I started loving nature as a child. A precocious toddler, I learned to read at an early age. Soon my parents couldn’t keep me supplied with reading material. They turned to the encyclopedia, and then I started reading A for Ants, B for Bees, all the way to Z for Zebra. Animals fascinated me.
Born and educated in East Texas (Beaumont and Houston), the semi-tropical weather and frequent rains made for lush surroundings. We had drainage ditches where I fished for crawdads. Trips to the country meant fishing for perch and bass. And high school biology brought the insect collection project. A group of friends spent the evening at a shopping mall near the woods and found everything from Luna moths (my favorite moth) to large beetles attracted to the lights. But neighborhood butterflies really caught my attention.
Then came serious studying at college followed by 40+ years in Information Technology. The last 20 years were spent In Fairfax County, Virginia, with four real seasons. The neighborhood wildlife entertained me: deer and foxes came right by my windows, large tortoises crossed my very busy street (requiring rescue), and the 17-year cicadas made a racket all over the East Coast.
The local nature center presented a fascinating talk on flying squirrels, given by a Fairfax County Master Naturalist. I wanted to join! But the Fairfax County Master Naturalists were a small group – they held one training class per year, with only 20 students. Nearing retirement, I planned to move back to Texas and didn’t want to take one of their valuable slots, then leave. Besides, I wanted to learn about Texas!
After settling in San Antonio, I enrolled in the Alamo Area Chapter spring 2015 class – Class 36. My friend and classmate, Drake White, gave an AT presentation on raising butterflies. As much as I loved butterflies, it never occurred to me to raise them. I learned about host and nectar plants, and how to attract butterflies, guided by Drake and reading as much as possible. My first butterfly-raising adventure came in summer 2015. I planted Dill and a female Black Swallowtail left me caterpillars! Sadly, I had to leave on vacation just as they were ready to pupate. Drake took over the care and feeding, and sent me pictures of the adults.
I was hooked.
Since then, I’ve raised many different types of butterflies: giant swallowtails, monarchs, queens, soldiers, even tawny emperors. It’s especially fun to teach youngsters about butterflies. They love to hold the caterpillars.
Caterpillars can be quite intriguing; swallowtail caterpillars show their “horns” (osmeterium) and exude a foul smell if disturbed, to scare off predators. Some very nervous caterpillars will drop to the ground if startled. Other caterpillars will head-butt each other over a prime lunch spot on a host plant. At each stage (instar), you wonder how they know to proceed. The first-instar hatchling turns around and eats its egg shell. Why waste good protein? When its skin is too tight, it molts and continues eating. Finally, as a fifth instar, it finds a perch and pupates: it molts one last time to reveal a chrysalis. A week or two later, it emerges from the chrysalis as a butterfly, wings folded like an umbrella. Within 30 minutes, the wings are pumped up, and in 2-4 hours, it’s ready to fly.
It has changed from a voracious caterpillar that munches leaves to a totally different creature with wings and a proboscis to drink nectar. And it knows just what to do! The whole transformation is nothing short of miraculous.
And that first flight – it takes your breath away!