Left holding the caterpillars

4 August 2013

I said in the last blog article that I’d tell you about the further link in that blog to butterflies, and that the clue was in what Charlotte was holding. Charlotte, by the way, was naturalist Charlotte Uhlenboek, more usually know for her work on chimpanzees. What she was holding in the photo were Peacock caterpillars.

The people making that short bit of film wanted to show the life cycle of the butterfly, and managed to get hold of a web of Peacock caterpillars: these caterpillars are very gregarious, and when they are small, they spin a web of silk round the area of leaves where they are feeding, as protection against predators. As they get older, they go it alone, and the colony spreads out, no longer protected by the web; by this stage they have spines, so they have an alternative defence against predators. Charlotte duly did her bit to camera with the caterpillars on her hand, the filming finished and the crew departed – leaving me with the caterpillars.

They were still quite small at this point, so I didn’t feel able to just put them out on their food plant – stinging nettles – but kept them in a container and fed them. This became quite an onerous task as they grew: they eat a lot, and a corresponding amoung of “frass” (butterfly poo) comes out the other end, meaning a lot of clearing up. I did eventually let some go when they were a good size, but I kept some to see them go through the next stages.

Peacock caterpillars starting to pupate

Peacock caterpillars starting to pupate

The filming was on 16 June, and the photo above was taken on 25 June, as the ones in captivity started to pupate. You can see how the caterpillar attaches itself to something – in this case the lid of the container – by silken thread. They hang there for a while, then curl up, and the transition to pupa begins.  On the left you can see a fully formed pupa.

Peacock pupae and emerging adult butterflies

Peacock pupae and emerging adult butterflies

On 8 July, they started hatching out into adult butterflies, as you can see above. One of the butterflies is still clinging to its pupal case; when they first come out their wings are crumpled and it takes some time to pump them up into functioning wings. The darker pupa you can see at the back is probably one soon to hatch – as the time draws near, you can sometimes see the pattern of the wings within the case.

Adult Peacock on buddleia

Adult Peacock on buddleia

I never did get a decent photo of one of the adults, but here’s one from another time to remind you what this beautiful butterfly looks like.

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