Help your children to experience the magic of metamorphosis (and remind yourself how amazing it is too!)
I went to collect my son from school one day and he was determined to show me a book in the library before we left. It was a book containing 600 of the world’s caterpillars. I’m not surprised my son was interested, the variety of colourful insects on the front cover and the knowledge that these somehow turned into beautiful butterflies was intriguing.
I began to read the introduction and a sentence caught my attention, it read, ‘every child should have the opportunity to raise a caterpillar into a butterfly’. I completely agreed. It reminded me of when we visited Jurong Lake Gardens and the children were collecting those black and yellow millipedes you see everywhere and I had to upset my daughter when she wanted to take one home and we couldn’t because we had no idea how to care for it. So I decided to find out more in preparation for bringing home some caterpillars when we were ready.
Firstly, some research. There are over 320 species of butterfly found in Singapore (not to mention moths, including the incredible Atlas Moth). You can download an A2 poster provided by NParks of some of the most common butterflies here
Butterflies are an indicator species. This means that they are sensitive to environmental changes and don’t do well where the environment is polluted, so a healthy population of butterflies indicates that the environment is at least clean enough for them to survive, which is certainly not always the case. Butterflies are pollinating insects. They don’t do as much work like bees, but never the less they play their part within the ecosystem.
Their caterpillars are essential food for many bird species. They are also nice to look at and fascinating for children, providing an opportunity to connect children with the wonders of nature.
The gear you need to raise a caterpillar is easy to get hold of and inexpensive. You will need:
A container with small holes – this could be Tupperware with holes punched into the lid with a needle. The holes will be smaller than the size of the caterpillar.
A larger netted basket with tiny holes for your butterflies to fly around in when they eclose, like this one we bought from Lazada
Some sticks for the caterpillars to climb up on to pupate.
Easy access to your caterpillar’s pesticide-free favourite food, or ‘host plant’ (so no buying from a garden centre where the plants are sprayed with pesticide and fungicide – you need to wait 6 months at least for your plants to cleanse of toxins before they are safe for a caterpillar).
You won’t need water, the caterpillars get all the moisture that they need from fresh leaves.
Now where to get a caterpillar from? Firstly, you could go out and find one. This isn’t as easy as it sounds! It can take knowledge of butterflies, host plants, great observational skills and some luck. If you do find one, or more (as they often can be found in groups) you can identify your caterpillar using the amazing resources provided online by the Butterfly Circle. They have a gallery of caterpillars which can help you to identify one if you find one. We found a lot of caterpillars but if we couldn’t identify it or be sure to get the host plant regularly (if we were too far from home for example) we’d have to leave them.
Alternatively, you can source caterpillars off of a seller or enthusiast. I joined The Hungry Caterpillar Facebook Group where caterpillar and butterfly enthusiasts were chatting about lime butterflies and hawk moths and handing out advice and caterpillars for adoption. I found a seller on Carousell with lime butterfly caterpillars and there was also a company, Oh Farms, who said that they had butterfly kits but the key person never returned my enquiries.
In the end, we weren’t far from home when my daughter discovered some weeds that had the telltale bite marks of caterpillars. She used her wonderful observation skills and soon had spotted five hungry caterpillars! Finally, we were ready to get started.
We collected the caterpillars in our emptied out water bottle and picked a load of the weeds and headed home. We set up our caterpillar habitat and checked the Butterfly Circle and identified our caterpillars as Tawny Costers (Acraea terpsicore) and the plant as corky stem (passifora suberosa).
We read through the Life History of the Tawny Coster what stage, called an ‘instar’ our caterpillars were in. We estimated most were in their 4th or 5th instar. After a few days and a change of leaves the largest caterpillar had begun to turn more orange – its 6th Instar – and sure enough, it hung itself upside down a few days later on a vine.
During the next few hours, it turned (pupated) into a white and black chrysalis.
We learned that our Tawny Coster chrysalis would turn dark after about 5 days before the butterfly ‘eclosed’ the next day. Sure enough, the next day after our first chrysalis (we now have four) turned dark we were amazed to see a beautiful orange butterfly fluttering around our enclosure! We popped in a slice of fruit so it could have some sugar and prepared to let it go the next day.
Checking the Life History of the Tawny Coster again we were able to identify our butterfly as male, given its darker and brighter orange colour. The children were delighted to let our butterfly go and watch as it flew away free on its adventures.
In the end, once you get started, this is a very addictive hobby! Now we’re all set up we currently have lime butterfly caterpillars and common rose caterpillars in residence. We have access to four different host plants and know where to find these species of caterpillars. We’re growing our own host plants in the hope to attract our own caterpillars to our balcony and I hope that we can ‘upgrade’ to a giant Oleander Hawk Moth caterpillar soon.
The learning points for children here are tremendous. They learn to nurture through nurturing the caterpillars and they understand about metamorphosis through their first-hand experience. They learn new vocabulary such as ‘instar’, ‘chrysalis’, and ‘pupate’. They gain an understanding of the cycle of life and the interdependence that exists within ecosystems. Probably best yet, this is a very inexpensive hobby and it helps ecosystems thrive by encouraging more people to grow host plants for caterpillars. It can also be a short-term commitment, the complete cycle may last just four or five weeks. You’ll probably enjoy it just as much as your children do!