Blog: A Caterpillar Grows Up

June 11, 2009

Cynthia's first day at OFA, 5/16/08

Credit: Heidi Stonehill
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A new baby was delivered today. She has cream-colored skin and a black head. She's only about 1/4 inch long. Her name is Cynthia, and she's a painted lady butterfly larva, or caterpillar.

Her scientific name is Cynthia cardui, also known as Vanessa cardui.

Painted lady butterflies are found throughout much of North America. The larvae and adults like thistles, members of the aster family, and many other plants. They often are seen in meadows and other open areas.

We ordered Cynthia from a place that raises butterflies. (At least, we think it's a she—we're not sure.) You can order online butterfly kits containing caterpillars, or sometimes you can get a kit at a nature store that includes instructions as to where to send away for the actual caterpillar.

Cynthia came in a vial that contains all the food that she needs as a caterpillar. During this time, she'll go through several molts, growing larger and larger. After a few weeks, she'll turn into a chrysalis, or pupa. She'll remain in that stage for a week or two, and then hatch into an adult butterfly.

At chrysalis stage, we are to transfer Cynthia to the larger container provided, so that when she hatches, she'll have plenty of room to move about. Both the vial and larger container are not airtight, so Cynthia can breathe easily.

There is a cotton ball provided if we want to feed her as an adult butterfly. We're told that she will enjoy a solution of 1 part sugar or honey mixed with 10 parts water; we are to soak the cotton ball in this mixture and let her sip to her heart's content.

Once Cynthia becomes an adult, we will release her into The Old Farmer's Almanac garden.

Over the next few weeks, we'll update you on how Cynthia is doing, including photos.

Welcome to your new home, Cynthia!

5/16/08 10:30 a.m.—Baby Cynthia is enjoying a snack at the bottom of the vial.

5/19/08 10:05 a.m.—Baby Cynthia is growing! She is now about 3/8" long, and has turned from cream-colored to dark brown, with black spines along her back. She has set up some webbing in the vial and is cradled in it.

5/21/08 9:05 a.m.—Cynthia is no longer a baby! She is 3/4" long and much thicker around the middle. She still is cradled in webbing and enjoying her meals in the vial.

5/23/08 2:30 p.m.—Cynthia is now 7/8" long. She likes to hang out upside down at the top of the vial.

5/27/08 2:35 p.m.—Cynthia is stretched out on the lid of the vial.

5/28/08 9:50 a.m.—Cynthia has taken a giant step—she is a chrysalis! She is a medium brown color, with part of the chrysalis resembling the spines and orange spots she had as a caterpillar. She is attached to the lid of the vial. It will be a week or two before she hatches as a butterfly. Congratulations, Cynthia!

5/29/08 3:05 p.m.—Cynthia the chrysalis has changed color slightly. She is now a lighter brown color and her spines have almost a metallic gold sheen to them. Cynthia is quite the fashionable dresser!

6/2/08 1:15 p.m.—Cynthia the chrysalis is now in her new, larger home in preparation for her emergence as a butterfly. She's still dressed up in her bright gold dots.

6/5/08 9:00 a.m.—Cynthia is a beautiful butterfly! We will release her into the garden this afternoon (the fog should have disappeared by then). Cynthia is fairly motionless, although she does flap her wings back and forth occasionally. There was a bit of pinkish liquid at the bottom of the container, which we are told is normal. The empty chrysalis case is still attached to the lid. Cynthia was given a cotton ball soaked in 1 part sugar mixed with 10 parts water to feed on, but so far, she is content to just relax (We still don't know if Cynthia's a she, although we've read that the females have thicker abdomens than the males).

Her wings are folded upright, so we can only see the undersides, which are a beautiful pattern of brown, white, and black patches and dots, with a few pale blue spots and diamonds, and a hint of red. Her antennae have little balls at the ends. Her body is a pale beige. Her head is fuzzy, with dark brown on top and white underneath. Welcome to your first day as an adult, Cynthia!

6/5/08 12:35 p.m.—Cynthia was released into the OFA garden, accompanied by friends to cheer her on. She was hesitant about her first steps onto a chive flower, but then seemed content. We left her there to contemplate her new world. We wish her well. Thank you for joining us as we watched her grow into a pretty, young butterfly.

I hold you at last in my hand,
Exquisite child of the air,
Can I ever understand
How you grew to be so fair?
–Alice Freeman Palmer, American educator (1855–1902)

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