Friday, October 23, 2009

Etiquette for Butterflies

Tomorrow (Saturday, October 24) is the Inside Austin Gardens tour presented by the Travis County Master Gardener Association. All of the yards featured are National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitats, which means they are happy places for plants and animals.

I haven't yet certified my yard (it's on the list!) but I have made it a happy place for some animals, caterpillars in particular. (Of course, I've also inadvertently at times made it a happier place for one larger animal in particular.)

Of course, I would also like to make the yard a happier place for me, and that's where I think a few etiquette lessons for my new friends, the caterpillars, are appropriate.

First, you're welcome to any of the herbs I planted for you. And cheers to you for choosing the rue, which I only bought because I liked its foliage. I have no idea of its culinary uses.
Second, thanks for sticking around so I can see you metamorphisize through your various instars. You started here, also known as the bird shit stage (or I guess, if we are talking etiquette here, it should be the bird sh*t, bird poop, or maybe even bird "we don't discuss this in public").I found this stage to be very inventive, hiding you from potential predators who think you're just one of the above.

Third, I loved, loved, loved seeing you in your third instar stage. You're looking so cute! And there are so many of you!
How is it having 30 first cousins? Maybe though you could find another place to poop? Even though it's cute little caterpillar frass, it's still frass.Fourth, ah! Wow, behold the black swallowtail caterpillar.
Fifth, here's where we encounter the etiquette challenge. Generally, when I invite animals into my yard, I do so with an open heart and expect little in return, but let's not confuse little with nothing.

My stripped-bare rue has started to regrow in the areas you ate to the stems. And as I mentioned, I doubt really have much of a use for it. But the quid pro quo for providing food for you and putting up with your frass is that you stick around as a butterfly so I get to see how in all your glory. I'm not saying you aren't adorable as a caterpillar, but the whole metamorphosis thing would be pretty cool to see.

Leaving with nary a chrysalis in sight is not all that polite.

Sixth, you might want to take a lesson or two from your intraspecies friends, the gulf fritillary caterpillar. These guys munched on my passionflower vine and stuck around to form a pupa. Just look at this guy:

These caterpillars also returned to the yard as butterflies, the cute little pairs diving and flitting about. They even played chase with the dog. I know y'all can't write thank you notes so I happily accept the flybys as your token of gratitude.
Seventh, if, of course, your absence is a sign that your camouflage failed to protect you and that you got decapitated by a wasp, like this one of you, all is forgiven.
And in your honor, I will be offering future etiquette lessons for the wasps on to decapitate or not to decapitate.


  1. HA! That was fun. Oh that wasp photo...EEEK!

  2. I LOVE this post, Vertie. Witty and captivating. Especially love the pic of the wasp dragging the caterpillar remains. Wow.

  3. You crack me up-lol!
    I miss Austin terribly (waaaa!) and pretend I'm just next door to you as I read your bloggy.
    It does help - thank you :)
    BTW, when my cat saw an orange fluffy caterpillar for the first time, I swear I could hear her shouting 'Mom- what in the blazes is that?!" as she flitted her head between it and me. Her eyes were enormous - lol!

  4. Excellent photos and narrative, Vertie - this is probably what happens to my caterpillars, too -many wasps and no chrysalides.

    I had no idea the caterpillars would accept rue - may plant some just for them. The only use I remember reading about was as a strewing herb to scatter over the floors in medieval houses. Also remember reading that handling rue while in sun gives some people a rash.

    Hope to see you on the tour tomorrow.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  5. Wonderful! Indeed, I figure a lot of my plants are for the larva and not for me. It's worth it. And why else plant rue, really?! Yep, I hate watching the wasps kill 'em off. But neat that you captured that Nature moment. Sad for that guy, but it will remind folks that wasps also are the Mafia for web worms and caterpillar pests.

  6. Oh man, that last picture with the caterpillar guts coming out. Yuck. But such is the cycle of life.

  7. Great pictures - even the wasp . . . Mother Nature is not always neat and tidy, is she? We had tons of Queen caterpillars last spring - and never found a crysallis . . . I'll pass on your rules next year.

  8. Hmm - maybe I should post your caterpillar rules right next to the list of what "deer usually avoid" outside and see who turns out to be the more obedient readers?

    I had a bevy of black swallowtail cats on my straggly fennel plants recently and they essentially cleared it of everything but stems. I'm watching to see if it will obligingly releaf as your rue did. A crop of younger ones was attacking my dill but I drew the line and (gently) relocated them over by the fennel where their larger cousins had already wreaked havoc.

    Rue, eh? That's going on the "to buy" list for sure.

  9. Wow! This is a fantastic set of photos. Great capture of the wasp. I don't have any skill at all in wildlife photography.

    I found one caterpillar on a small milkweed plant the other day. It quickly stripped it bare so I moved it over to the much larger momma milkweed plant. It was happy for a day or so but when I went to take a photo, it was gone. Wasps or birds, I guess.

  10. Lovely posts. My whole arugula crop is wiped out as the caterpillars had a feast-but there are now hundreds of butterflies in the garden-one of our dogs love to run through a mass of them so that the butterflies are fluttering all around his face.

  11. Finally, a use for rue! I would gladly grow some if I knew it would attract visitors as lovely as yours! Your photos are spectacular!

  12. At one of the herb society meetings a gal spoke about Rue, and I can't remember the 'real' use but it's supposed to ward off evil! I guess just for you, not the poor caterpillars...boohoo.

  13. Hello,

    We'd like to notify you that the Austin School Garden Network website has launched and we've included your blog on our blog roll.

    The Austin School Garden Network is a collaboration of groups, agencies and individuals dedicated to reconnecting children and nature. The purpose is connecting Central Texas community resources to promote the social, nutritional, environmental, and academic benefits of school and youth gardening programs. We have included a local gardening blog section to help new gardeners learn more about gardening in our area.

    For more information visit our About Us page.

    Your blog is linked to from our Gardening Blog page.

    If you would like us to remove the link to your blog from our website please contact, Lisa Anhaiser at laanhaiser[at]

    Get growing and keep going!

    Austin School Garden Network