A Black Swallowtail photo chronicle

gcertain(7)August 5, 2006

A female Eastern Black Swallowtail visited my garden on July 30, located fennel on both sides of the garden and oviposited on several of the plants.

I found about 25 eggs on three plants on one side of the garden. These plants have been growing in this spot since early spring and are all but hidden by larger plants growing around them.

She also left a number of eggs on four new plants on the other side of the garden. She ignored two large bronze fennels and chose, instead, the smaller but more vigorous green fennel plants.

After two days, I collected all of the eggs I could find and brought them inside. The next day I found five more eggs on the new fennel and decided to leave them there.

On the morning of Aug. 3, I noticed changes in the indoor eggs. Some were turning brown, and in some I could see pinpoint dark spots that I think were the tiny caterpillars.

Later that same day, all the eggs had hatched and I had a brood of growing babies. On the outdoor plants, I found five cats, so they all hatched within a few hours of each other. To my eye, the outdoor cats are growing faster than the indoor ones, but it's really impossible to judge without having them side by side.

Tomorrow is Saturday, and I intend to improve the container for the indoor cats. The fennel branches are stuck into wet floral foam in a disposable plastic dish. An empty ice cream bucket is turned upside down over the dish, and the whole thing is wrapped in a muslin cloth to keep out any other insects that might try to get in. Tomorrow I will pull out the glass tank, give it a good cleaning, and transfer the cats to their new home. I hope to get an accurate count at that time as well.

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Very nice accounting of egg to first instar, Gcertain! Glad to see this here for the newcomers. It is sometimes so difficult to find things like this on the world wide web!


    Bookmark   August 6, 2006 at 11:33AM
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I brought the three outdoor cats inside on Saturday, Aug. 5, and counted 42 in all.

Monday morning, Aug. 8.

Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 9. The outdoor cats were about one and a half times as large as the indoor ones, and they have remained noticeably bigger. You can see the size difference here.

I moved them into a 21-gallon glass tank this morning. I did not count them again, as I have not seen any dead ones. By late afternoon, they had depleted most of their fennel and one had ventured to the other side of the tank.

I went out to cut some new food for them and found another cat on the fennel, but this one was much more mature. I brought it inside. I don't know if it grew that much faster being outdoors, or if it is from an earlier egg lay that I had overlooked.

When I brought in the new fennel branches, I put them in a separate container and let the branches overlap the old food supply. The cats are migrating en masse to the new fennel. When they have completely abandoned the old container, I will clean it out and refresh the fennel and let them move back. I am glad I bought the extra fennel plants a couple of weeks ago.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2006 at 9:31PM
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They are 8 days out of the egg and growing fast. This pic is from Friday morning. I can no longer identify the one that I brought in from outside. I have to replenish about a dozen branches of fennel a day. I have begun adding some parsley to see if they will eat it, and while they seem to prefer the fennel, they do switch to the parsley if they don't have to go far to get to it.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2006 at 3:39PM
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I must have upset the cats as I was cleaning the tank today. They stuck out their little osmeteria at me, and OH! what a stink! Combined with the fragrance of the fennel and parsley, it was awful. It was the first time I had seen that, and it took awhile before I realized where the smell was coming from.

I am getting concerned about the crowding. They seem OK now, but I think I will work on either dividing them into separate containers or putting them all into a bigger aquarium.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2006 at 9:43PM
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The cats are now 12 days old and some have reached 2 inches in length. I expect them to begin pupating shortly -- and just in time. I've had to supplement their fennel diet with flat Italian parsley (which is past its prime), but they don't seem too picky.

I moved them to larger quarters, but they still are too crowded. Today I saw a small one marching right over a bigger one. Sometimes they fight for space on a fennel stalk. They remind me of a line of 747s waiting for clearance to take off.

Would you believe that a couple of hours ago the bottom was clean and the the food looked like a forest of fennel and parsley?

    Bookmark   August 15, 2006 at 10:55PM
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I was dangerously low on fennel, so I stopped by the nursery and picked up five more 1-gallon pots of bronze fennel. It's tall and skinny, but it may have enough foliage to get me through. The wonderful nurseryman gave me a whole flat of curly parsley that had started to bolt. I put two of the 3-inch pots right into the tank with the cats, and those plants are now being devoured. (This nursery uses no pesticides, and these plants have been there since spring, so they should be safe.)

Two of the cats appear to be preparing to pupate. Hmmm... make that one of them. The other seems to have changed his mind once he saw the fresh parsley and fennel.

    Bookmark   August 16, 2006 at 8:07PM
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I happened to catch the first BST cat shedding his last skin as he pupated. It stretched and wriggled like Marilyn Monroe shimmying out of her JFK birthday dress and finally kicked that old skin to the floor.

At least two more have slung harnesses from woody fennel stalks. Here's one:

They've gotten a lot friendlier with me. Two days ago, every one of them would stink me if I bumped the branch they were feeding on. Now they just climb up on my hand trying to get first dibs on the fresh food. I'm going to miss them when they've all pupated, but I won't miss the smell.

    Bookmark   August 17, 2006 at 11:17PM
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The fennel feast finally has ended. I think I will have enough fennel and parsley combined to see all of the cats through pupation  7 have pupated; 11 are preparing to pupate and 8 seem to have stopped eating. About 14-16 are still eating, but even they appear to have slowed their gluttony. I think that by this time tomorrow, all will be at least beginning the pupation stage. That will be day 20 from oviposition, and 16 days out of the egg.

    Bookmark   August 18, 2006 at 11:20PM
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Thanks for posting this photo chronology. It is very intertesting and almost "scientific" in detail. We have only 2-3 Black Swallowtails in Camelot; sure wish we had more. I haven't found BST eggs on any of our BST host plants.


    Bookmark   August 19, 2006 at 9:28AM
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Thank you Mike. This forum has been quite helpful to me over the last few years, and I wanted to try to provide a useful record.

I believe that I have a large enough number of individuals to show the degree of natural variation. They all started out as eggs laid within at most a 36-hour period, but their development spread them out somewhat more. From the first pupation to the last took five days. The first cat pupated on Aug. 17, the last on Aug. 22. The final count is 43.

One chrysalid I think is not going to make it. He pupated in the narrow angle of a jointed fennel stalk and did not have room to form properly. I was able to move the stalk to give him more room when I discovered his predicament, but I think it was too late. His old skin is still attached at the top, and he is not as fat as the others.

Another apparently fell after it had committed to pupating but had not yet shed its skin. It lay on the bottom of the tank for a day and a half and I thought it was dead. I planned to remove it when the last cat had pupated, but I came home on Monday and it had made a chrysalis.

Most of the chrysalides are pale green, and the older ones have handsome pale yellow stripes. However, their color closely mimics the color of the support on which they are hanging. One is hanging on a faded fennel stick, and it is mottled green and brown. Another attached to the side of a black plastic pot of parsley and is mostly black.

Toward the end of the larval period, I nearly ran out of fennel, but I had a large number of 3-inch pots of parsley. Because the cats had started pupating on the bare fennel stalks, I had to selectively remove empty sticks and leave those supporting chrysalides. It was easier to put in the little pots of parsley, and when the cats had stripped them, I put them back outside, watered them and let them regrow. Eventually, four of the cats pupated on parsley, so I still have four of the pots in the tank with live parsley growing in them. Unfortunately, I also have to watch closely for pests from the parsley and dirt. So far tonight, I've removed a spider, a beetle and a snail. I think it's time to relocate the chrysalides on the parsley and put the plants back outside.

I don't know whether to expect butterflies this fall. I have not had BSTs overwinter, but I have had some take what seemed to be an extraordinarily long time. I guess now the only thing to do is settle back and wait.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2006 at 12:02AM
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I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to see these pictures! If you need free image hosting, would you consider becoming a member of Image Station? They're a free image hosting site, and have lovely photobooks. Here's my monarch photobook: http://www.imagestation.com/album/pictures.html?id=2107196444

You can become a member at www.imagestation.com

I would sure love to see the pictures that accompany your wonderful accounting of your BST cats. I am new to the world of attracting and raising butterflies, and stumbled across this site looking for information on a bunch of some kind of swallowtail eggs all over an ornamental peach tree in our front yard. Thanks! ~ Sherri

    Bookmark   August 27, 2006 at 5:14PM
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I changed servers for my site yesterday. The pictures should come back shortly. If they don't, I'll make a clickable gallery and post the link.


    Bookmark   August 27, 2006 at 7:33PM
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putzer(z4 WI)

This is fascinating-thank you so much for taking the time to record everything!!

    Bookmark   August 28, 2006 at 9:58PM
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The first one eclosed today  a female. This is 30 days after oviposition and 12 days after pupation. This was the same butterfly whose pupation stages were shown Aug. 17.

I didn't really expect any of them to eclose until spring, so it was only by chance that I happened to check on them. She wasn't making any noise, but she was really eager to be free.

I have all the chrysalides in two popup hampers. She flew out as soon as I lifted the cloth covering and flew in wild spirals until I caught her in a large plastic container and took her outside. Then, instead of going to a flower, she took off for the top of a distant tree, so I wasn't able to get any pictures of her.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2006 at 8:04PM
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Five more eclosed today. I released three this morning before work -- two males and one female. I released one more male when I got home.

The sixth one must have gotten loose in the house, and, I hope, found its way outside when a door was open. I've looked all over and have not found it inside, but there are clearly six empty chrysalides.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2006 at 10:41PM
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The Mystery of the Missing Butterfly is solved -- the errant swallowtail had hidden between the blinds and the window. He started making noise this morning so I could find him. He was quite eager to get outside.

Meanwhile, a bunch of his brothers and sisters decided to make their debuts today over a period of several hours. Starting early this morning, 10 eclosed and flew to the trees. At least some of the ones I've released seem to be hanging around. I haven't found any more eggs, but I'm seeing lots of the butterflies. So far, only 3 of the 16 have been female.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2006 at 10:51PM
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Two chrysalides left. The next generation is well under way. I found a bunch of eggs and small cats today and brought them inside. I've got to fertilize the fennel and parsley!

    Bookmark   September 5, 2006 at 4:57AM
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One more eclosed today, a male from the dark chrysalid that had formed on the side of a parsley pot. This one pupated for 18 days, and eclosed approximately 40 days after oviposition. He climbed onto my finger, and then continued right up my arm. When he reached my shoulder, he took off for the window. I had to make a cage of my hands and get him outside. As soon as I opened my hands, he took off for the roof of the house. So, no pictures.

There is one chrysalid left, and it looks fat and healthy.

Meanwhile, the next generation cats are eating and growing, and a couple of them appear to be big enough to pupate. These cats are quite widely spaced in age and size, and I don't know precisely when the eggs were laid. I believe oviposition occurred over a period of several days -- in fact, I found two more eggs today. Fortunately, the fennel and parsley had time to regrow sufficiently in the interim and I don't have nearly as many cats this time around, so I think I'll be OK with food for them (famous last words).

    Bookmark   September 8, 2006 at 11:50PM
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The last BST eclosed today, a rather large female, 44 days after oviposition and 21 days after pupating.

I had noticed her chrysalis turning dark this morning, so I expected that she would eclose today. When I got home from work, she had found a route out of the mesh hamper and was walking around on the outside of it. She climbed on my finger after some coaxing, then walked up my left arm, across my shoulder, onto my neck (the tickle was excruciating) and up the back of my hair. When she reached the crown of my head, I could see her fluttering her wings in a mirror, like some beautiful, animated barrette. She was curious and completely unafraid, and it was great fun for me.

We had a much-needed steady rain all day, so I did not want to put her in the garden. Instead, I took her to a smilax vine growing on my front porch, and she seemed content to hang there.

Her nieces and nephews are coming along nicely. Four have pupated, three more have strung saddles and will be chrysalides by morning, and the last one is still eating. I am amazed -- the parsley and fennel regrew to provide plenty of food for this group. I would be happy to have one more generation this year, but I will recall the old Chinese proverb and be careful what I wish for. I don't think I can find any more parsley or fennel in the local nurseries this year.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2006 at 11:42PM
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Two cats left and three chrysalides. Several butterflies have eclosed over the past week, most of them male. One female eclosed today, but I did not get a picture. Here are a few photos of releases from 9/22 and 9/25.

    Bookmark   September 27, 2006 at 6:58PM
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Wow, they are beautiful!

    Bookmark   September 30, 2006 at 1:34PM
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Thanks Sherry. I've been away for the past week and sort of lost track. I remember that two butterflies eclosed before I left on Sept. 30, and one of the cats didn't make it through pupation. When I got home yesterday, Oct. 7, I still had two chrysalides, one of which (another male) eclosed this morning. I have one chrysalid left, and it looks like it will eclose tomorrow. This will be my last BST -- and my last hand-reared butterfly -- of the season.

I had expected some of these to overwinter, but I am relieved that I won't have any through the winter. It's still quite warm here in central Alabama, so these late ones should still have plenty of time to live out their lives before cold weather gets here.

    Bookmark   October 8, 2006 at 8:13PM
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My last butterfly of the season eclosed Oct. 9. It was another male. I hoped he would pose on a flower long enough for a picture, but he was eager for the sky. He stayed in the pop-up hamper long enough for me to get a couple of shots, then he was off for the treetops.

    Bookmark   October 9, 2006 at 5:48PM
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grouperman941(southwest FL 10)

This is a thread for the Hall of Fame.

    Bookmark   October 31, 2006 at 8:01PM
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Aw, thanks GMan. Your message prompted me to go back and read through it again, and it really made me miss all those butterflies. It's been strange the last few weeks not to have any, and the weather has stayed so warm that the parsley and fennel have completely recovered (milkweed too, but that's another thread). I think I'll mulch them heavily and see if the roots will survive the winter.

I thought I had seen the last of the butterflies for the year last week, but yesterday I saw a mating pair of Cloudless Giant Sulphurs and a Gulf Fritillary. But I haven't seen a BST since a few days after I released my last one.

    Bookmark   October 31, 2006 at 11:20PM
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sandwhy(z5, Evanston IL)

I was just doing a search to learn more about the life cycle of BSTs, as I have eggs for the first time. This was MORE than I could ask for. The dates and notes are SO helpful. Thanks for the excellent journal and gorgeous photos!!!

Sandy :)

    Bookmark   May 25, 2007 at 10:53AM
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I recommend that Larry-gene add this to our FAQ's. If any of you agree, let's contact him with a new post and suggest doing so.


    Bookmark   May 27, 2007 at 8:24AM
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aprille(z9 CA bay area)

Wow I just came on here to see if I can ID a Butterfly in my garden and found this thread - it's so interesting - what a lot of time you've put into this - amazing! I also found out what Butterfly is in my garden - the same as yours!! Black Swallowtail - they are so beautiful.


    Bookmark   June 10, 2007 at 1:29PM
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What a great diary of a butterfly life, it's so beautiful, really. The time and effort you put into it are wonderful.

I have planted Fennel, two types, parsley, and two dill plants this year. Last year I found -I think- three of these butterflies and I loved raising them, it was a joy.

Thanks again for your journal of a butterflies life.


    Bookmark   June 30, 2007 at 9:59PM
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Aren't Black Swallowtails BEAUTIFUL?

Thanks for furthering my education about the specifics of BST chrysalides camoflauge. I wonder how they are able ti mimic their surroundings? But, there's so much we don't know about nature.


    Bookmark   July 7, 2007 at 8:50AM
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Mike, everything I've read here and elsewhere indicates that the chrysalis color is not camouflage, has nothing to do with the color of the background, and any matching of chrysalis color and background is merely coincidental. My experience with them, however, convinced me otherwise. If it was coincidence, it was a remarkably consistent one.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to replicate the experiment this summer. Despite rampant fennel and parsley -- the plants I bought in the fall to get my last generation through to pupation survived the winter and grew into giants -- I had only one cat and I didn't bring it inside. Now I'm on my way back to Mexico for the heat of the summer, and I don't know yet whether BSTs occur in northern Michoacan. But there will be plenty of other butterflies, and I am looking forward to finding out what they are.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2007 at 8:34PM
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dogear6(7 / Richmond VA)

Thanks for sharing this last year. My parsley took off this summer (I changed the type of container) and I was puzzled why it was looking sunburned and only in certain spots. It wasn't until I was out after dark to cut some mint that I caught the caterpillar eating away at the parsley - no wonder the brown spots were so random. It's been fun to for my husband and I to watch. One has hatched already (my husband saw it flying around as it left); one is in the chrysalis, and tonight we found a third brand new caterpillar. We've now decided that we really don't need parsley this year. It's much more fun watching the wildlife in the parsley.

    Bookmark   July 29, 2008 at 11:22PM
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Dogear, thank you for bringing my babies back to life. It was such a trip rearing all those gorgeous BSTs, and I haven't done it again since 2006. Early this year, I found about a dozen eggs on fennel, but I decided not to bring them inside. A few days later, I found a few cats, but not as many as there had been eggs. Still I left them outdoors. And two days after that, there was neither cat nor egg to be found. I know they do fine in nature without my help, but I do like watching them grow.

So thanks again for giving me an excuse to look at their pictures and recall their lives.


    Bookmark   July 31, 2008 at 1:33AM
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tweetypye(z8/sc AL)

Wow...thanks Dogear for reviving this thread...I'm new to this forum and haven't gotten very far into the threads yet..this was very informative and educational.
Geni...thank you for the day by day journal of raising your swallowtails. Wonderful information here.

    Bookmark   July 31, 2008 at 12:04PM
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newbie_in_nj(6b E/Central NJ)

Just found this and am sorely missing my 4 little BSTs that I released earlier this month!

Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful chronicle of their development. What a thrill to see it all over again.


    Bookmark   August 11, 2008 at 12:36PM
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W O W !!!!

I just found this and HAD to bump it back up so I wouldn't lose it. I have to share it with DH when he gets home from work and my grandson who will be here shortly. I just planted some dill and bronze fennel today (now I've got to find some regular fennel). I have plenty of parsley in the garden.

As soon as the sun goes over I will be outside checking the parsley!! Can't go out now because I think I got too dehydrated and too much sun this morning while I was trying to plant all of the butterfly magnet plants I had bought.

I got about half in the ground before I got too weak and shaky and had to come in.

I am REALLY excited after seeing this Black Swallowtail chronicle! Thank you so much Geni for sharing this.

A miracle in pictures!!


    Bookmark   June 22, 2010 at 3:09PM
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fighting8r(10 Fort Myers Florida)

This is a great post that deserves top billing! I'd actually never seen this one before. Nice job on photo-documentation.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2010 at 12:38PM
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terrene(5b MA)

Thanks for linking to this thread Fighting! Gcertain, you have created a fabulous pictorial of the BSTs. It is very helpful as I just collected 7 eggs today - and this will be my first time raising these butterflies.

Thanks so much for sharing this!

    Bookmark   July 6, 2010 at 1:53PM
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It is very gratifying to find this thread still active after four years. Thank all of you for your kind comments. I am glad that you have found the chronicle useful and enjoyable.

I wasn't able to rear butterflies for the last several summers, but this year I am making up for the lapse. I am now in my third generation, and I estimate I am feeding around 60 cats in all instars. In addition, about 15 have pupated in the last two days.

I have very large three-year old fennel plants that is my main food source, but some of the plants have matured and don't have much edible material left. I managed to deadhead one of the plants after the last generation of cats pupated, and that one still has some green foliage and soft seeds and flowers. I have been gradually introducing flat parsley into the feeding, but I am also finding huge cats on the parsley. Every time I go out to cut food, I find more cats. Once again, I'm starting to worry about having enough food. Tomorrow I'll check the nurseries for host plants and try to get some new growth going (pesticide free) before the fennel and parsley run completely out.


    Bookmark   August 15, 2010 at 1:06AM
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carlanne(7 NJ coastal)

This chronicle inspired me to work with BST this year for the first time. I have fennel and watch them outside but I did not house them and protect them until I read this series. I was under the incorrect impression that BST ONLY pupated all winter and so I did not want to bother with them. When I found out my error I worked with about 20 of them while waiting for the Monarchs to arrive. Now the Monarchs are finishing up, and there are a dozen fat cat BST in my fennel/parsley patch. I have a few pupae also of different colors depending upon their attachments.

Two pupated on the newspapers in the bottom of their enclosure which was a surprise to me. I thought they had escaped but found them while cleaning the cage. However, now I am tempted to take the 12 or so from the fennel and enclose them to follow them to pupation. My question is, will they stay as pupae all winter? Where should they be kept, inside or out? When should I look for them to emerge? Any other cautions? Thank you for any advice.

    Bookmark   October 3, 2010 at 3:22PM
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Carlanne, I'm gratified that you found the chronicle useful. Like you, I'm still learning about the BSTs. I've had four generations this summer, and my last cat began pupating today. Each year, I've thought it was too late in the season for the last group to eclose and expected to have some overwinter, but they've always decided to come out before winter.

This year, however, the temperature dropped from the mid-90s to the mid-70s in one day and has stayed there for about a week. We expect to return to the mid-80s for a few days, but it's clear, summer is over. So this year will be the test to see if the BSTs will overwinter. I have about two dozen in chrysalis.

I have them in a mesh laundry hamper on an unheated but enclosed porch in front of northwest-facing windows. It's bright, but they never get full sun.

    Bookmark   October 7, 2010 at 2:34AM
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KC Clark - Zone 2012-6a OH

:-( since the pictures are gone.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2011 at 4:52AM
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