Carrots or Caterpillars?

My favorite thing about gardening is sometimes you get visitors. It’s not my partner’s favorite thing. She’s still put out, I think, that I didn’t save her carrots. But I was too busy taking pictures.

The problem is a basic difference in gardening philosophy. B is trying to grow food which I think is fun and amazing, but even more fun to me is attracting wildlife. Sometimes those goals aren’t at cross purposes. If you’re talking pollinators, for instance, flowering veggies and herbs are quite handy. They benefit from the visitation of various bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and I get photo ops. But most critters see only two uses for greenery – to lay eggs on, like the mother of all my lovely caterpillars did, or to eat. And if you’re growing food, you don’t want something eating it before you do – I get that. But look:

Aren’t they lovely? Before I tell you what they turn into, let me start at the beginning. Caterpillars are eating machines. Their only purpose is to eat as much as possible in order to fuel the changes to come. All these lovelies, started as eggs which hatched into something like this:

As they grow, caterpillars shed their skin several times. Each of these stages is called an instar and they can look quite different at different instars. This one is the second instar, I think. The first would have been even smaller and looked a lot like bird poo.

This is the maybe the third instar. It’s getting bigger, the color is changing but the knobby things are still present.

Eventually, we get to the fat, happy stage – the last instar before it’s ready enter the chrysalis stage. Most of mine were getting very close to this point.

In the meantime, I got to watch them completely denude B’s carrots of all leafiness.

And I learned that if you poke one, this orange organ will appear. It’s called an osmeterium and it emits a foul smell to discourage predators. How’s that for a superpower?

So for the last two days I’ve been hovering about my caterpillars waiting for one of them to move on to the next stage. This morning I went out and counted. Nine of fattest caterpillars had disappeared! I searched and searched, and found this:

The chrysalis. The last stage. I only found one. Where the other fat little larva went is a mystery. I scoured the garden and surrounding area. I’m afraid that perhaps their foul smelling superpower wasn’t enough to save them from hungry birds, though I prefer to believe that they are just particularly adept at finding a hidden spot to anchor themselves with silk and split their skin that last time to become a chrysalis.

The fun part is what happens inside the chrysalis. The body of the caterpillar will basically liquify and rebuild itself. And in 8 to 12 days a butterfly will emerge. So are you ready to see what kind?

A black swallowtail. (This one is a male.) Maybe my lonely little chrysalis will release a female. And  after it mates, maybe it will find a garden like mine with some dill or parsley or fennel or carrots to lay its eggs on and the whole process will start again.

Leave a comment


  1. Paul J. Stam

     /  September 9, 2012

    Great piece. Loved the copy and pics. I’ve seen the process take place, but I didn’t know the name for the stages.

  2. cage3

     /  September 9, 2012

    Wonderful piece. I share your dilemma of beauty and wonder.

  3. Sherrie stringer

     /  September 9, 2012

    Wonderful Tori! I have always wanted to watch the stages too. Can’t wait to see your butterfly.

  4. Lovely images! And the stages… I would have done the same, heh (taken the pics at the risk of the carrots). 🙂

  5. A lovely post. And what gorgeous little critters!

  6. Beautiful photos. I still have an aversion to catepillers, but I do like the outcome.

  7. Cool! Beautiful pictures and I learned something, too. Next time I see one I’ll poke it and then I can tell my kids in a teacherly voice that that orange thing is an osmeterium. Right, like I’m going to remember that…

  8. Delightful post! Stunning pics! Very well done and I learned something. I think you need to have a separate garden just for these creatures!
    If you don’t mind me asking, what kind of camera and lens do you use? Your close-up photos are so sharp and the colors are incredible!

  9. So cool, and highly informative!
    I can dig a stinky superpower. I’d call myself The Pooter.

  10. So cool. When my son was young, we got him a Butterfly Garden and watched the whole process. Then he got to release the butterflies (monarchs). The look in his eyes was wonderful.

  11. Beautiful pictures!

  12. Very cool! My osmeterium, though clothed and covered, works similarly well. Don’t poke me!

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