Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bringing Up Babies

We're expecting! Lots of critter babies, that is. In the last two days, six of our painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) have emerged from their chrysalises; we're still waiting for a slow-poke to emerge. My two children and I did this same butterfly project about five years ago and it never gets old. It's fascinating to watch the scrawny black catepillars grow fat as they eat their way toward becoming pupa. We know they're about to form their cocoons when they travel to the top of the container and attach themselves by their tail end. Hanging head down, the catepillars shed their black prickly coats in the next 1-2 days. They stay in this position for about 7 to 10 more days, their bodies dark and shiny and packed tightly in the chrysalis. It's possible to see tiny spots of orange color through the chrysalis before the butterflies are ready to emerge. This photo shows a butterfly still inside its chrysalis (dark one at right) as well as empty opened cocoons.

The newly hatched butterflies are very vulnerable. Their abdomens are filled with fluid called meconium which they begin to expell soon after emerging. The sight of the red liquid dripping from their bodies can be disturbing, especially to young children who may think the butterflies are bleeding to death. According to the care sheet we received with our catepillars, the liquid is excess fluid that was not needed to fill the butterflies' wing veins.

For their first few hours, the butterflies unfurl and stretch their wings and proboscis (straw-like tongue). Then they flit around and begin feeding from a sugar water soaked cotton ball. As soon as the outdoor temperature reaches a steady 65 degrees or more, we will release the butterflies. Painted ladies are very common, preferring open meadow areas. They also like to feed from thistle plants. Life is short for the painted lady. They will reach adulthood withing 2-4 weeks, during which they will mate and lay eggs. The last time we raised painted ladies, the weather was unsettled and cooler than normal. We ended up keeping the butterflies longer than expected. Within a couple of weeks, mating was occuring and their mesh home was covered with tiny eggs.


  1. Congratulations! What a gift you are giving your children! I remember monarch caterpillars from 1st grade classrooms. one day, a circle of children watched a monarch with newly dried wings fly from the terrarium. It flitted right to the cutest freckle-faced, red-haired boy and landed on his nose. The boy stood perfectly still. How I wish I had had my camera! The cross-eyed boy watching the monarch would have been a priceless photo! Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Joyce. Glad you're enjoying the posts and adding to them with your comments. - Cecilia