If you’re looking for a fun and educational project to share with your children may I suggest a “Cat House”? Now, before you say you’re allergic to cats let me say these aren’t the type that meow – but rather fly.
My cats are caterpillars – Black Swallowtails to be exact – and watching them is an inspiring and inexpensive way to teach your children about life cycles.
Black Swallowtails lay their eggs on or near host plants. Preferred cat food is in the Umbellifer family- Parsley, Dill, Fennel & Carrot/Celery tops are all in this family.
How to Build a Caterpillar House or “Cat House”
What you’ll need:
- Container – clear plastic storage container, old fish aquarium, mesh laundry basket
- Tulle for the top
- Small bottles/vases to hold water and freshly cut herbs
- Paper towels or newspaper for easier cleaning
- Sticks for pupating on (chop sticks or even dried fennel stems)
- Host food – amount varies on the number of cats you decide to raise – we went through 6-8 Fennel plants with the 25+ we raised – I suggest you start with 3 or 4
Note: It is very important if you have to use store bought herbs they are soaked for 10 minutes then sprayed from top to bottom and allowed to air dry on paper towels.
1. Catch Your Caterpillars
Keep an eye on the herbs in your garden. Once eggs are laid they will hatch in about six days. After eating a few days they are large enough for you to see & gently move to a cat house.
2. Set Up Your “Cat House”
Line the bottom of the container, take a few small necked vases and place cut Dill, Fennel or Parsley in them, and also lean several sticks against the sides (4-6” long). Once the food is gone, replenish the paper towels, fill two other bud vases with fresh cuttings and place next to the ‘spent’ vases – within 20 minutes the cats will migrate over to their new food.
3. Observe Your Caterpillars
Caterpillars instar (shed their skin) 4-5 times before they create their chrysalis. It takes approx. 10-14 days before the cats will instar for the final time. They create a sling to hang from on the sticks placed in the container. You will most likely notice them in this position for a day or two thinking “why isn’t it moving?” Not to worry, because she’s busy creating her chrysalis “inside” this last outer skin!
Here is one venturesome fellow who chrysalized on the side of our container. We even had a few on the green walls in Katelyn’s bedroom – so keep that tulle tight!
When they wiggle out of their skin from the final Instar, the Chrysalis is already formed. After 8-12 days they “Eclose” (break free of their Chrysalis), rest for several hours, and are ready for outside.
4. Set Your Butterflies Free
I gently cusp my hands around them and take them out to nectar plants such as Salvia and Agastache (Zinnia’s are a favorite too). If you’re worried you might hurt them, just take their house outside, remove the tulle, and they will fly away.
Not all of our 25+ cats eclosed last year. As fall quickly approached they stopped eclosing, so we kept them inside in an area that was not directly under a heating vent and let them winter over inside. Just last week we had the joy of releasing two of them.
Article by Deanna Ward
Deanna Ward is an organic gardening enthusiast living in Sumter, S.C. She can be found at the local Farmer’s Market April-September selling herbs, veggie starts and perennial plants she grows from seeds, cuttings and bulbs. She lives on 6 acres with her best friend, aka wonderful husband, Branden, three awesome “young adults” Darrin, Cameron and Katelyn, the amazing memory of Jenna who passed away at 17 and loved butterfly’s, their Irish Setter, three cats that DO meow, a host of nature’s best at their pond and, of course, a plethora of Butterfly’s and caterpillars.
Deanna has written 1 awesome articles for Natural Family Today.
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