Friday, September 2, 2011

My Dill Dreams Come True

I went into the garden this morning, planning to have a mellow photography session with the basil flowers and whatever bees came to nectar.  But only a few pollinators came by, and I wasn't getting any decent shots.  Then I happened to glance at the leggy, almost-dead dill plants and discovered the one bug I most hoped my garden would host:

A Black Swallowtail caterpillar!
There was just the one-- believe me, I looked for others.  Apparently female Black Swallowtails only lay a couple eggs in any one place.  But I am so thrilled!

I'm torn between leaving it wild in my garden, and bringing it inside to try and hand-rear.  I've never had success rearing caterpillars; when I was little we used to catch caterpillars every summer, in hopes of raising butterflies.  But they would inevitably die within days, partly because my sister and I knew nothing about the care and feeding of caterpillars.  We'd stuff their jar with miscellaneous grass and leaves, poke a few token holes in the top, and set it on the kitchen counter.  So I don't want to kill my only Black Swallowtail.  But on the other hand, I don't want the garden predators to catch it either-- I know my garden is also home to praying mantids, hunting spiders, wrens and chickadees.

For now I've left the caterpillar exactly where I found it.  I feel totally vindicated for leaving the scraggly, flopped-over  dill plants in the garden this long.  I know they look kind of ugly, and have scattered seeds everywhere--next spring I'll be digging out seedlings from the entire garden if not the whole yard. But it was worth it to see the caterpillar! I love having wildlife make a home in my yard.

Eat all the dill you want, little one!

Update: I found another one! The second caterpillar was about twice as big as the first. It's a lot greener, and was living in the carrot patch. Double hooray!

The real reason I planted carrots this year.

I even messed with it a little, poking it to provoke an alarm response. It shoots out a pair of bright orange fleshy horns, called its osmeterium, which apparently also stink (although I didn't notice any smell except the sweet scent of the carrots).

Get away from me!

Then since I had two caterpillars in the garden, I got brave enough to bring the large one inside.  I arranged a cozy little cage for it, with ample carrot greens to eat, a dried dill stalk to pupate from (eventually), and paper towels in the bottom to catch waste.

Home sweet home...

At first the caterpillar was disturbed enough by all the commotion that it stayed frozen on the greenery. But after fifteen or so minutes it moved down the leaf and started eating again! I was so proud.  Now there are several big fat frass pellets on the paper towels. The caterpillar is wandering around quite a bit too.  I am a very happy caterpillar mom.

Today's location: my yard, Montgomery County, MD


  1. Congratulations! I've been dutifully taking care of my scraggly dill plants too, just in case. I had 3 caterpillars earlier in the season and I left them alone, I've always been afraid of hand-rearing butterflies. I have no idea idea what happened to them, but they were huge when they disappeared, so I'm hoping they crawled off to make their chrysalis in secrecy. I wish both you and them the best!

  2. Thanks, Julie! As you can see from the update, now that I found a second one I brought it inside to try rearing it. I will certainly post updates as things progress.


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