Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Of Stripes and Wings

Our weeks of formal learning are coming to a close for this school year.  We have finished the last pages of math and are putting the art and history books back on the shelves.  Little bottoms can barely stay in their seats long enough to finish a day's lesson before hopping up to go to their rooms to play dress-up or run  outside to whoop and play. 

The free hours of summer are breathing upon us, but the learning never ceases.  We have already begun our annual caterpillar-raising project.  (Having begun so early this year, I suspect we'll be raising several batches before summer's end.)  Each year when I mention our buggy pets, I get comments from readers wishing to give it a go...next year.  I thought that maybe a quick caterpillar-raising tutorial would inspire some to join us... this year!

Before I begin, let me emphasize that I am a curl-up-with-a-good-book-watching-nature-from-inside kind of girl so if I can do this, you can, too!

This first step of the journey is finding a caterpillar.  We have had good luck finding our critters in my parents' herb garden.  Occasionally, one of the children (usually Maddie!) will find one crawling through the grass.  We have the best luck with swallowtail caterpillars, though last year we had wonderful success with a monarch, too.  When swallowtails hatch from their eggs, they are the size of a grain of rice, but we've always begun our project when they are approximately an inch long. 

Next we set up a home for our new friends.  We've used plastic insect cages and we've also used old jars.  If you choose the jar route, make sure there is plenty of ventilation.  Instead of screwing on a tight light, use a piece of thin fabric, secured with a rubber band over the opening.  Add a damp sponge to the bottom of your container for liquid nourishment.  To ensure that your caterpillar will like what you feed it, add plenty of whatever plant you originally found your caterpillar on.  (Our caterpillars are feasting on fresh parsley.)  Include a small stick in the container.  Caterpillars often perch on a stick before shedding their final skin. Keep your container outside so you maintain the temperature and humidity levels your caterpillars are used to.   Don't forget to name your new friends, too!  This year, we have Big, Tiny, and Jimmy residing on our front stoop. 

Once you have a home established, the third step is easy.  Observe, observe, observe.  A bit of maintenance is required, but much of it can be done by the children and it only takes minutes a day.  Keep the sponge damp.  Give a steady supply of food.  And dump the poop out of the bottom of the cage.  (Have the kids hold their caterpillars on a stick while you do this.)

A few things to keep in mind:
  • When a caterpillar is ready to shed its final skin and become a chrysalis, it will sit in one place for a day or more.  It is not dead!  It is simply preparing for the next step.  
  • Once the caterpillar is in its chrysalis, be especially careful when handing the container.  If the chrysalis is not suspended from it perch, the caterpillar will never emerge. 
  • After the caterpillar enters the chrysalis, it remains dormant for 10-14 days before coming out as a butterfly. 
  • Make you allow several hours for its wings to dry before releasing it to the big world. 

We would love to have other families join us in this journey.  Be sure to let me know if you plan to give it a try!


  1. sounds like a fun idea! we use my father's world curriculum and have a butterfly unit where we get to order caterpillars and 'grow' a butterfly, i can't wait to get to that unit!!

  2. Will you be starting school earlier than normal next year with the baby due in September? I think that's my plan but I'm hoping to get a better sense of my situation as it gets closer!

  3. Michelle, we are starting in August, but that is what we do every year. My husband is off every January and February so we start the school year early and then take off 1 month in the winter. Not sure how we'll work the schedule this year since I'm sure we'll take extra time off in the fall. At least we will have a good month to month-and-a-half start on the year by the time Baby arrives.

  4. Love this, my friend. You make it seem so very simple! :) We are definitely keeping our eyes open for our very first caterpillar- thank you so much for sharing this! (I've also shared a little link to this post to accompany my CBM today!)

    Blessings to you, sweet mama- hope you are feeling well!

  5. We have raised Gulf Coast Fritillary caterpillars for a few years now, but we just moved and don't have the host plant (passionflower vine) anymore. (Although we just planted a new one last month--maybe by Fall it will be big enough to support some late caterpillars!) It is really the most amazing project for little children. It's fun to see that others enjoy it, too! Here is another resource for you and your readers to try: http://www.freebutterflyeggs.com/


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