Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Metamorphosis

I've been thinking the last few months that we need to either buy or rent a power washer and give the outside of the house a good blast. The swallows love our house and apparently, swallows show their love by pooping all over everything. Plus, we've spiders everywhere, mostly little spiders so I'm happy to let them work away. Houses over here don't have screens in the windows and since most of the spider webs are near or around the windows, it's like we have Mother Nature's screens keeping the insects out of the house.

Then I saw a biggish spider hanging around outside the backdoor. It didn't quite look big enough to rob my lunch money, but it was big enough for me to take a second look and start thinking about the power washer. About a week and a half ago, as I was locking up the back door, a dark grey thing caught my eye. It was attached to the window pane of the big kitchen windows, which make the kitchen more like a conservatory.

At first, I wasn't quite sure what it was. It didn't look like the snack-savers spiders use after they catch a victim. Then it dawned on me. I was looking at a chrysalis. If spider webs are Mother Nature's screens, then the chrysalis is her magical sleeping bag. I was excited, thinking we might get a butterfly out of the deal.

I sent a message to my friend the Science Teacher (ST) to ask him how I could tell if it was a butterfly or moth and when I could expect it to hatch. He cracked open his books and was able to tell me that judging from the time, it was most probably a butterfly and it would hatch soon, so long as it was dry and warm. Dry and warm. In Ireland, this summer, that's been a fairly unobtainable dream. I figured I might be waiting on this butterfly for quite a while.

A few days later, as I was working from home, I saw something on the side of the house, about 12 feet up the wall. I thought it was more bird poop, except that there was something familiar about its shape. Bingo - another chrysalis, another chance for a butterfly.

Last weekend, ST suggested that I get the chrysalises both inside, maybe put them in a box or a fish tank with a sponge soaked in sugar water. (A food source for when they hatch.) I made up my little chrysalis nursery in an old fish bowl. Then there was nothing to do but wait. And wait. And wait. ST was encouraging although realistic about their chances. The weather had been so miserable, they might be dead.

Even though they were in the house, it still wasn't what I would call warm. I had them on the kitchen windowsill, so if we ever got some sun, they'd warm nicely. But we had no sun. I worked from home on Thursday and knew I was going to be doing laundry throughout the day. The laundry room heats up nicely when the washer and dryer are on, so I put the fish bowl in there.

Thursday afternoon was gorgeous - sunny blue skies and warm. It was the nicest weather we've had in weeks. I put the fish bowl back on the kitchen window sill. Friday morning, when I was at work, I got a text from Peter, informing me that one chrysalis had hatched.

I raced home to see it. It was on the sponge, its dark grey wings folded up. Grabbing my handy Irish wildlife book (a birthday gift from Peter last year, one of the best gifts ever), I looked through the moths and butterflies pages. I was having a hard time determining which category it was, let alone which exact species. The body was furry, so that seemed to indicate moth, as did the dark wings, but I could only see the underwings. I couldn't see the antennae, since they were folded up and flattened against the top of the body. They looked sort of stripey, but I couldn't tell if they were clubbed or not. The insect also didn't seem to be eating, even though it was on the sponge.

I hazarded a guess that it was a Straw Underwing moth and sent ST another message telling him the great news. Then I went back to work, because, well, "my chrysalis hatched this morning" isn't really a viable excuse for staying home. ST rang my mobile to tell me that if it was a moth, it wouldn't eat sugar. A small slice of fruit would probably work. Then he told me more in 2 minutes than I ever knew about butterflies and moths, about their lifecycles and how their wings work. (The man's a good teacher - knowledgeable and able to impart information in a coherent and efficient manner.) ST said the insect would be flying around by the time I got home.

Six hours later, when I arrived home, I parked my car parallel to the kitchen windows that hold my plants and now my chrysalis nursery. I saw a fluttering near my chives and saw a butterfly, a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly, flapping its wings and bumping into the window.

Since we leave the backdoor open for Toby, it's possible that the hatchling flew out and a new guy flew in, but I'd say that's unlikely because the butterfly was completely flummoxed by the window. I spent about ten minutes trying to guide it to a window or the door, but it was always drawn back to the window. I gave up because I was afraid that my help was going to end up killing it.

My giving up lasted about five minutes, then I was back at it, this time armed with a pint glass and a piece of paper. I managed to get the butterfly into the pint glass and cover the opening with a piece of paper. Then I went outside and removed the paper, but the butterfly was sitting in the bottom of the glass. I shook the glass and then it was out, fluttering straight up into the sky. I watched it until it was just a tiny, nearly indistinguishable dot.

The other chrysalis, which may well be a few days younger, remains. I've been procrastinating washing the sheets and duvet covers for the guest room beds. Perhaps this is the day to do it.

UPDATE: I went to move the fish bowl into the laundry room (since I started washing the guest room sheets) and was pleasantly surprised to find a butterfly on the sponged. I can definitely see the clubbed antennae. The hatching happened sometime between 8.00am and 10.45am. I remain amazed that such a large creature can emerge from such a relatively small container. I spotted a caterpillar on the front of the house this morning, so I'm hoping I might get another chance at seeing a chrysalis hatch.

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At 23 August 2008 at 08:24, Blogger Babaloo said...

Oh wow! I think we need that book, too. I think our dogs would've started chasing the little, just hatched thing. They snap after basically anything that flies. One of these days one of them will get stung...
By the way, we've got a power washer in the shed, if you want to borrow it for a while that'd be fine. :)

At 23 August 2008 at 08:25, Blogger Felix said...

and with regards to the power washer we might be able to help

At 23 August 2008 at 11:21, Blogger -Ann said...

Babaloo - The book is "Complete Irish Wildlife" and it's published by Collins. It's a fantastic book - very clear photos and little descriptions of each animal. I was concerned about Toby eating the butterfly, but the only time it caught his attention was when he was outside and he 'chased' it from the other side of the window. :)

Felix - I may have to take you and Babaloo up on your kind power washer offer. Maybe in a few more weeks when we're out of caterpillar season. :)

At 23 August 2008 at 12:35, Blogger laurie said...

that is so cool. very cool. i remember finding one of those when i was in grade school and bringing it to class, where it hatched overnight. a monarch! it was a wonderful thing.

i say, don't powerwash. the creatures clearly love your home.

At 23 August 2008 at 15:57, Blogger Kaycie said...

That's so cool, Ann. My mother is a teacher and Monarch butterflies migrate through Oklahoma. Mama used to hatch Monarchs every year during school and let the children watch, then take them outside in the afternoons and set them free to migrate with their wild cousins. It was wonderful to watch and the children loved it.

Last summer, I had a parsley caterpillar that consumed an entire pot of parsley on my back porch. I planted more, he ate that, then disappeared. Whereever he went, eventually he became a black swallowtail butterfly. I was disappointed that I didn't get to watch the rest of his life cycle unfold.

There is something much more exciting to me about your experience, though. Nature picked you!

At 24 August 2008 at 00:51, Blogger Career Guy said...

Perhaps they are minions of Mothra, and when she returns to claim her kingdom, she will spare you and yours because of your kindness. Or...

I remember driving out to Hinckley and watching you chase butterflies through the fields with your little net. They definitely do not fly in a straight line.

At 24 August 2008 at 03:51, Blogger Irene said...

Great story, Ann. I did that as a kid once and got a great butterfly in a jar. I remember my excitement very well.

At 24 August 2008 at 14:59, Blogger SwampAngel65 said...

Great story! Nature never ceases to amaze!!

I can't imagine no screens on the windows! OMG, we'd have mosquitos and roaches and God only knows what else flying around our house.

I have a friend that just posted about seeing a monarch butterfly hatch out the other day. Baeutiful!

At 25 August 2008 at 17:11, Blogger -Ann said...

Laurie - Oooh a Monarch! I'm going to powerwash, but am going to delay a little. I just can't handle all the bird poop.

Kaycie - In my reading around, I saw that you can get eggs like that and watch the lifecycle. It made me wish I lived closer to The Kid. I think he'd really enjoy it.

Dad - So long as it's Mothra that comes back and not a giant spider. I'm afraid there might be Wanted posters of me up in Spiderland.

Irene - Thanks. I felt ridiculously overinvested and concerned about those butterflies.

Swampangel - Oh yeah, I've been to Florida twice and cannot imagine not having screens down there. Here, the bugs are relatively small and harmless. Plus, there aren't really that many of them.


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