Monday, 7 July 2014

All is quiet on the cabbage leaf

You may recall that recently I was sent a butterfly rearing kit to review. Since we introduced our caterpillar specimens to study it has been the cause of horror, revulsion, fascination, disbelief, curiosity and even a small dose of love and tenderness. I have tried to retain a scientific detachment but it has not been easy. There is something deeply distasteful about the crawling creatures that spend every moment with the simple objective to devour and excrete, yet my sense of responsibility to them, having taken them from nature for our own purpose, has been great. Almost, dare I say it, maternal.

I overcame my reluctance to open the net cage and put my hand  in. Their food needed replacing with frightening frequency - these little fellas could really eat. When the source of the nasturtium leaves I had been feeding them became completely depleted, I bought a cabbage. I was unsure if they would accept the new diet but other than going on night raids into neighbours' gardens in search of more nasturtiums, it was my best option.

In my haste to provide food for the hungry caterpillars, I neglected to wash the cabbage leaves. I soon regretted this oversight. The caterpillars quickly found their way onto the new vegetation but instead of voracious devouring, at best there was half hearted nibbling. I thought maybe they just needed a little time to adjust to the new taste and texture of the cabbage. I gave them time. They seemed to grow more sluggish and lethargic. I began obsessively checking on them every few minutes. The thought occurred that unlike my organically grown nasturtiums, this cabbage that I had bought for 50p at my local supermarket may well have been sprayed with all sorts of harmful chemicals designed to kill exactly the species that I was now trying to nourish with it. I felt like a murderer. In a 'shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted' type reaction, I placed a new, thoroughly rinsed cabbage leaf inside the net cage.

Nothing happened.

My husband came home from work one day. He broke the news. You do know those caterpillars are dead, right?

I refused to believe it but my frequent checks revealed no change. It was almost like insect taxidermy - a perfectly preserved scene frozen in death for all eternity (or until the cabbage rotted!)

I promised that I would chuck the whole sorry lot in the dustbin the next day and never speak of it again.

My amateur naturalist friend who had helped me identify the species suggested that it was possibly just a normal part of the life cycle. I wanted to hold onto that glimmer of hope but it seemed too much of a coincidence that they had all gone into a 'death-like' state as soon as I had introduced potentially poisonous brassica leaves. And the few bodies curled up on the floor of the cage seemed to be the indisputable evidence that this was NOT normal.

Then something miraculous happened. One of my daughters noticed a caterpillar moving! They're alive. I had all but given up on then but there was a caterpillar lifting its head and waving it gently. Definitely moving. Definitely alive.

The caterpillars resumed eating and even the 'corpses' that littered the bottom of the cage uncurled and started exhibiting caterpillar-like behaviour.

It was our very own miracle. A caterpillar resurrection. Could they have simply been in a cabbage coma?

As delighted as I was not to have killed my caterpillars, I was less delighted by the fact that my porch was beginning to smell unpleasantly cabbagey. I relocated them to the garage.

It wasn't long after the relocation that the first of the caterpillars left the cabbage leaf and began to climb the sides of the net cage. We watched with interest as it settled on the lid of the cage and began to pupate. Despite close observation, I have no idea how this happens. Silky threads just seem to appear around the body. Within the mass of silk are well defined anchor points to hold it securely in its chosen location. The body then  hardens and changes shape into something that looks to me almost prehistoric. What you see with your eye is fascinating enough but what must be going on inside to transform the caterpillar into a butterfly is beyond my comprehension.

Several more caterpillars began the climb to find a suitable spot to pupate... and then more.

So now I wait... and wait... and wait some more until the day our first butterfly begins to emerge.

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