The Phoenix Reporter and Item (http://www.phoenixvillenews.com)

FROM THE GROUND UP: Mystery caterpillar reveals nature’s intricacies

Natural world reveals its many intricacies

By Pamela Baxter

Thursday, November 2, 2017

I’ve been on the planet for more than six decades and out and about in nature for much of that time. While I’m still often awe-inspired by a new place or plant I come across, I’m rarely surprised anymore. But I’ve been surprised twice in just the past two days.

First, Facebook reminded me of a post I made several years ago on Oct. 30. It was of beautiful patterns of frost on the glass moonroof panel on my car. The first frost date in our area is Oct. 15 and I can’t remember any year when we didn’t get frost by the end of the month. This year, we’re still waiting. Second, I opened my front door this morning and discovered several butterfly larvae on the rue plant that crowds the walkway. Beautiful! But isn’t this too late in the season?

Now I’m faced with a dilemma. A no-show on Jack Frost? That’s something I have no control over. Creatures lulled into a false sense of the seasons by a prolonged summer? I can do something about that. I have two butterfly habitats and last spring successfully saw a Black Swallowtail caterpillar through pupating to flying off as a mature butterfly. The question is, should I?

Before deciding, I wanted to know what kind of caterpillars these are. That might lead me to specifics about what this species needs and whether I’d be interfering unnecessarily. Nothing easier than to search for “caterpillar black with yellow spots.” Searching for information would also give me time to think.

My “easy” search turned up nothing. So, what were these mystery larva? They bore a resemblance to the Black Swallowtail larvae I’ve seen many times before, on that same plant. But the other larvae had distinct, horizontal, lime-green bands circling the body from head-end to tail-end. The larvae I discovered today are solid, almost velvety black. They do have the yellow dots I’ve noticed on the Black Swallowtail larvae.

In the absence of any other possible identification, I’ve theorized that these are “late-season” Black Swallowtail larvae. Maybe the difference in coloration and markings is due to the change in the intensity and duration of daylight hours. Maybe the darker color helps the larvae blend in better to the autumn landscape.

I still have to decide whether I will “rescue” the larvae, wait for them to go into the pupa stage, and put them in the garage until the weather warms up again in the spring. Will they be fine, or even better off on their own? Do I want the responsibility of figuring out when it’s time to release them from captivity, so that the emerging butterflies can fly free?

Thank goodness for the internet and for all the people who post articles about real-life experiences. When I dug further for information, I came across an article in www.ourhabitatgarden.org by a woman named Janet Allen, who had taken in several Black Swallowtail larvae late in the season. (http://bit.ly/2z1Z19u)

Allen noted that, “The first year we raised black swallowtails, we collected a second batch of eggs after the first batch was successfully released. After they became pupae, though, we waited and waited for them to emerge as butterflies. After a few weeks, we knew something was wrong since there was no change. We did some research and discovered that the last generation overwinters as pupae!” This gives me some confidence; a blueprint to follow.

In the grand scheme of things — or even in the lesser scheme of things — does it matter whether or not I try and rescue these apparently insignificant, tiny creatures? No. As it is, predation and climate mean that many creatures won’t survive. But taking notice of “insignificant” things and considering what to do (whether or not I decide to take action), changes something in me; changes how I consider the whole natural world that we are all a part of; changes how I consider myself.

Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to pamelacbaxter@gmail.com, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442. Share your gardening stories on Facebook at “Chester County Roots.” And check out Pam’s new book for children and families: Big Life Lessons from Nature’s Little Secrets. Available at amazon.com.