One September Morning

I met a traveler on the path.

My appearance did not please him. He seemed suspicious.

He demonstrated his steely gaze. I told him he was cute.

I followed a fluttering and it hid behind a flower. Look. The petal has antennae.

With most of the color drained away, it looks like this. Which do you like better?

I found this one hiding in the flowers.

There’s a second insect hiding in this image. Can you find it?

To be continued…

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.

Chasing Summer

Ever since I first picked up a camera when I was 12 or so, I’ve displayed a tendency to chase pretty bugs with wings trying to still an instant so I could get a closer look. I wasn’t very good at it when I was 12, and I’m not really great at it now, but I have 2 things going for me that I didn’t have then – a compulsive persistence honed by decades of practice (or neuroses management, your call) and a digital camera with a zoom lens.

Now I can take dozens of images of a given butterfly without necessarily having to put myself within arm’s reach – a distinct advantage when you’re dealing with an insect whose spastic, high-speed flight path contains nothing akin to a straight line and can often swoop on a whim over the trees and out of your reach forever.  It also helps that I am finally learning something about butterfly behavior, so I can catch them in relative stillness while they’re feeding, sunning or puddling. But still, the skittish little suckers are fast and erratic and will often fling themselves out of my frame at the last second. So sometimes my butterfly hunts are reduced to photos of things that move much more slowly – like wildflowers.

Next to tropical fish and seashells and the feathers of peacocks, I always thought a butterfly’s wings are one of the most brilliant canvases nature has come up with – all of summer painted on a scaled wing, more exotic than the flowers they feed on. Once I started hunting, it was all about collecting (because that’s the nature of my particular compulsion), so I’m always chasing something I’ve never seen or caught (or a better shot of one I have).

Here are a few of my favorites.

Tiger Swallowtail

Black Swallowtails

Common Buckeye

Monarch

Monarch

Tiger

Gulf Fritillary

Long-tailed Skipper

When I’m not quick enough

Black female tiger swallowtail.

Red-spotted Purple and a Viceroy.

 

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