Leah had been asking all summer if we could find caterpillars to raise. I had grandiose plans of looking for Monarch caterpillars on milkweed, digging up the milkweed, and raising the caterpillars indoors.
That plan never materialized. First of all, it is really hard to find milkweed in New Jersey that is free of pesticide. Second, we were very busy all summer and monarch caterpillars are fussy. They only eat fresh milkweed. If that milkweed wilts, they are goners. We never had two weeks in a row where we could really take good care of living creatures.
So, I took the easy way out and order Painted Lady Butterflies from Insect Lore. They come prepackaged in a container with all the food they need. A Painted Lady caterpillar is not as colorful as Monarchs, its chrysalis is not as jewel-like, but Painted Lady butterflies are colorful and pretty. And, really, that is all that Leah cared about.
When the butterflies arrived, both of the kids were excited to “play” with them. They took them out of the container and watched them crawl around the table. We noticed that they had already shed one skin, so they would not be caterpillars for very long.
After 5 days of non-stop eating, they crawled to the top of the container, hung in a J shape and created their chrysalis. It is an amazing process. I used to teach a unit on Butterflies when I taught second grade, so I am somewhat of an expert on the subject. Okay, maybe I’m not a true expert, but I sound pretty darn knowledgeable to an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old.
It amazed me that I already had to help them unlearn a few things about butterflies. I don’t know who told my children that butterflies go into a cocoon. I’ve always called it a chrysalis. Only moths create cocoons. I can’t stand misconceptions, so I even change the words in Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar to say “chrysalis”. So, it annoyed me that my children still picked up on this common misuse of the word cocoon.
Second, they thought the caterpillar just grew wings inside the chrysalis. It actually reorganizes its entire DNA and becomes a whole new creature.
I tried not to overwhelm the kids with too much information. I wanted them to discover the magic of metamorphosis on their own.
We were all disappointed that we did not see a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. We did see a few still clinging onto the shell of chrysalis, resting and pumping blood into their wings before attempting their first flight. It amazed all of us.
We kept them indoors a few days so we could observe them. The kids enjoyed them so much they didn’t want to let them go. But, butterflies don’t live long, and we knew it was the right thing to do.
We released them on a sunny afternoon and watched them flutter away. The kids were sad to see them go, but we all had to admit that watching their first real flight was a treat.
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