Experimenting With Caterpillars!

Well, let’s just say it started out as a cool idea…

The idea behind the experiment was that we would catch caterpillars, care for them by feeding and watering them, cleaning their tank, watch them, admire them, *hopefully* catch at least one of them in the cocooning process, and find out if they turned into butterflies or moths. That was the idea. I might add, we were super stoked about the idea.

My friend, my mom and my son went to Stanford University to walk around and catch the catters (catters is my new name for caterpillars). They brought home a lot of caterpillars, a maggot, and a few cocoons. Yes, we kept the maggot for a few days, but just looking at it was grossing me out. I also did not research how to care for a maggot. To be clear, the maggot was kept separate from the catters and cocoons.

Research suggested that you keep the cocoons and caterpillars separate, keep a clean tank, give them water and have fresh food for them daily. Research also suggested that caring and raising caterpillars was easy peasy. Not! In the beginning, we had about 11 caterpillars, and three cocoons. It was so much fun! Whenever I had a moment, I would sit and watch the catters go about their business of eating leaves and drinking water. Watching a caterpillar drink water was so cool! Jay wasn’t as intrigued as I was, but I figured I’d be way more into the project than he would be!

About three days later, there was a maggot in the container with the cocoons! Remember, the maggot was never in the same tank/container as the butterflies or cocoons, so I was kind of freaked out and baffled seeing a maggot with our cocoons. I hopped back onto the computer to find out how and why there was a maggot in the container because it seemed like a miraculous appearance within a twenty minute time frame (from the last time I had checked them). Turns out, there are flies that lay their eggs on caterpillars. Hatching maggots will burrow and feed on the caterpillar, which will then obviously kill the caterpillar. So that’s what was going on in our cocoons, apparently. So I deducted that all of the cocoons that were gathered were dead and infected. I got rid of them immediately.

A few days later, we had four caterpillars die! I’m not sure if it was dehydration, but I think at least two may have been infected with Nuclear Polyhedrosis Virus, aka Black Death. Why do I think this? Two of the 11 had something weird happen when I was watching them. In both cases, the caterpillar was moving, and I saw this dark fluid come out of them, kind of deflate, and start to liquefy. It was weird and gross. I was like, “Um… I’m pretty sure I just watched one of our catters die what looked like an awful death.” Sure enough, it was dead. For the second time that day, I washed the tank. I did make a mistake in that I did not disinfect the tank after washing, and only tossed out the leaf that the caterpillar had died and liquefied on. Delayed research indicates that you need to wash and disinfect immediately, and my addition to that information is provide new food. So at the end of the day, we were down to seven catters.

Slowly, each of the seven died over the course of about a week or so. They kept dropping like flies! One of them looked like it cocooned, but it never survived to be a butterfly or moth. The final four stayed on the lid of the tank and they never came down to eat or drink, slowly dying. I tried feeding them in their preferred locations, but no takers! Eventually, they dropped one by one. Dead. So sad!

Apparently, it is not uncommon to have such a low survival rate when you go out and randomly catch any caterpillar you find. I’m going to try and grow milkweed so I can hopefully get some healthy monarchs! We shall see! This experiment turned out to be much more complex than I ever imagined!

End result: failed experiment? I suppose it depends on how you define success. Success could mean:

  1. The catters lived!
  2. They successfully cocooned and emerged as dazzling butters to be released into the fresh spring air!

I think Jay would say that this was a failed experiment. He cried sitting in front of the tank when he saw that the last surviving caterpillar was dead. I, on the other hand, would say that despite the fact that we did not get the end results we were anticipating (butterflies!), we learned way more than I expected to learn about caterpillars from this experiment! I mean, really! There were so many super cool moments, and it totally sucked watching our caterpillars fade away one by one, but man! I learned so much, and I feel better equipped the next time around! Next time, I think we will have a significantly better chance of getting a butterfly!

If you have any experiences or stories with caterpillars, or have additional or more accurate information, please share in the comments!

 

**I am not a professional, and the information in this article is based off my personal observations, and various articles researched on the internet throughout the process. Please do not take this information as scientific facts.**

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