If you’ve been following me on Facebook or Instagram, you’ll know that I just love taking care of swallowtail caterpillars. Last year, I found one in my garden and recalled and experience that I’d had when I was in college.
Somewhere in the early 2000s, I was shopping at the Dane County Farmers Market when I found a parsley plant that had a huge caterpillar on it, munching away. I was afraid the farmer would kill him, seeing as he was so carelessly destroying stock, so I bought the plant and whisked him off home. On the advice of my then boyfriend, I put him in a little tank and watched him wander. Then I thought perhaps he needs a stick! Yes, I got him a stick and he immediately attached himself like a little electrician on a pole. Overnight, he became a chrysalis, and one morning I awoke to find a beautiful swallowtail butterfly. I released him in the Arboretum. I recall that he flew around me once, twice, and then went off into the sky. It was a beautiful day, and I felt like I’d done something to make the earth a more magical place. His name was Berfert.
Cut to 2019, and there I am in my Chicago garden peering into the myriad of things that are growing. And there, on the dill, I find a big caterpillar. I recalled how lovely of an experience it was near 20 years prior and decided to give him a safe place to make his way to adulthood. And then I found another. And another. And soon, I was running a caterpillar farm. By October, I had 10 in chrysalis who decided to overwinter on my porch. I kept them clean and dry and safe, and this spring, I have had eight of them emerge. Two are still sleeping, potentially forever, but I still have some hope.
This year, I prepared. I planted a HUGE garden full of dill and parsley, their favorites. They can also eat fennel, cilantro, Queen Anne’s Lace, and I’ve heard carrot, which is very closely related to Queen Anne’s Lace. As I released my butterflies – only six; it turns out if the hatching tank is too close the ground, ants will attack and kill the butterflies before they even have a chance,- I hoped they’d find the dill. And they did! And thus my journey started anew, however, on a much grander scale.
I decided to invest in a butterfly tent this season. I’m presently up to about 35 of the little guys in various stages of life, and this morning I released Beef, the oldest and first born of the bunch. Beef never feared me, even as a caterpillar, and I find that these days, most of them don’t. What was lovely about Beef was that he very willingly crawled up onto my hand before I let him go, and then stayed with me for awhile. My boyfriend approached too quickly and scared Beef, who jumped from my hands onto my heart. He stayed for 16 minutes before I encouraged him to fly, and when he finally fluttered off into the blue sky from the top of a tall apple tree, I cried. I was nervous for him, afraid of birds, but also, it was amazing to watch my little friend go free.
I have so much caterpillar content that I decided, at the encouragement of the people who seem to appreciate it, to put it on Instagram. You can find it at @SassyFrassCaters. Frass is the word for caterpillar poop. Aren’t I just clever?