The butterfly obsession continues... and as fascinated as my boy is by his winged friends, I am equally fascinated by watching the scientist in him emerge and take flight. He is learning so much, and so am I... there's so much more to know about butterflies than I ever imagine possible. So prepare yourself, I'm going to be very long winded today :-)
Our most recent adventures in lepidopterology began when we found some very tiny (about 3/8 of an inch) Black Swallowtail caterpillars on our parsley. (Like Eren's!) This was a triumphant moment because my guy had planted the parsley not for culinary use, but specifically to attract these caterpillars. He was so impressed with himself that it worked!
His caterpillars grew by leaps and bounds, shedding their skins at least 3 or 4 times and eating us out of house and home. Interestingly, some got quite fat before going into their chrysalides, while others were not so large.
We're wondering if this has something to do with the sex of the caterpillar, or the availability of food vs. the number of caterpillars present. Maybe it's the age of the caterpillar or could it be that when other caterpillars are forming their chrysalides it sends some signal to the others that it is time?... Ready or not, here we go? We're thinking on ways to test out our theories in the future.
See, my young scientist is finding that there is no satiating a hunger for knowledge. The more nature teaches him, the more he craves to learn from her.
But back to the caterpillars... My boy's favorite thing about these guys is their funny defense mechanism.
See those orange "horns"? They are not always visible. They come out when the caterpillar is alarmed. It is an osmeterial gland that forms a dual purpose - the first is to look frightening. The caterpillar throws it's "horns" about in a very threatening manner. It also looks a lot like a snake tongue, don't you think? The second purpose of the osmeterial gland is to create a very foul smell that wards off potential predators. And does it ever stink! You can't imagine what a LARGE odor can be made by such a very small critter!
Now about the time all the caterpillars formed their chrysalides, we had begun working on planting a butterfly garden. My guy found himself with even more questions... what would attract our local butterflies? Where could we find those plants? How should they be arranged.
He also wanted to know if butterflies preferred a certain color flower.
So he began devising ways to find out. This involved lots of sketches of elaborate butterfly houses that he would build over our garden, so that he could sit and watch, make notes about which flowers the butterflies visit. But how to keep a constant supply of different colored flowers blooming and at the ready?
Eventually he decided that it would be easier to conduct an experiment with some sort of faux flower set up. Again... elaborate plans, this time for silk flowers and misters, or pumps, or manually dropping sugar water in each flower.
Finally we read up on existing research about butterfly color preference, and found our study model in Martha Weiss, a Georgetown University Professor, and lauded scientist, who studies the interplay between plants and insects, and also the learning capabilities of butterflies and wasps.
... paper flowers with a pipette in the center that has been filled with sugar water.
That original set up soon morphed a bit because he thought it was hard in such a small space for the butterflies to land accurately. He thought the flowers should be flat against the box to give them the ability to land and just walk onto the flowers.
We also wrote to Ms. Weiss and were so crazy excited that she wrote back. Imagine the squeals and excitement preteen girls give the Jonas brothers, and you'll come close to how my boy felt when a "real live butterfly scientist" wrote to him. Not only did she write, but she treated his interest and his experiment so respectfully. She spoke to him as another scientist.
Ms. Weiss graciously gave him some tips for conducting his experiment. She even explained how to hold the butterfly and, using a straight pin, unroll its proboscis and dip it into the sugar water, teaching it that these flowers are a good food source.
He's done this three times so far, about a day after each butterfly emerges from its chrysalis. Each and every time that the he gets a butterfly to drink on its own, he glows with such pride... his experiment just might work, his babies are eating, he has accomplished something really special. Real science. We have seven more caterpillars pupating at the moment, so there is more of that wonderful feeling to come.
It's been less than 24 hours, so we've got no definitive color preference results, but we're hopeful. Each of the caterpillars will spend a couple of days under evaluation (we will be making note of how often each different colored flower is visited) and then the butterfly will then be set free.
It looks as though we may be learning about far more than flower color preference through our butterflies though...
See how the butterfly on the right is much more colorful and larger than the other? It is a female, and the one to the left is a male. In most animals it is the male that is more showy right? Well we have learned that female butterflies don't judge their mate by his coloring. One interesting study found that females did not even mind if their mates were dyed various colors. In the case of butterflies it is the MALES who seem more moved to action (wooing or fighting) on the basis of color.
We've got parsley in with our pair now and are watching carefully to see what we can learn from them about mating behavior and (fingers crossed) egg laying.
And yes, I'm a little worried about where that might take us, but also so excited to see what comes next. Stay tuned!
Nature— the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful— offers something that the street or gated community or computer game cannot. Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity. —Richard Louv