18 June 2012
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
I found several eggs on leaves of borage plants in our garden and didn't know what butterfly had laid them. Borage is a common weed, and is used by a wide variety of butterflies as a food plant for their caterpillars. I kept the leaves in a jar, and after a while some small black caterpillars emerged. began eating voraciously, and grew much larger.
They look ferocious, but were no problem to raise except for their copious, wet, messy frass that required frequent cleaning and changing of the container (other caterpillars, like the Polyphemus silkmoth ones, excrete dry little pellets that resemble pepper grains and are easy to clean up after).
When they were full size, the caterpillars climbed to the lid on the jar, hung in a "J" shape, and proceeded to undergo that remarkable metamorphosis that is endlessly fascinating to me - the formation of a chyrsalis.
I didn't know how long the conversion to a butterfly would take. With Monarchs, it's easy to tell by looking at the outside of the chrysalis when the butterfly is ready inside; with these it was more difficult. But all one has to do is wait...
... and voila! One morning, there she is, wings hanging down. By the time I found her she had pumped the fluid into the wings, which were fully inflated but not yet dried. She was docile and not ready to fly, so she readily transferred to my finger for a portrait:
The pattern is quite beautiful and intricate close-up (much harder to appreciate in the field when she tends to be a blur of activity, but easier here where you can enlarge the image with a click). She is closely related to the American Lady (whose life-cycle I documented two summers ago) and looks rather similar top-side, but on the underwings this Painted Lady has four eyespots on the hindwing, while the American Lady has two larger ones.
Painted Ladies are very common in the United States, and with Monarchs are probably the two butterflies most often raised in classrooms by small children. Kits are available from Carolina Biological Supply and other sources; these contain food in the form of a sort of agar, which is all the caterpillars need for nutrition, so you don't have to scour the wilds of your neighborhood looking for food plants. Raising them is a pleasant diversion for small children. And for some adults.