~ early education care ~ where our play supports our learning

Butterflies (’10)

We were on the look out all summer for different butterflies and moths.  Being around children means that bugs/insects are always noticed. While weeding around the edge of the herb garden one morning, I spotted a somewhat unusual sight – 3 caterpillars, very closely together, lunching on fennel. [Fennel is a new plant for us this year] 

SANY1131I immediately called the children over to check this out. Those in school knew immediately that these were not monarch caterpillars. I wasn’t sure of the kind, but had my suspicions. I sent one of the older children in for the camera for pictures to help us study this caterpillar.

SANY1143 SANY1139

In checking around the plant for other signs we noticed all the caterpillar droppings. Or as the kids said “caterpillar poop”. We spent a good amount of time just watching them eat the fennel leaves. They were so close to the edge of the garden, we could clearly see them eating. The kids decided they also had to try a fennel leaf, to see why the caterpillars liked them so much.  SANY1147

It was time to find out what we had here. First we got out the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies out to check the caterpillar section. We found a close match for our caterpillar under Black Swallowtail. Now it was on to the computer with a Bing search for Black Swallowtail caterpillar. So many pages, but the children wanted to match pictures first. We found multiple good matches, so we know we have the Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar eating away on the fennel.SANY1146

We then checked informational pages to learn briefly about their life cycle, habitat, diet, and any characteristics that might help us know what part of the cycle we were seeing. We learned that in the last instar caterpillar stage the caterpillar has no spikes. At the end of this stage the caterpillar will fasten itself to a stem or branch to begin its transformation into the pupa or chrysalis. Our caterpillars had no spikes left, were feeding strong, so we think we need to keep a close eye on them now. We’re thinking about getting them into a container to watch them until they metamorphoses into a butterfly. We don’t want to get them too early though, so we will watch closely for the next few days.

Diet: Swallowtails like any of the carrot family such as dill, parsley, fennell and Queen Anne’s lace. Ours were found on the fennel, but we also have 2 kinds of parsley planted next to the fennel. From what we read the the adult female lays the eggs on a host plant and the caterpillar stays on this host throughout it’s growth stages until ready to enter the chrysalis stage. We think it may also stay on the host plant until emerges from the chrysalis.


Habitat: Open fields and meadows, suburban yards, gardens and roadsides.

Life Cycle: The Black Swallowtail life cycle has four stages: egg, larva [five instar stages],  chrysalis [pupa], and butterfly [adult].

To learn more check out the following links or search yourself under Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), with the common names of American Swallowtail or Parsnip Swallowtail.

Bug Guide

Mrs. Connie Gecy blog post on her experience with the Black Swallowtails life cycle

The Crooked Garden – The Butterfly Garden at Pelican Preserve has a great life cycle chart on the Black Swallowtail

Come back to see how our Black Swallowtail caterpillars progresses through the last stages……………………….

More Black Swallowtail Caterpillars
This afternoon we went back to check out the caterpillars and found a couple of eggs, 2 lavra in the early instar stages, as well as another large caterpillar. One of the caterpillars and eggs was actually on a large sage plant.


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Our Caterpillars=
We have been watching our Black Swallowtail caterpillars and all have disappeared except 1 and some very little ones in the early instar stages. We are not sure what has happened to the mature caterpillars, so although we really wanted to watch their life cycle in the herb garden we decided to make a large butterfly jar. SANY1275 Once made we cut some fennel for the jar and then located our mature caterpillar and 3 small larva in different stages to place in the jar.

This morning (7/29/10) upon checking the jar we noted that our mature caterpillar was hook shaped and attached to a fennel branch in the beginning of the chrysalis [pupa] stage. SANY1278 The other larva had also undergone some changes. Two had begun to get their caterpillar markings and a much stronger green color. SANY1280 One had even lost the white stripe around it’s middle. SANY1279

We’ll keep you posted on changes as we make our daily check. What fun watching all these caterpillars in different stages 🙂 Good thing we have a good bed of fennel to keep replenishing our jar.

Oh, we found and then lost another caterpillar. This one was on the milkweed along the garden’s edge and we know it’s a monarch. We’ll be keeping a close eye out for it to reappear. SANY1209

Pupa or chrysalis=
Whether the correct term is pupa or chrysalis we will try to figure out later. All that matters right now is that our caterpillar has shed it’s skin and made the change to the last stage before it becomes the butterfly. The change occurred overnight, so we were greeted with this beautiful sight this morning.


Our Butterfly=
On or about the August 10th our butterfly hatched. SANY1383 By the time I checked on it, the wings were all dry and the butterfly was very anxious about getting free. SANY1375 Sorry I couldn’t get a really nice picture of it with wings open and still. If you search Black Swallowtail Butterfly on the internet there are so many pictures that look just like our butterfly.

This was such a neat learning experience for all of us here. One of the first questions today when the older kids came in was about what had happened to our pupa and the other caterpillars. I told them it was hatched and I had returned the other caterpillars to the fennel plant where they were originally found, so that they wouldn’t die over the 2 weeks we were away. We’ll be on the lookout for our Black Swallowtail butterfly and hoping to find other caterpillars for further learning.

Butterfly Step Book=
Something I love about my job is the opportunity to drop everything that was planned when the unexpected happens and especially when it’s better.

As part of my early morning routine, I spend time checking my reader and preschool facebook groups. This morning on Teach Preschool’s facebook page there was a link to a blog I had not visited prior, so I went. The link was for a post on making a book and at the end there was another link to Making Books with Child. What a great site. I did a quick search of the site and found free directions for making a step book (new to me) and a YouTube tutorial on the site. As I watched this video I immediately knew I had found the way to tie up our study on butterflies that we just happened to undertake this summer. We would make a step book about the life cycle of a butterfly…..

With all the information out on the internet I doubt that I would have found this site except for this link. My searches are usually based on specific information needed regarding child development, or lesson units. I also try very hard to limit my search time to only a couple of hours a work day, so I don’t loss myself in all the information.
Here are the directions for making a step book from Making Books with Children.

See the step book we made for the Life Cycle of a Butterfly.

Monarch Butterfly
After our fun experience with the Black Swallowtail butterfly and it’s life cycle we have been keeping a lot of eyes out for the monarch butterfly, caterpillar and chrysalis. We found 2 monarch caterpillars SANY1563 of different size so we knew they were at different points in their development. We set up the large jar with milkweed plants – the monarch’s food source – and added the 2 caterpillars. One entered chrysalis stage the end of last week. SANY1577 The other over the long Labor Day weekend. SANY1611

One of my school-age children asked if they could take them into school. Their classroom teacher had asked for any monarchs that were found to please be brought in. We’ve had strong experiences this summer with butterflies and I thought it was a neat thing to send these two into school, so more children could have this first hand experience. I am so happy my school-age children share what is happening in their classroom with me. It allows me to make connection between home, school and child care.

SANY1624 Our chrysalis went off to school this morning. It should only be a few days before the first one spreads it’s wings.
The 2 Monarch chrysalis we sent off to school in Sept. both hatched and were released. I’ve been keeping an eye out for more chrysalis around the garden to see if we could see the last stage for the Monarch here. This past weekend I found a newly hatched Monarch. It was hanging under a leaf and it’s wet crinkled wings were just fluttering. By the time I got back with the camera the wings were out full.SANY1775

The weather is getting cooler, the days shorter and this should be the last of the Monarchs. We’ll have to try again next year to find them early and watching the life cycle unfold.

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