Thursday, 25 June 2015

The magic of metamorphosis: ‘Grow your own’ butterflies

Q. What's the best way to catch a butterfly?
A. Get it when it's still a caterpillar!
by Mirai Takahashi/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
When we saw this kit in the toy shop we couldn’t resist it. It wasn’t the contents of the box itself – just a pop-up mesh enclosure, a feeding pipette and instructions. No, it was the promise of what was to come ...
It would enable us to watch the magic of metamorphosis unfold before our eyes in our very own living room. Yep, in just three to five weeks we’d be nose-to-proboscis with our very own Painted Lady – or five to be precise. 

Step One: Send off the enclosed certificate to claim our caterpillars-by-post! We rushed to the post box.
They arrived a few days later.
Oh, the excitement of receiving real, live, wriggly things in the post!
My daughter tore into the box and ... oh ... was that it? Five tiny black slivers. Utterly still ... or ... erm ... dead? Perhaps the journey by Royal Mail had been a bit rough.
The next day we were relieved to find they looked a bit more bendy and alive, though they only seemed to move when we weren't looking, sneaky devils. But frankly, they weren’t very interesting so we left them on the mantelpiece, mostly ignored.

Two weeks later, my daughter burst into the bathroom and thrust her head round the shower curtain: “Mummy, mummy, the caterpillars have really grown”. They had. Now they were jumbo, juicy, hairy-legged and Very Hungry Caterpillars, doing all kinds of gymnastics.They looked like they'd have no problem munching their way through a salami or a piece of chocolate cake or the entire contents of our fridge if allowed.
Fortunately all the food they needed was already contained in the tub. Apparently, it took the man who invented these kits three years of trial and error to come up with a recipe that would allow caterpillars to survive in a pot! They 'd also been spinning silk and shedding their exoskeletons and everything the instructions said they would.

One more week and they’d climbed to the top, attached themselves to the disc on the underside of the lid and solidified into chrysalises. Well, all except one poor caterpillar who had died and decomposed at the bottom of the tub.
The chrysalises were fascinatingly nervous at first. They quivered violently whenever we went near them – something they do to warn away predators the instructions informed us. "Keep your hair on," my daughter told them. "WE'RE not going to hurt you!" 

The next bit was a very delicate operation: We had to transfer the chrysalises from the tub to the mesh. We attached the disc to the side of it with a safety pin with the care and precision of a brain surgeon. We didn't want to drop them, or even worse, stab them.
The disc already looked like the eye pad of someone who’d been poked repeatedly in the eye with a fork. I guess it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to turn yourself into a chrysalis even if they'd made it look easy. 
Then the little b*ggers started playing dead again. "I think they're shrivelling up," said my daughter. “I’ll eat my hat if they’re alive,” said my husband. One even dropped off.
But I insisted we waited. Just in case. 

Then one morning, two weeks later, we noticed the chrysalises had gone dark. Hurray! This was exactly what they were supposed to do. It meant the butterflies would emerge that day! 

But what do you know? S*d's Law. We were going out. All day. We’d miss the moment we'd been waiting for: The 'birth' itself. The best I could do was leave the still-sleeping Teenager a note and the camera: IF THE BUTTERFLIES HATCH OUT, TAKE PHOTOS!!! I felt like a mother leaving her child in childcare for the first time.

They did emerge that day (though the Teenager missed it). We came home to find three exhausted-looking butterflies, wings closed, absolutely still. They looked more like brown moths.
More blood sweat and tears had been involved, it seemed. There was bright red liquid on the side of the mesh. But we'd been warned to expect this: It wasn't actually blood. It was a butterfly's first 'poo'– or meconium.
Now we could get a really good look at the empty chrysalis shell.
So we'd done it! Successfully reared three out of five caterpillar babies to butterflyhood. But I was exhausted myself. Who knew hatching butterflies was such an emotional roller-coaster? The amount of nervous energy I'd expended, you'd think I'd bred several litters of Giant Panda.

We prepared food for the butterflies, as instructed, as if they were real pets: ripe banana, fresh orange and home-made nectar (sugar dissolved in water) soaked into cotton wool with the pipette. We also filled their mesh with greenery and flowers from the garden.
And it wasn't long before the butterflies were tucking into their first meal. 
It was great to be able to see their little furry faces close up and watch their proboscis furling and unfurling. And did you know a butterfly tastes with its feet?
But we were very aware that they were 'borrowed wildlife.' The instructions recommended that we only kept the butterflies for a couple of days before releasing them outside – where they only live for up to five weeks – the same length of time as the process they'd been through to exist. "That's really sad," said my daughter. "It's like if human beings grew in the womb for nine months and lived for nine months."

On the morning of their release, my daughter climbed into bed with me. "I crept downstairs to look at the butterflies really early this morning,” she said."They're fascinating. They're so tiny but there’s so much detail. If there's a god, he must have had to concentrate really hard to make them.”

As we carried them out into the sunshine and fresh air, they immediately perked up, opening their wings wide and going all fidgety. We unzipped the mesh to set them free and ...
Did they go? Did they heck. They behaved like teenagers who liked the idea of leaving home but knew they had it easy having their food put in front of them everyday.
As there was rain forecast that night we rigged up a kind of shelter over the mesh with a chair and raincoat! We didn't want them to drown in their own enclosure!
The next morning still only one had gone. This was getting ridiculous. We tipped the mesh sideways and nudged them gently to the edge. 
And finally, finally they came out. But not with the fanfare we'd imagined, flying off into the sunshine and blue skies in search of pretty flowers. No. They just sat on the gravel like lazy slobs. Strooth.
We nudged them a little more and one climbed (clung?) onto my hand. Had being raised in captivity made them too tame?
We gave up and went indoors, hoping they wouldn't be instantly pounced on by a bird. When I came out half an hour later to hang the washing, I spotted them flying around the garden. Ah, thank goodness, they'd found their wings at last. And it was kind of nice that they wanted to hang around.

“It’s amazing," said my daughter."They started life in a tub. And now they’re part of nature.”

Then she remembered there was another certificate in the box we could send off for a caterpillar 'refill'. "Can we do that?" she asked.

"Um, maybe," I said. I needed a little lie-down first.

Image result for insect lore butterfly garden
Win a 'grow your own' butterflies kit worth £20 from Insect Lore. To enter, simply Like The Quirky Parent FB page if you haven't already (button below) and email the word butterfly to Open worldwide. The winner will be chosen randomly and announced here on 10th July.

This competition is now closed. The winner is Kirstin Hutchins.


  1. We have just done exactly the same. Luckily all 5 of our butterflies survived. We loved watching them grow and even got to see them come out of their chrysalis. It was so fascinating, we want to do it again, though I think we'll wait till next year.
    Thanks for linking #LetKidsBeKids

    1. Lucky you - all 5 butterflies surviving and you got to watch them come out of their chrysalis! I think the weather was a little too nippy here which may be why only 3 survived???

  2. I really want to do this when T is a bit older, thank you for a great review.


  3. Grace says - I really love this idea :0
    The Mother says - I've been looking at these for so long as I think Lucas would love this. Your post has convinced me to buy one. The We hold a weekly linky every Wednesday called Mini Creations; an opportunity for the Big People to link up their Little Big People's art work, creations and crafting. We'd love for you to link up :)

    1. Thank you - I will take a look at your linky.

  4. As always, a great post, Claire. What a fabulous experience for your children and you too.

  5. What an amazing learning experience. Also great for teaching the children patience ha! Thanks for sharing on #FamilyTested

    1. Yes, didn't think of that - it certainly is a 'delayed gratification project'!