How to Raise Butterflies-to-Be: Rearing Caterpillars the Topic at Monday’s Austin Butterfly Forum

Ever wonder about the best way to raise caterpillars at home for fun?  I do, and experiment all the time–with mixed success.  That’s why I’m so looking forward to the Austin Butterfly Forum’s “How to Raise Caterpillars” meeting on Monday, April 25 at the Zilker Botanical Center.   The show starts at 7 PM and it’s free.

Eastern Swallowtail Caterpillar

Tips for raising Eastern Swallowtails and other caterpillars will be covered at the Austin Butterfly Forum on Monday

San Antonio butterfly lovers, I encourage you to make the drive Monday night.  The chance to learn such esoteric skills directly from passionate butterfly enthusiasts doesn’t happen that often–and it’s free.  Also, it’s a great chance to connect with your community of fellow butterfly enthusiasts.

According to organizer Dan Hardy, several Forum members,  all of whom have years of experience raising caterpillars and hatching butterflies, will lead the session.  You’ll learn:

  • Which butterfly species are best for novices
  • How to trouble shoot illness and disease
  • What kind of gear you need to get started
  • Where to find eggs and caterpillars and how to transport them, plus
  • How to watch for females laying eggs.

“We’ll talk about all the ways caterpillars get into trouble, ” says Dan, a pathologist by training, matter-of-factly. “Problem is, there’s rarely a cure!”

The Austin Butterfly Forum was founded in 1993 and is a nonprofit organization devoted to education and enlightenment about butterflies, with occasional forays into moths.  The membership includes about 50 hobbyists and butterfly gardeners.   Dan says several bonified entomologists participate as well, as do moth lovers.

Sounds like my kind of crowd. Hope to see you there.

PS.  The Austin Butterfly Forum will also hold an all-day workshop on Saturday, May 7 at the same location.  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 gets you lunch and set of plants to get started.  For more information, contact Jeff Taylor, 512.825.8368.

Gardening Good for Your Health AND for the Butterflies

Lots of action in the butterfly garden this week with Swallowtails and Monarchs depositing eggs, hatching into caterpillars and going chrysalis at their own pace, keeping butterfly gardeners and others active and entertained.

Eastern Swallowtail Caterpillar on Fennel

Eastern Swallowtail Caterpillar on Fennel

The Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar above was discovered as an egg on our dillweed last week, brought inside and has since made himself comfortable on the kitchen table with a vase full of fennel.  We found the Monarch eggs and tiny caterpillars below on the underside of our milkweed plants in a front yard that was converted from turf to beds last fall.

Monarch eggs and caterpillars on milkweed leavesWhile Swallowtail host plants of fennel, dill, rue and parsley plants are easy to secure, we’re hearing reports in San Antonio that local nurseries are lacking milkweed, although shipments are expected this week.  Austin appears to be well supplied.


Meanwhile, butterfly reports from the University of Houston listserv, an email list used by butterfly fans to exchange information and ask questions, suggest another pulse of Monarch butterflies is en route from Mexico.  Keen observer Brush Freeman reported 110 Monarchs observed in a field near Utley on Saturday, a report from Dewitt County had 180 – 200 monarchs spotted in one afternoon,  and one Mustang Island naturalist wrote that “the last couple of days have seen lots of Monarchs cruising over the park.  Until now we have seen one – two a week, but starting Thursday, I counted over 50 at different times and places so there were probably a lot more.”

That all makes a great case for getting out early and often to the butterfly garden. Venture into the yard and monitor your host plants.  When you create a welcoming environment, butterflies and their offspring will reward you with visits.

Another motivation:  a recent study by Texas A & M University finds that those who garden, enjoy better quality of life than those who don’t.

The study focused on those 65 years or older, but my guess is that gardening is good for you no matter your age.   See you outside!

Second Annual Native San Antonio Festival to Feature Butterfly Talk on Swallowtails and Monarchs

The San Antonio Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas is staging the second annual Native San Antonio Festival this Saturday, March 26 from 10 – 2 PM at the Land Heritage Institute.

Activities include tree giveaways, a native plant sale, nature and butterfly walks, hay rides, music, Longhorn steers, arts, crafts and family fun.

I’ll be joining several other speakers in a series of programs that explore our native resources.  Here’s the line-up:

11 AM–Curanderismo: Herbs for Healing, Don Jacinto Madrigal and Dr. Elizabeth Portella

Noon–Mission Reach Plants, Lee Marlowe, San Antonio River Authority

12:30 PM–Monarch and Swallowtail Butterflies and Their Plants, Monika Maeckle,

1 PM–Students Love Natives!, Dave Mathews, Environmental Sciences teacher

1:30 PM–Feral Hog Control, Matt Reidy Texas Parks and Wildlife

The event is free and open to the public.  The Land Heritage Institute is across from the Toyota Plant on the Medina River at 1349 Neal Rd., between Applewhite and Pleasanton Roads.  Hope to see you there.


Happy Spring Equinox! Monarchs en route, and the Eastern Swallowtails are Back, too

The Winter Equinox occurs this Sunday, March 20, and heralds the beginning of butterfly season.   Monarch butterflies are en route from Mexico, with first sightings reported in Texas.   Also fluttering:  gorgeous Eastern Swallowtails, often seen but seldom celebrated.

Perfect Eastern Swallowtail

I’ve written before that Monarchs get all the glory while the less lauded Eastern Swallowtail, a Texas native and almost year-round resident, is treated like a lesser step-sister.   Yet these enormous, dramatic butterflies are easy to attract to your gardens with parsley, fennel, dill and rue–herbs that are easy-to-grow and can double as edible landscape.  In fact, eggs and a first instar caterpillar were spotted on my front yard dill weed just this week.

So why are Eastern Swallowtails so underappreciated?

Those who breed Swallowtails for fun or profit bemoan their unpredictability.   They roam away from the host plant when they’re ready to form their chrysalis,

Eastern Swallowtail egg on Dill Weed

making them difficult to track and enjoy.  They are famously unpredictable in their hatching schedules, eclosing at their own pace, making them tough to breed commercially.

“Swallowtails are very delicate,”  says Dale McClung, of the Florida Butterfly Farm and a member of the International Butterfly Breeders Association. “They are very susceptible to wing damage in flight houses and will lose their tails very quickly from repeated contact with the screening,” McClung says.  He adds that the Eastern Swallowtails’ unique pupae,

Swallowtail Chrysalis

Eastern Swallowtail Chrysalis

which hang at an angle with a saddle stitch, require extra space and effort to cultivate, package and ship for educational exhibits and other exposure opportunities.

Members of the IBBA are largely responsible for raising awareness of butterflies in recent years by supplying them by the thousands to butterfly exhibits at zoos and demonstration gardens, as well as those used in celebratory releases, educational outreach and research.  Challenges raising Swallowtails surely contribute to their lesser popularity, compared to the storied, migrating Monarch, which reproduces like clockwork.

“They are beautiful butterflies. I have raised several species of Swallowtails over the years. They are extra work and expense insofar as space and plant material, so many do not bother with them for releases, but some of us do, ” says McClung.

Swallowtails’ unpredictability can be charming.   When they hatch on their own schedule–sometimes weeks or maybe months after forming their lovely chrysalis–you may come home to a pleasant surprise like the perfect specimen pictured above, which had been overwintering in my office since last October and just decided to eclose this week.

Eastern Swallowtail Caterpillar First instar

Eastern Swallowtails’ charm is also magnified by a clever protectionist tactic:  they disguise themselves as bird droppings in the first instar stage, pictured above, to evade predators. Later, they turn into chubby black-green-and-white striped eating machines often mistaken for Monarchs.

For more on Swallowtails and their host plants, visit this previous post at the Butterfly Beat.

UPDATE:  Dale McClung of Florida Butterfly Farm adds via an email:

“Swallowtails are high flyers and need a large space to roam more naturally. . . . Many swallowtails, unlike monarchs and most other butterflies, do not “land” on flowers when feeding or laying eggs, they gently hover in place while holding position with their feet. Eastern blacks will land, but also will flutter in place as well. During the daylight hours, they are, therefore, in more or less constant motion only stopping when roosting for the night in the wild.”

Eastern Swallowtails Don’t Get No Respect During the Monarch Butterfly Migration Season, But They Should

Monarch butterflies get all the attention this time of year, but we’re year-round fans of the Eastern Swallowtail, a Texas native and one of our favorite backyard visitors.

The gorgeous, broad-winged creatures are easy to raise.  And now that temperatures are falling, it’s a great time to add Swallowtail host plants to your Autumn garden.

Read more about Swallowtails at the Butterfly Beat.

The Butterfly Life Cycle in a Weekend: Eggs Harvested, Chrysalises Made, and an Eastern Swallowtail Emerges

With chrysalises galore, a Swallowtail born, and scads of Monarch and Queen eggs gathered on the Llano River, we felt we covered the whole life cycle this weekend at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. And we love that!

The Swamp Milkweed is just about to bust out into pink blossoms on the Llano–always a harbinger of the Monarch Butterfly Migration.  We expect an interesting season with all the rain we’ve had, although hesitate to predict numbers as those butterflies can be wildly whimsical.  Last year we thought we’d have a deluge, and then?  They took a turn for the Gulf Coast and we only tagged about 20.

Not to worry….the Texas Butterfly Ranch incubator is running at medium throttle with about 20 Monarch Butterfly and Queen eggs in production.  Soon they’ll spin their chrysalises and join the line-up of the beauties like the one pictured, left.  They should hatch within 10 days.

Until then, we’ll continue to enjoy the Eastern Swallowtail harvest, which delighted us this morning with the arrival of this gorgeous visitor.  

Butterflybeat: Eastern Swallowtail Season on the Wane

Seems that Swallowtail season is on the wane here at the butterfly ranch in San Antonio.  Fennel and parsley, Swallowtail host plants, are burning up in the late summer sun. Good thing we harvested a few chrysalises and secured them safely in the AC awaiting a change of season.  To tide us over until the Swallowtails are back in force,  here’s a photo of a recently born beauty with a sister chrysalis, and another of her stretching her wings before first flight.