Austin Butterfly Forum Members Share Tips on How to Raise Caterpillars, Rear them to Butterflies

For those of us who consider caterpillars in the kitchen a fact of life, Monday night’s Austin Butterfly Forum was a homecoming.  What a relief to find others as passionate about Lepidoptera as we are.  The meeting ran two hours.

Butterfly enthusiasts of all persuasions shared their passion and rearing tips with an audience of about 50, some of whom had driven from San Antonio.  Dan Hardy led with the question:  Why do we raise butterflies?

Unrealized nurturing instincts, fascination with the life cycle, a desire to contribute to conservation, an unadulterated love of Nature were among the reasons.  Basically, though, it’s fun and fascinating.

Monarch butterfly and Cecropia moth caterpillar share an apple tree stem

Monarch butterfly and Cecropia moth caterpillar share a stem -- photo by Ann Rogerson Weaver

Mark Lynn offered insights into raising Cecropia, Polyphemus and other moth species. Females can be kept in a brown paper bag until they lay their eggs, which can later be harvested into the amazing spikey caterpillars pictured above.  Then they morph into the largest native North American moth–some a half foot in wingspread–and make their way into the night.

Liz Cannady described her devotion to the Crimson Patch butterfly, a relatively uncelebrated species that hosts on flaming acanthus.  Cannady says these adorable flyers are less skittish than other species, allowing you to get up close for great photos.  In the caterpillar stage, they’re friendly and will crawl on your hands.

Crimson Patch Butterfly
Crimson Patch Butterfly

One of the most informative sections of the talk was a review of rearing containers.  Butterfly enthusiasts struggle with the “gear” required to coax eggs into caterpillars and ultimately butterflies.  We experiment with a variety of plastic containers, netted cages, aquariums, boxes and a favorite–Starbucks  grande clear plastic iced coffee cups.   Guess what?  There’s no right answer.  Appropriate containers depend on the lifestage and species of the creature, what works best for you, how much host plant you have available, and other variables.

The handy coffee plastic cups have a hole in the top meant for a straw, but  can serve as a makeshift “vase” to hold host plant cuttings upright, keeping them fresh for hungry caterpillars.  They’re also tall enough that a butterfly can eclose (hatch) in them, are readily available and easy-to-clean.

Even reknown Monarch butterfly expert Dr. Bill Calvert got in on the action, chiming in from the back row about a device for keeping butterfly host plants in good condition. The “turgerator,” modified from an idea first published by Roy Kendal, directs water under pressure into stems of plants held in place by a series of  pipes, corks and reducers. Caterpillars can freely change plants when foliage on a particular stem is eaten.  No clean-up is required and few sanitation problems result, since frass–the butterfly poop–falls to the ground, just as it does in Nature.

The Austin Butterfly Forum will stage an all-day Butterfly Rearing  workshop on Saturday, May 7 at Zilker Botanical Center in Austin, Texas.  The session runs 10 AM – 4 PM, costs $35, and will offer the basics of butterflying, identification, gardening, and caterpillar rearing tips, as well as a guided walk around Zilker garden.  The fee includes lunch and a set of butterfly nectar and host plants to get you started.  Only a few seats are left.  For more information, contact Jeff Taylor, 512.825.8368.

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