It was last spring when those squishy creepy-crawly wannabe butterflies first came into my life. My son happened across a book at the library about raising monarch butterflies. He read through the book and then showed me a picture of the milkweed plant monarch caterpillars exclusively eat. I immediately blurted out that we had that plant popping up all over our property. Me and my big mouth.
“This book says that most of the monarch caterpillars will get eaten before they turn into butterflies. We have to save them!” my son said as he slapped the book shut.
Or we could feed a hungry bird, I thought dryly. Inside my head, a song from Mary Poppins was playing. Feed the birds, tuppence a bag…
Butterflies Are Beautiful But Caterpillars Are Gross
Don’t get me wrong, I love it when my son interacts with and learns about nature. And certainly there could not be a more low maintenance pet than a caterpillar that will soon sprout wings and fly away. The problem is that, well … caterpillars are soft and squishy. It’s disgusting. I keep a large garden and am not fazed by the wolf spiders that zoom across the soil, or the occasional jerk of a wasp that blasts my hand, or those dutiful marching ants that just want to mind their own business … but caterpillars. Gag.
Of course, immediately my boy set off into the yard and within an hour he had scoured half a dozen milkweed plants and brought four caterpillars into the house. We scrounged up an old plastic container, knocked a few holes into it, and voila — we were a newly established miniature butterfly farm.
It started out as a lovely experience. We both were intrigued by just how many leaves these little beasts could consume in a twenty-four hour period. It was fun to watch them grow from itty-bitty little squirmers to fat (and disgustingly squishy looking) caterpillars. The anticipation was mounting — when would the big cocoon spinning begin? This sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? But wait. Before you start inquiring about getting yourself a milkweed plant, there is more you should know.
Baby Butterflies Are Poop Machines
Seriously. They poop constantly. I read an article that said if gypsy moth caterpillars infest a forest, the continual fall of poop sounds like rain. With a diet solely of leaves, you’d think they’d have lovely smelling poop. Like freshly mowed grass or something. Nope. Poop is poop, and it stinks. This spring, for our second go at it, we started putting hamster bedding at the bottom of their cage. I think it helps. Or maybe because I can’t see the piles of little poop balls I’m pretending they aren’t there. Either way.
Caterpillars Know How to Move Their Butts
Sometimes I think the inch-long caterpillars might move faster than my son does when I tell him it is time to put away his laundry. The boy has made the mistake of setting the cage (mind you, the residence of four poop machines) on my clean dining room table and leaving the top off while he went to fetch more leaves. Those little sixteen-legged speed demons were off and running. A few minutes later I found one at the other side of the table, as well as one squirming around on the floor near the table leg and I nearly stepped on it with my bare feet.
Which leads me too…
You Might Accidentally Off One Or More Of Them
And it will be gross. Remember how I find them vile because they are squishy? Yesterday I was bringing the vacuum from one side of the house to the other when I stopped in my tracks in the living room. There was a green smear on the floor. My eyes immediately shifted toward the open cage left idle on the couch. I screeched.
Not only was one of our poor defenseless disgusting little caterpillars never going to turn into a butterfly, but I had mutilated it with the vacuum. Even worse — its innards were spread in multiple places on the floor and on the vacuum rollers. I walked outside because suddenly the entire house seemed contaminated by liquid bug guts. Shortly thereafter my boy came outside with his eyebrows raised at me.
“All of them are still in the cage, mom.”
“Then what is all over the floor?”
“That was a squished leaf.”
Deep breath. Just a squished leaf.
There Will Be Other Trials And Tribulations
Last year, sadly only one out of four caterpillars became a butterfly. For unknown reasons, one dropped dead before cocooning, and two cocoons turned brown and withered. But one did, in fact, hatch out as a beautiful butterfly, and it was truly impressive to watch.
Despite the sad part of losing three caterpillars, it was a life lesson. Life is fragile and precious. Raising butterflies might be the gentlest way possible to teach our children this lesson.
I have grown from this experience too. Although they are still disgusting squishy-bodied sixteen-legged poop machines, I love those little baby butterflies.