by Jeff Killingsworth

orange and black butterfly on green plant with tiny white egg.

As time goes by we are building a large picture collection of butterflies in all their many life phases.  We get these pictures not because we sit in silence for hours waiting patiently for butterflies to land near us and lay eggs.  Quite the contrary, as our plant-tending activities usually scare off any insects that might be on or near the plants we are trimming, potting up, or otherwise babying.  The reason we see and photograph so many of these caterpillars and butterflies is because we are growing the host plants on which these caterpillars feed.

The picture above was taken last year by Pandra.  It's an adult female American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) laying eggs (ovipositing) on a Pussytoe leaf (Antennaria sp.).

Antennaria plantaginifolia Plantainleaf Pussytoes spreads densely as a low growing groundcover. It blooms tightly clustered cream white flowers in Spring.
The Painted Lady caterpillar, Vanessa virginiensis, on a Plantainleaf Pussytoes, Antennaria plantaginifolia, is now mature enough to enter the chrysalis or pupa stage.

Two of them were in our pots of Antennaria plantaginifolia in the greenhouse this past week.  They seemed to be eating just the leafy green parts and leaving the fuzzy hairs that coat the back of the leaf alone.  The color patterns of caterpillars are endlessly fascinating to me.  They often change throughout the life cycle of the caterpillar as it grows and sheds successive skins. This one has probably already molted 4 or 5 times to get this large.  The next stage after the caterpillar has grown as large as possible is the chrysalis or pupa stage.

Painted Lady Caterpillar curls up and begins to enter Chrysalis, or its pupa stage, on a stalk of Symphyotrichium, or Aster.

The other caterpillar that had been feeding on these plants reached this stage just before we noticed them. It had headed up the stalk of a nearby aster and proceeded to pupate. You can already see the changes in color and form happening.

An American Lady Butterfly pupates within a chrysalis disguised as a leaf along the stalk of an Aster (Symphyotrichum sp.)

This was about 24 hours later. Completely different (but still gorgeous) coloration, and now the changes are hidden by the newly formed chrysalis. I really hope that I'm at the farm when this one hatches (7-10 days later) and I can get some good pictures of it emerging. There's hundreds of flowers blooming mere feet away, so it will have plenty of food when it wakes up!

Vanessa virginiensis

So, if you want to see similar miracles occur in your yard or garden:
1) Avoid pesticide use at all costs. Butterflies, especially their caterpillars, are the "good guys" that get wiped out when pesticides are applied to control other insects.

2) Plant some (native!) host plants.

3) Plant a variety of flowering plants that will provide nectar throughout the season so that whenever a butterfly does emerge there is food right there for it, and it will stay in your yard.


Onward and Upward!

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