The Butterfly Diaries: Yellow Swallowtail

One weekend when the children were small we took them to visit their Grandparents in Pennsylvania. There was then, and still is, a wonderful garden around the house, divided into informal ‘rooms’:  a shady hillside, a wildflower berm, a clipped box garden, areas of mowed lawn, and a raised vegetable bed. A stream runs through it, crossed by a plank bridge. There is a swimming pool, and a driveway that was just right for riding tricycles and pulling red wagons, or for washing the car with Dad.

Each garden space suggested its own entertainments. There were diving contests and a number of arcane games built around inflatable balls, foam noodles and inner tubes, and all involving  much splashing, in the swimming pool. There were Pooh stick races from the little bridge over the stream, raspberry and tomato picking in the vegetable beds, and chasing fireflies on the twilight lawn. Once upon a time there was also a sandbox, and a very special sit-on digger shovel, named Mary Anne, perfect for moving sand back and forth, and back and forth, and back again, between all the places five and six and seven-year-olds think sand ought to be moved.

The garden offered up a few new surprises on each visit: a snake living under the stone steps, a beehive in the eaves, a frog in the pond, and baby toads hopping about in the courtyard. On that summer weekend the surprize was butterflies and caterpillars. There were many elusive Yellow Swallowtail butterflies circling and  floating high up in the tree branches, and feeding on the nectar of the Butterfly Bush.

Even more fascinating were the enormous bright green caterpillars discovered feasting on the dill and fennel stalks in the vegetable bed. They were great juicy creatures with enormous heads, as round and inflated as a cartoon Michelin Man, and with yellow and black false ‘eyes’ on their backs to scare away predators. The children were entranced. They sat on their heels, hunkered down, hands on knees for hours  (it makes me hurt just to think about sitting in this position these days) watching these fat green creatures inch along the stalks with multiple prehensile feet, all the while munching their way through leaf after leaf.

Grandmommy was approached, and asked, “could they please take a caterpillar home’? Permission was granted, so we found ourselves back in New Jersey in the late summer with the questionable prize of an apple green caterpillar, secured in a fish bowl full of dill and fennel stalks and fronds. These I replenished from the grocery store  as best I could as the caterpillar digested them. We added a few sticks and dried leaves to make the fish bowl look like a natural ‘habitat’.

Sometime later that summer the caterpillar started to turn a darker color. I wasn’t sure that this was good indicator, but I continued to offer fennel fronds. The caterpillar became sluggish, and stopped eating. Either it was going to pupate, or it was going to die. I placed the fishbowl on the floor of the family room behind a chair, just in case.

One day my eldest son came to me saying, “Mommy, Mommy, the caterpillar is dying!” It was a fascinating, if gruesome, thing to watch, as the erstwhile almost laughable caterpillar began the serious business of pupating.  It had attached itself to one of the larger sticks in the bowl, and it now hung upside down, wriggling its extended body in a powerful and rhythmic manner. Its motions were somewhere between the extension and flex of a Slinky, and the struggles of a curvaceous woman wriggling out of a tight wet bathing suit. It arched its powerful head, and suddenly the back of its skin split apart, and the glossy bright mass of the pupa started to emerge. The caterpillar continued its rhythmic wriggling, forcing the skin of the caterpillar-that-was up its new body, towards the spot where its tail-like stern was still attached to the branch. It took hours for the entire process to take place. We were all exhausted by the time the chrysalis was finally still, hanging by its tail and a thin thread-like  filament, looking for all the world like one more branch or a dead leaf.

The children took the fishbowl in to school for show-and-tell, and after that we pretty much left it alone. It was pretty easy to forget about the caterpillar that had become a chrysalis that looked like wood. It didn’t do much.

Then one afternoon in the early spring – April maybe – my Eldest came to me, again in distress. “Mommy, Mommy, the chrysalis is dying!” Who knew that the lives of butterflies were built on such scenes of drama?

Again, we all rushed to observe the form suspended from the branch inside the fishbowl, almost forgotten behind the chair in the family room all fall and winter. Sure enough, the chrysalis seemed to be contorting, in a manner that looked almost painful, like a mummy trying to force its way out of its wrappings. I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch, but the children would not be torn away from the tiny spectacle.

The bark-like  chrysalis suddenly cracked, and something began to force its way out of the stiff sac. Spider-like legs came first, thin and sharply bent, strong, but wobbly as a newborn colt’s. A damp looking, slightly greyish, crumpled up creature with a fat body and spindly angular legs dragged itself forth. It was an ugly duckling of a butterfly; a weird insect. There was nothing very beautiful about it. But then it began to dry, and to expand and unfold, revealing itself to be a butterfly indeed. Darker markings appeared along the top of its wings, and black edging and stripes, enclosing patches of yellow color. It was a Yellow Swallowtail.

It took awhile for the butterfly to dry and unfold fully. At some point I realized that the butterfly would need to be released to fly away, otherwise it would just beat itself to death against the glass walls of the fishbowl. We had enjoyed observing this creature morph through the stages of its life, as our science experiment, but now it was time to release the final butterfly.

It was a sunny day outside, but cold. It was still spring after all, April, not the long, hot summer days of July or August. Thinking back, I wonder if perhaps the central heating and artificial light inside the house had disrupted the butterfly’s hatching calendar. When the children came home from school, we carried the glass fishbowl out onto the back lawn. My Eldest removed the screening that had covered the top. The butterfly fluttered upwards, and landed briefly on the lip of the fishbowl, before taking off for the sky and the trees above. The children looked up, tracking its fluttering flight across the sky towards the new leaves on the oak trees.

From out of the blue there came a bird, and, thrilled to find such a tasty morsel so early in the season, it fell upon the hapless butterfly, and carried it off. “Mommy, Mommy, the butterfly is dying!”

Another shocking butterfly lesson. “Nature, red in tooth and claw…” (In Memoriam, Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

I have found out several fascinating things about Yellow Swallowtails since that fateful day.  (Tiger Swallowtails, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Papilo glaucus Linneaus) They are not all yellow, for instance. According to a variety of sources, the males are yellow, and most lack the lovely blue markings at the base of their lower wings. The females are apparently both yellow and black, and in both cases seem to carry the distinctive blue patterning at the bottom of their wings, like so much eyeshadow.

In my own butterfly safari photographs, taken this summer in the same garden that yielded the Swallowtail caterpillar so many years ago, I note a wide variety of markings on both the Yellow and the Black Tiger Swallowtails. Perhaps a variety of species share and enjoy the ‘rooms’ of that lovely garden, or perhaps each individual butterfly has unique markings.

Sadly, Swallowtails appear to get eaten quite often, with great relish, by birds who feast on their fat bodies, and leave a wreckage of color-dusted wings behind.

It is a dramatic and violent tale, in many chapters, the ‘frivolous’ Life of a Butterfly.



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