Monday, April 30, 2012

Butterfly Farm

A friend from church raised butterflies last year as part of her home school curriculum. This year we and two other families decided to join in the butterfly farm fun. Six tiny caterpillars arrived in a six-ounce plastic cup with food on the bottom and tissue on the top. The girls enjoyed watching the little creepy crawlers who lived on the kitchen counter. I did first.
Then they grew. They grew so much they pooped all over the bottom of the cup, and sloughed their skins off, and crawled all over each other for lack of space. Then they grew some more. We were supposed to leave them in there until they all turned into chrysalises on the tissue paper at the top, then tape the paper to the top of a butterfly habitat. Finally one chrysalized and we all cheered, but later that day it fell to the bottom of the cup. I checked the instructions, which told me to tape it to the top of the cup. It stunk in there and five other hungry caterpillars were threatening to ingest my fingers, so I figured I'd wait until the others had chrysalized before rescuing the first one.

The next morning another caterpillar had chrysalized and the fallen hero had mysteriously disappeared. Three more caterpillars quickly joined their frozen friend on the tissue paper and we were left waiting for one last, fat caterpillar to give up the feeding frenzy before I could throw away the dropping-laden cup and move them to their new, happy home. But I
didn't know he intended to enact an R-rated version of Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar. This guy was hungry. He proceeded to eat all of the sloughed-off skins, but he was still hungry. I watched in horror as he gnawed at the little string attaching one of his brothers to the tissue. The little chrysalis plopped to the bottom of the cup, but he was still hungry. For the next three days we watched as he devoured every bit of his brother, but he was still hungry. He gnawed at the string of another chrysalis, and it too plopped to the bottom of the cup.

On Sunday my friend assured me that caterpillars are not carniverous, and I assured her that our mutant friend most definitely was. She thought maybe I should remove him before he ate any more siblings. I told her there was no way I was opening the lid on that cup: better them than me falling to the jaws of the mutant larvae. One week after his siblings, he finally felt full and chrysalized. The second chyrsalis that he had dropped was still laying on the bottom of the cup, apparently not yet nibbled on. I felt relieved, four out of six isn't too bad.

We made a little butterfly habitat from a diaper box and some clear plastic with pin-holes in it. I dug up a dandelion and planted it in a cup in the box. Naomi created a fake branch for them from construction paper. I misted the box to keep it humid and prepared a sugar water solution for the butterflies to drink from a fake flower when they emerged. We taped the chrysalises to the top, including the fallen one, and it wiggled in protest as I strapped it down with a thin strip of scotch tape, so I knew it was still alive. Then we waited. Actually we totally forgot about them for a week. We are busy around here, you know.

One day my eye fell on the diaper-box habitat in the corner and my heart skipped a beat. Oops! I wondered if any of the butterflies had emerged yet so I snuck over and peeked in the plastic. Three painted lady butterflies were happily fluttering from the dandelion to Naomi's fake branch and over to the fake flower where they sipped sweet nectar. Phew! The girls were elated. Mr. Hungry was still in his chrysalis, and I thought it might be better that way. I contemplated letting the first three go outside before Jaws emerged hungrier than ever,  but the weather took a turn towards cold and rainy and I figured they'd have a better chance of survival inside.

Eventually even Jaws emerged, healthy and apparently less rabid. The girls named the butterflies, even though they couldn't tell them apart. They were named Bella, Claira, Lizzy, and Naughty. One evening I told the girls that we would need to let the butterflies go soon. Naomi and Emma agreed, but Hannah burst into tears. "No, Mommy!" she sobbed, " I love them!"

"Hannah, honey, they can't keep living in a box," I reasoned. "The dandelions have died, and they're not happy in there. If you love them, you'll want them to be happy."

"But I'll miss them too much!" she wailed. Matt tucked her into bed that night and he came up with a plan to take pictures and videos of the butterflies before releasing them. She reluctantly agreed.

The next day Hannah teared up again at the thought of letting her friends fly free, but the weather was so cold, with temps near freezing at night, that I conceded to keeping them a few days longer.

This morning the sun shone after a light rain, the temperatures were warming into the 70's, and Hannah had made peace with good-bye. "Let's let them go now," she urged me. "I don't want them to die."

 It was time. So we gathered on the front porch and opened the plastic cover on the habitat. In a few seconds one was fluttering around wildly. He finally found the opening and flew up and over the house in a flash. I caught a little of it in the video below:

The other three butterflies were stunned and still at first. I lifted each of them out with a stick and set them on the ground. Within a minute or so two of the butterflies stretched their wings and flew across the field toward the apple orhcard. The fourth butterfly took his time. We carried him on a maple seed helicopter and set him in the grass. We brought him a dandelion and watched him uncurl his proboscis for a good, long drink. Finally, he too took to the air, and our butterfly friends were gone, but it was a happy ending. Hannah's eyes glowed with fulfillment. "They really do like it out here," she sighed, "It's like the biggest world they've ever seen!"

It was certainly a happier ending than I had imagined two weeks earlier.

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