The Butterfly Diaries

We have been growing butterflies, Cairns Birdwings to be exact, and our second generation of butterflies has started to hatch. So far, two of the four have emerged and taken flight, the other two are still hanging in the tree. By the looks of their chrysalides, we expect tomorrow will be their day.

We check on our charges daily and because of this, I’ve managed to document the lifecycle of our butterflies quite closely. Admittedly, I haven’t looked very hard but there seems to be little detailed information about this on the internet, apart from this blog by Malcolm Tattersall which has been my main source of information and moral support during the stressful process of keeping enough leaves up to the insatiable caterpillars.

Here is my timeline:

31 December

By a stroke of luck, we were standing by the vine discussing it’s regrowth (or lack thereof) since our last caterpillars turned when the huge female from that clutch fluttered in and laid two eggs right in front of us. We were stunned, to say the least, the timing was amazing. Apart from being a cool thing to witness it also gave us an exact date that at least those two eggs were laid.

7 January

We made a mad dash to the nursery to buy more native dutchman’s pipe vines as we had counted at least 10 tiny caterpillars and had around the same amount of leaves that had sustained two in the previous clutch. Panic stations! We narrowly avoided a disaster by NOT purchasing a new vine that came complete with its own caterpillars.

At the nursery – this plant did not come home with us.

8 January

I put a call out on Facebook to anyone who had vines who would be willing to re-home some caterpillars. We managed to get rid of five caterpillars and felt like we could manage the remaining four (except we missed a few in our census and we actually had six).

21 January

Our caterpillars are fat, velvety eating machines. They are around 10cm in length at this point and are so big and voracious that you can actually hear them munching through the leaves. I’m a bit in love. There are five of them in total, one having disappeared sometime in the last couple of weeks.

25 January

In case you don’t know, caterpillars sleep. I don’t know why this surprised me, but it did. They eat continuously all day till around sunset, then go high in the tree, find a nice quiet spot on a branch or leaf and go to sleep for the night. On this day, though, we noticed our little charges did not come down from their sleeping spots and suspected they might be about to pupate. They had all found a nice leaf to hang vertically, which is not how they had usually slept, and all bar one had it’s head up. I’d read up on their preparation for metamorphosis and looked for the silk slings that hold them in place. Sure enough, there they were, hanging like little abseilers ready for their big sleep.

26 January

The biggest of the caterpillars became a chrysalis overnight. Amazing. Apparently, they shed their caterpillar skin and the chrysalis is underneath. The other four are still very much caterpillars. One of them didn’t get their preparation right and its leaf fell off the tree. We found it on the ground and moved it into an orchid to give it an upright position like the others had. Unfortunately, it was attacked by ants and never recovered. It was the only one of the five that had been head down. I guess Darwin would have made a comment on natural selection there. Vale Number Five.

Fresh chrysalis, less than 24 hours old

18 February

It’s been a lot of nothing since 26 January. It had been an incredibly hot week and we discussed whether they would hatch at all as we thought it possible they might not have coped. One is quite black and we mused the prospect that this meant it had died.

19 February

Silly us. The first of the butterflies hatched; the one that had turned black the day before. That was (now obviously) the wings showing through as it’s a large female. Interestingly, it’s not the one that was first to transform into a chrysalis. She hung on her leaf for several hours while her wings dried before flying off.

Brand new and still drying her wings

20 February

The second butterfly emerged today and the remaining two chrysalides are both black. Today’s butterfly was again a female – they are black, the males are bright green – so we are at once excited and slightly anxious about having two new egg-layers in the area. How are we possibly going to feed all the new caterpillars? We only had one female’s offspring to contend with last time. I’m sure tomorrow will tell but I certainly have my fingers crossed for two males. I’ll update once they out, which hopefully we will be able to witness.


4 responses to “The Butterfly Diaries”

  1. Thanks for your wonderful pictures and details. You answered my questions that yesterday I had asked Malcolm, who gave me your site. I thought that my vine is in a similar position as yours which is climbing through a rain tree and the caterpillars seem to pupate on the basket fern, orchid leaf, fig leaf and even orange vine, which are all very handy for them and lucky for us as I have heard they often travel some distance to pupate. I am in Kuranda, is there a group of people in the area, who do pass information around regarding the butterflies. I just missed a male emerging this morning but see another chrysalis with black markings, so will be keeping an eye on that.

    Once again ,thank you


    • Hi Mo, I’m glad the post was useful to you! I’m not aware of any butterfly-oriented groups, have you searched for a Facebook group? Maybe you could start one of your own. It’s disappointing to miss them emerging isn’t it? We’ve been so lucky with this batch that they made their chrysalides where we could see them. The first batch hid themselves away and we saw nothing. I’ll do an update post tonight after work with some new photos of the males.

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