By Amita Nadkarni
Insects are all around us and dwell in our homes, gardens, and backyards. Being a nature lover I have always had a strong fondness for animals, and a tolerant side towards insects. However, this tolerance changed to fascination one sunny evening when we took my five-year-old son to our backyard, which we named the “Insect Yard.” My son is a huge fan of insects and loves spotting them wherever he goes. He becomes very happy when he spots beautifully crafted spider webs in open drains.
While we were randomly taking our evening walk, he called out to us in excitement. He had found a green, yellow, and black-striped caterpillar that was busy munching away on a milkweed plant. The caterpillar was so well camouflaged that we were quite surprised that he’d found one.
“Let’s take it home,” he said. So we did it, and carefully placed it in a fishbowl with sticks, pebbles, stones, and some leaves to match its natural surroundings. We had no idea what we were going to do with it. It felt like being parents for the second time, but to a unique and beautiful being — a caterpillar.
“Let’s name it Catty,” said my son. So now with a newly found identity, foster parents, and the comfort of a concrete home, we were hopeful that Catty would stay with us and successfully undergo the process of metamorphosis. Thanks to the new age of the Internet and the availability of knowledge at one’s fingertips, I quickly went through some websites on rearing caterpillars and got some valuable tips.
First, caterpillars only eat their host leaves. They are very particular and certain species only eat certain leaves from their “host plants.” If they do not get these leaves, they will simply die of starvation. We went for walks every evening and collected milkweed leaves and put them into Catty’s bowl. Catty munched on them all day long, and we would run every evening to our garden to collect more leaves.
Next, I learned that caterpillars molt and excrete all the time. Bringing up a cute little caterpillar is not a very easy task. It requires a lot of dedication and patience. Caterpillars shed their skins and excrete a lot. We had to clean our caterpillar’s fishbowl every day. By the evening, there would be a lot of excreta and molted skin in the base of the bowl. Not cleaning the bowl for even a day would mean a lot of filth, which would harm Catty’s health. Catty was lucky to be well looked after, with fresh leaves every day and clean surroundings.
After two days of eating, excreting, and shedding skin, Catty suddenly refused to eat. I tried feeding him three different times, but he was plainly refusing! I was a little worried. After searching for more information, I found that there comes a time when caterpillars stop eating and look for a place to transform into a pupa (also known as a chrysalis if it’s a butterfly caterpillar). I did not try to persuade Catty further, as I knew it was time for him to take another form. I left him undisturbed, and he finally settled down and stuck to the bowl.
The next morning there was a transformation! Catty appeared to be inside a beautiful, light-brown pupal case. It had a crown-like beading around the neck, and it looked like a beautiful jewel box. This new form was here to stay for at least seven days. There was no movement and the pupa stood still.
As the days passed, we could see continuous development happening inside, with color changes, the appearance of light wings, legs, and the outline of the butterfly. The grubby caterpillar was undergoing so much change, which made me realize that every creature — tiny or big — changes so much during its life!
Exactly one week passed, and there it was -– Catty had changed into a beautiful plain tiger butterfly, also known as an African monarch (Danaus chrysippus), and we could see that he was a male because of the black-and-white spots on his hind wings. He seemed tired, and was mildly flapping his wings now and then. After being in a rather stationary mode for an hour, he finally fell to the bottom of the fishbowl.
Struggling to gain balance on the slippery glass, we realized that Catty was now ready — with his wings dry — to be let out in the backyard, which was filled with flowers and milkweed plants. We put him on a plate and then slowly onto a plant. The butterfly sat very still for a few minutes, and then he flew away to the skies, far away from us but close to his natural surroundings.
“It sure is a great feeling to fly free,” he seemed to be saying, and we will cherish this moment in our hearts forever.
Amita Nadkarni lives with her husband and son in the city of Chennai in Tamil Nadu, India. She completed her master’s degree in business economics at the University of Madras and now works as a freelancer.