SPICEBUSH SWALLOWTAILS: By Pat Schuler, the Butterfly Lady

     While looking through my photo gallery the other day, I ran across this picture of a Spicebush Swallowtail nectaring from some of the beautiful butterfly weed that grows in my butterfly garden. I had already posted a few pictures of the caterpillars that mature into this lovely butterfly, but had somehow not gotten around to writing about my experience with these last year. Now that I have those little caterpillars, as chrysalides, tucked into the refrigerator for the winter, I'll give a brief summary of last summer's spiceush swallowtail raising.


     Last summer was not a good one for butterfly sightings. Inclement weather during the breeding season, plus the steadily shrinking habitat, resulted in few butterflies other than the ever present "cabbage whites", skippers, and small yellow "sulphurs". In particular, there were not many of the big swallowtails. Interestingly, though I only counted one spicebush swallowtail in my garden, I found five tiny spicebush caterpillars on the little spicebush (Lindera benzoin) a kind neighbor had just given me ! As a result of this combination gift, i.e., the plant and the eggs left by the butterfly, I now have photos, memories, and the five chrysalides destined to be released this coming summer.

    The five tiny caterpillars had protected themselves from possible predators fairly well by cutting and folding tents , sealed with silk, in the leaves of their host spicebush plant . However, that one small plant could not have provided enough food for their entire time as caterpillars. As a result, I turned to a nearby nature center and obtained permission to cut foliage every few days to feed my little brood. That, of course, required moving the group to a screened aquarium and setting up a system to allow keeping the leaves fresh for at least a few days at a time. With this care, the caterpillars progressed through their five instars (the time between molts) to the final molt to become chrysalides. Here I've added a photo that shows the interesting color changes they went through as they matured, from brown through green, to orange, to chrysalis.

One extra benefit that came from my experiences with raising these little guys was my introduction to the very helpful staff at the Claytor Nature Study Center, who gladly helped me to obtain leaves that Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars will eat. My small plant could not have provided enough food, but the Claytor Center has many large spicebush plants, which the staff helped me identify, and let me collect as needed. This nature study center is owned by Lynchburg College, and provides learning opportunities for schools and individuals throughout this part of Virginia.For more information about this center, click on the following link: http://lynchburg.edu/claytor

     We are seeing sgns of Spring all around us now, in spite of the beautiful snow of last week.. Spring seems always to be a "fickle" season, luring us on with early blossoms and warm days, then shattering our hopes with icy nights and frozen windshields. When the warm weather does finally arrive, though, it will be time to move all my cocoons and pupae into appropriate "emerging cages" to complete the final stage in that metamorphosis that never fails to amaze me. Then caterpillar bodies are turned into beautiful winged creatures that take flight in search of mates to start the whole cycle over again, fulfilling God's purposes in filling the world with beauty even while providing food for songbird nestlings.