sunita. I too have been clicking butterflies these days but the grown up ones.

  11. you had done a brief sketch of the wonders of nature a big congrats for the great effort and my heartfelt wishes for a nice blog journey

  12. Beautiful!
    I have had a home born butterfly walk around my hands too, it truly is an amazing feeling.

  13. I am in awe as you, dear Sunita, each time I watch this miracle of the life cycle. To witness the entire transformation is a pure and serene experience. The camera lens helps us to see the fine details our own eyes can easily miss. Beautiful captures of a beautiful experience. You're a good common mormon mamma. :-)

    Have a great day,

  14. Sunita,

    Thank you for sharing those excellent shots!!!

  15. Lovely post Sunita!! Awesome pics..
    Would love to show this to the kids..they'll be excited!!!

  16. What a wonderful series! I especially like the closeup of he caterpillar's head. Years ago I used to raise the occasional butterfly or moth caterpillar. it's a fascinating process to watch but metamorphosis still kind of creeps me out.

  17. Wow! Helen, that must've been quite an experience. Caesarean butterflies ... who would've thought of it? ;D
    I think I would've been terrified whether I'd poke it in the eye and blind it or something. But I bet that butterfly was so thankful to you!

    Absolutely, Meredehuit! It gave me such a high. I dont think I'll ever forget it!

    I totally agree, Andrea. Watching it change like that is amazing.

  18. AfricanAussie, good for you! The Common Mormon lays eggs on lime trees too I think. The Blue Mormon definitely loves it!
    What fun to be sharing the same adventure!

    Thanks, Kate :)
    Maybe you could find a caterpillar of your own to adopt? Its great fun!

    Oh most definitely fun, Rohrebot! And supremely magical.

  19. I bet the kids would love seeing it at its grossest-best, Natti :)
    But seriously, it was fun, recording its story in photos.

    Lubna, I bet you would make a great butterfly-mom too! Anyone who picks up caterpillars and places them back on a tree, really has the begiinings of one, don't you think?
    Frogs are fascinating too. I've always been amazed at how a tiny little 'comma'could turn into big fat croaking wizard!

  20. That is definitely fitting, don't you think, Gauri? And in the end they look so spectacular!

    Hey, thanks Mridula. This made me wish I had taken your advice and got myself a better camera. Soon!
    And maybe, you could start clicking the baby butterflies too? There are some very interesting-looking ones out there.

    Hi Aswathi. Thanks, it really was great fun :)

  21. Absolutely amazing, isn't it, ~fer? It was a bit sad when my butterfly flew off because I thought I had no more butterfly excitement to look forward to. But now it looks like my little curry-leaf plant is in great demand among the butterflies. The best nursery in town!

    Meems, I think the Macro Zoom feature in my camera was the most over-worked feature while this butterfly saga was going on!
    And it truly is a miracle of transformation, isn't it?

  22. You're welcome, One. It definitely was great fun :)

    Thanks Priya :)
    Maybe you can go one better and get a curry leaf plant to 'grow' your own butterflies?

    I just knew you would appreciate that photo, Shady C! :D
    This was a first for me so the whole experience was amazing. The earlier ones always disappeared mid-way so it was a bit of an anti-climax.

  23. What a wonderful experience! This one makes me wish I too kept a few plants in my balcony and hope to see something as beautiful! recently, we did see a beautiful caterpillar, but were unable to identify it. After following it for a few days, we couldnt find it again! no surprise, if it was as ingenious as this one!

  24. Hi Sunita,

    My friend R who blogs at Alpha Tauri( recently introduced me to a better way of leaving comments on blogger..

    Go to this link and see if it helps..

  25. Just few days back I was reading my son the following book.

    In many ways you have played out that story :)

  26. Rarely one gets the chance to read/watch such a masterpiece post, superb.

    Emmy, Tony, Oscar and Grammy for you. Congratulations.

  27. To add to Antigonum Cajan's comment, I think you also deserve a standing ovation. Great photos, Sunita.

  28. I'd definitely recommend getting a few butterfly-magnet plants, Anu. Try growing a Lantana. Your balcony will see a lot of butterfly activity.
    Maybe your caterpillar went on a walk too. Maybe with the next one you can keep a closer watch?

    Thanks a lot, Gauri. That looks like a really useful tip. I'll try it out soon.

  29. Hey, thanks Prashanth :)
    I always did want to write a book. Maybe I should convert this post into one for the kids.

  30. Antigonum cajan, I'm so overwhelmed! Thank you.
    I would like to thank my mother and husband and children and the lady who comes to clean my house and the guy who helps cart the heavy stuff around the garden and .... ;D
    Okay, I was being flippant because I don't know how to react to compliments. But seriously, thank you so much for those lovely words :)

  31. Thank you so much, One :)
    (actually after that marathon night, all I seriously wanted was to sleep the day away)

  32. It was great to watch the birth of a butterfly with you. I love your fresh writing style.

  33. Sunita girl ! I haven't been by in ages .. i am very red faced about that .. my time is so limited while sitting here when the pain strikes I have to drop everything before I get to visit blogs like yours.
    I am so in love with this post !
    I was so sure I would finally see the completion of these stages with my little guys on the deck pot of fennel and dill but everyone of the 11 we counted disappeared ...
    You are such a fantastic foster mom to these little ones and the reward of seeing the whole cycle completed is fantastic : )
    I am so glad you took all of these pictures they have been amazing to see while reading your story !
    Thank you : )
    Joy .. I hope one day to see this little miracle happen in real life soon !

  34. Sunita, that is simply the best! what an amazing metamorphosis and you were there to help it along. It took my breathe away.

  35. Gorgeous pics - all of them and you're such a wonderful storyteller. Great post

  36. Thank you, Jennifer :)

    Don't worry about it, Joy. It happens to all of us.
    Do you now which caterpillars those were? I'm sure you'll get to see the whole cycle soon.

  37. Superb post, Sunita!
    Thanks for sharing. I have the food plants and the butterfly in my garden, but I haven't really observed the two as closely as you have. May be now, I will.

  38. Thank you, Diana. You're right, I did feel like a nursemaid at the end of it all.

    Thanks, Keats :)

    Thats definitely something worth looking forward to, Amila. I know you'll have such amazing photos for us if you do. What're you waiting for?

  39. Wow, this was just FANTASTIC! You have transmitted your excitement and awe so beautifully, Sunita. This post really made my day!

  40. Raising butterflies !How exciting ! Remembered the childhood thrill of keeping caterpillars in a chocolate box filled with leaves .....
    Brilliant pictures.

  41. Beautiful images and your words resonate with me too . . . for the excitement of being so close to one of natures true miracles. I have never see a "Common"Mormon and now feel as if I know them well. Next time you might go to bed early and get up very early, as I do not think the butterflies emerge at night. Could be wrong but I have never seen found one to do so. Outstanding Post Sunita! ;>)

  42. Thank you, Kamini :)
    It really was one truly awe-inspiring experience.

    Oh yes! Yosee, I've done that too. Except, I was so naive... I used to think that any old leaf would do and would stuff the box withtotally unsuitable leaves. Poor caterpillars! Maybe I'm making up for that now.

  43. lol! Thanks for the tip, Carol. I think next time I will definitely take your advice because I went aroud the next day feeling lighter than that butterfly because of lack of sleep!

  44. I love this post and all the amazing pictures!! I'm ecstatic every time I see a caterpiller or chrysalis in my garden. I liked the chatty way you wrote the post. It's very engaging! :0)

  45. Thank you, TS :)
    And I know exactly what you mean about seeing a chrysalis ... there's such a sense of excitement and anticipation, isn't there?

  46. you choose amazing topics and paint them beautifully with words and pictures...Thanks!

  47. Totally amazing, Sunita ~ a beautiful/educational journey ... hum, a butterfly farmer! Lucky are those to be raised in your tender loving care :)

  48. Thank you, ERR. What a lovely thing to say!

    Absolutely, Joey! That was definitely one of the best moments of my life. Totally indescribable! :)

  49. Hi Sunita, I have to add my enjoyment in reading your adventure as butterfly farmer. The photos and the whole process is amazing and I admire your stamina to keep "vigil" to watch the birth of the butterflies.

  50. Thank you, Trudi. It was an absolutely fun thing to do and worth every moment. Stamina.... I dont know about that. I did crash out for the rest of the day, though ;D

  51. Sunita, you make me smile broadly :) Your enthusiasm for the intracacies and magic of nature is purely delightful.
    Amazing that the butterfly goes from a tiny egg, to "bird poop", to handsome green caterpillar, to bat-eared pupa, and finally emerges as a beautiful winged creature. Magic indeed.
    I particularly love the first photo, but they're all wonderful.
    Thanks for sharing your experience so charmingly with us.
    I once had the privilege of watching a Black Swallowtail go through its metamorphosis. They are so vulnerable as they crawl onto your finger for that final release. It's hard to say goodbye :)

  52. Like minds, that's what we are, Kerri! :)
    You're right, such "intricacies and magic of nature" do amaze and delight me. Such small things to find pleasure in but the memories last a lifetime, don't they?
    You're right, it is sad when they fly away but there's also such a sense of accomplishment!

  53. Sunita, this is the most beautiful article on a butterfly life cycle and metamorphosis that i've encountered. The style and the plot is really the best, to say that you even inject some humor into it. The length is never long because of the suspense you very nicely wove into your prose. Oh how enticing. You are not only a good enthusiast, hobbyist, butterfly farmer, butterfly nurseryaid, researcher, gardener but a really good writer. I dont know what your profession is, but certainly you have lots of things you will do best! This article should be published in another form as reference, not only for adults but also for kids.

    We have lots of this butterfly in the province because we have different species of citrus trees. I am familiar with the stages you showed, but your style of writing made it seem so magical and i felt like knowing it for the first time. By the way, i havent seen its pupa in the nearby plants, maybe the predators eat them. When i have lots of time i can do what you did, which actually is what they do in actual butterfly farms. Thanks for the fun.

  54. Wow! That was so nice of you, Andrea. Thank you for all those lovely things that you said. Yes, you have sparked off ideas on how I can carry this forward.
    My profession? Mostly urban farmer, full-time home-maker, plus freelance writer and garden consultant. A lot of roles to fit into but I love them all.
    About the pupa, maybe you just overlooked them? They're so well camouflaged aren't they?
    And yes, do try to raise some butterflies. Its so much fun!

  55. I am speechless! You are lucky to witness this entire life cycle so closely, even aiding it. Amazing! :)

  56. It really is amazing, Bindhu! I consider myself so blessed to have experienced this :)

  57. Sunita, I have linked this wonderful post of yours to my latest post, "The life cycle of butterflies". Hope you don't mind. Cheers to the good job!

  58. That's fine, Autumn Belle. Thank you for telling me, though :)

  59. This is a wonderful post!!! We were also planning to plant some flowering plants that attract butterflies. This is really cool! And so are the other posts!!! I was wondering where you stay? How do you have so much space in an urban area to grow so many things???
    Plz reply

  60. Thanks, Aakanksha :)
    A butterfly garden is a fantastic idea! I hope you have luck with inviting a lot of butterflies to it.
    This particular post is not set in my more spacious garden but in my apartment garden, Aakanksha. So you see, you don't need a whole lot of space to get the butterflies to come visiting :)

  61. Brilliant post Sunita. There is so much I love about butterflies, but their metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly is so amazing. I have noticed that when you look carefully at a chrysalis you can see where the wings, antennae and other parts of the butterfly will form. It is all so magical. You are so lucky having such a quick turn-around of each stage. The quickest an egg will hatch in here is two weeks, and sometimes double that in cooler weather. I have two Orange Tip chrysalises in my garage that I discovered on broken stems last July. It will be April before they emerge as butterflies - 9 months!!

    1. Thank you, Nick! Yes, the metamorphosis is truly magical. Who would have guessed that a caterpillar can hide so much beauty within it.
      Waiting 9 months for a butterfly to emerge ... I'm so glad I live in the tropics! I would have been eaten up with curiosity and impatience, I think :)

    2. Well, Sunita/Nick - I have one on my Curry Leaves for last three months and still waiting to change the color from bright green to any dark shade... getting desperate for it....

    3. Hello, Anonymous. Waiting 3 months seems like a stretch in the tropics (I'm assuming that you live in the tropics). Patience! That must be a real diva in there. Or maybe its the cooler weather of winter that's to blame. In any case, I envy you your moment of discovery when you find your butterfly emerging :)

  62. From 10th Dec 2017, I have been following up a few eggs on my curry leaf plant at the balcony in South Mumbai. Today, on 7nth day, the caterpillars are a bit grown in size, but still having the bird poop look...

    1. Amazing experience, isnt it? Have you had any more butterflies growing up on your curry leaf plant?


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