One day as I was in my garden I noticed some of the leaves on my Citrus tree were looking rather chewed up. I knew what this sign meant, and I went in search of the culprits. Soon enough, I found them. Five tiny little black things with white markings that looked like bird droppings. Except these bird droppings moved, and they were munching away on the leaves of my tree.
Now some would have sprayed the tree or killed these little creatures in another way. But I recognized them, and I knew not only what they were, but what they would become. I knew my tree could handle losing a few leaves for their benefit. More importantly, as I counted back in time based on their size as to when their eggs would have been laid on my tree, I realized I knew their mother.
These were Betty the Butterfly’s Babies
If you haven’t yet read it, I told the story of Betty the Butterfly and her miracle a couple of months ago.
The fact she left a legacy behind did not surprise me, as I’ve had Giant Swallowtail butterflies leave babies on that tree in the past. It seems to be a favorite with them. And it helped explain how Dexter, my cat, was probably able to catch her – she was most likely fluttering back and forth around the tree, laying her eggs on the new leaves.
But knowing these were most likely Betty’s babies thrilled me. It was a gift she left behind, and the beauty of knowing she would live on through them was yet one more miracle to add to her story.
Excited, I talked to them, encouraging them in their growth. I considered purchasing that Butterfly cage I’d thought about getting for Betty and raising them in it, but thought it was best if they lived naturally.
But a couple of days later when I counted them, there was only four
Initially I thought I’d simply miscounted. They are, after all, hard to find especially when they’re young, and I figured I must have counted one twice. However, I also know there are plenty of predators who love juicy caterpillars, so I decided to drape my tree in a netting to keep the birds off of the tree.
For awhile this worked. They grew larger, becoming more snake-like in their appearance, a defense mechanism to make them less likely to get eaten by a bird or other predator. They began to get more white patterns on their black bodies, filling out into true Giant Swallowtail caterpillars. And as they ate their way through the leaves on my tree, I talked to them about how one day they’d fly away just as their mother did.
It was fascinating to me to think that these odd-looking creatures that are so completely bound to the earth eventually go through a metamorphosis so complete that their entire body breaks down and reorganizes itself until they are able to fly.
This miraculous transformation from caterpillar to butterfly has often been used as an analogy for ourselves, and rightly so
After all, we are even now on a global scale in the midst of just such a metamorphosis of our own.
We had been crawling along chewing up everything in our sight, and suddenly we were forced to go inside and cocoon ourselves. Now, as we wait in our singular spaces, we are faced with the need to change. Growth and radical alteration is being required of us in nearly every way possible.
But from this we can take great hope.
Because the lesson of the butterfly is that it is in the quiet, dark spaces of the cocoon when everything falls apart and seems to become nothing, when all that you were seems to be lost and your entire world is being disorganized and reorganized – it is there that the miracle of your wings are beginning to take shape. It is there that your new body is getting ready to break free of its’ shell. It is there that every part of you is going through a revolution that is making you greater, stronger, and more beautiful than ever before.
It is in the darkness and the silence and the solitude, the time when you are completely alone and vulnerable, that you are actually making the most progress towards being able to fly free
And so I watched the progress of Betty’s babies with great anticipation and interest, excited to observe the miracle of their transformation with my own eyes.
But then one day I came out, and there were only three.
Dismayed, I searched for the fourth, but he was nowhere to be found. I now thought back to when I first saw them, and decided that there must have been a fifth after all. Yet the tree was covered in a net, how were the birds getting through? What was eating them?
I wasn’t sure, but I knew I needed to do something to try to protect them better, and began to research getting a butterfly cage. I decided I’d order one and get it by the weekend.
But then the day after that, there were only two
That was it, I couldn’t wait for the cage to arrive. Desperately I moved the two onto a smaller citrus tree I have in a pot, and I covered it even more securely with the netting. I eyed my cats, making sure it wasn’t them getting after the caterpillars (it wasn’t, though I wouldn’t put it past them), and placed the pot up high where they couldn’t get to it.
This seemed to work, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I watched as Betty’s last two babies got even bigger, at least a couple of inches long now, and their markings had become striking and beautiful. I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be long before they’d start searching for the perfect branch from which to hang and form their chrysalis.
And then it happened.
I came out one morning and made my usual check on them, trilling a; “Good morning Betty’s babies!” as I lifted the netting and looked onto the last branch I’d seen them on.
There on the branch sat a huge, fat Praying Mantis, with a piece of one of the caterpillars still in it’s jaws. The rest of Betty’s baby was just a smear on the leaf it had been eating. And the other caterpillar was crawling away down the branch with the Mantis looking at it, ready to leap.
Now there was only one, and Betty’s last remaining baby was in danger of being eaten right in front of me
I cried out, and tried to knock the Mantis away. But this Praying Mantis was hungry, and it actually took a swipe at me before leaping around my hand after Betty’s baby.
Now I actually love Praying Mantis’ and think they’re pretty cool. They’re good for your garden in many ways, eating “bad” bugs that eat your plants – such as aphids and, yes, caterpillars.
But I had no idea that they ate butterfly caterpillars (though it’s obvious they would). They eat a lot of things that are also good for your garden, and that we love to have around, such as butterflies. And as I discovered not long ago, once they are big enough, they will also attack and eat Hummingbirds – and not nicely either.
I actually rescued a Hummingbird from a large Mantis that had grabbed it by the legs and was beginning to eat it from the bottom. Thankfully the Hummingbird I rescued hadn’t been bitten into too badly and flew away safely. The Mantis was OK as well, though it gave me some serious stink-eye afterward.
So I knew this Mantis meant business, it wanted my caterpillar and was obviously ready to fight for it, and I did the only thing I could to save Betty’s baby – I picked him up and put him onto the branch of my other citrus tree, away from the Mantis.
However, this Mantis had liked the taste of all my caterpillars’ siblings, and it wanted more. It jumped over to the branch I’d just put him on, and began to stalk it again. I couldn’t believe the tenacity!
Quickly I broke the branch off just above the caterpillar and brought him in the house
Uncertain what to do, I just stood there holding the branch in my hand for a few minutes as Betty’s baby settled down and began to munch on one of the two leaves at the end of it. At least now he was safe.
I mulled it over, and finally decided to leave him on the branch in the house for the time being. I put the branch (with happily munching caterpillar) in a vase with water to keep it fresh, then went out to clip a couple more so he’d have plenty to eat for now.
When I went out to the tree to clip more branches, the Mantis was still there, and I got the feeling it was pretty annoyed with me. It turned it’s eyes on me and cocked it’s head as I chose a branch to trim, completely unmoved by my presence. I could almost hear it saying; “You took my lunch!” I smiled at it and responded; “Go eat some aphids.” Then went back inside.
Now my cat Dexter was on the table sniffing at both branch and caterpillar in the vase with more than a little curiosity
I was beginning to feel like I was fighting a losing battle trying to save at least one of Betty’s babies, but I shooed Dexter off the table (where he’s not supposed to be anyway), and moved the vase and caterpillar to my fireplace mantle, safely away from all cats. And hopefully from Praying Mantis’. Though should a Mantis get into the house, the cat would most likely it eat first before it could get to the caterpillar, so there was that.
I decided I need that butterfly cage after all, and right away. So I created one out of a pop-up net clothes hamper that had zippered sides.
I set it up in my garden, cutting more citrus branches and putting them carefully in a larger vase, piercing them through a plastic cover so the caterpillar couldn’t fall into the water. I then placed that on the floor of the cage, along with several large old bark branches from another tree, stabilized so he could climb on them as needed. I added a few flowers just in case, and then carefully added the caterpillar’s branch with him on it to the mix. I zipped it up, and sat back.
The Mantis stared at me from the Citrus tree. My cat stared at me from a patio chair. I smiled at both of them and said; “No more caterpillars for either of you!”
My cat blinked, and turned to stare at the Mantis instead, who wisely chose that moment to crawl up much higher into the tree and disappear.
For the next week or so I fed Betty’s baby a regular diet of fresh citrus leaves, and he grew so big he nearly looked like the small snake he was pretending to be with his disguise and markings
And then one night during a new moon, he grew restless
He began to crawl all around his cage, going from one branch to the other, one leaf to another. I thought perhaps he wasn’t happy with any of the leaves he had, so I cut some new ones for him. He crawled over to them, but would take a bite and then leave them. I was worried at first… until I realized what was happening when I saw a big pile of slimy green goo on the bottom of the cage. His poo purge. It was time for him to change.
I waited for a long time that night to see where he’d land, to make sure he really was just ready to cocoon and nothing else was wrong. But he kept wandering about, so finally I went to bed.
In the morning when I woke up, he was tied upside-down on one of the old bark tree branches I’d placed in his cage, forming his cocoon.
It was fascinating to watch as he changed shape – first becoming a sort of “J” shape, then elongating out as his skin hardened and darkened. Within a couple of days he was fully cocooned, and no trace of caterpillar remained. Now it was a waiting game.
After two weeks, nothing had happened. I wondered if something was wrong – wasn’t it only supposed to be two weeks? But then I read up on it, and the timing of the process isn’t exact. Sometimes a caterpillar will cocoon for months over winter, waiting until Spring to emerge. Sometimes they only take about ten days. It all depends on the circumstances, and the caterpillar itself, and the timing of everything.
And isn’t that yet another beautiful lesson for us to remember when we are in the midst of our own cocoon moments. It will happen when it happens, you cannot rush the process.
Sometimes we need to stay in the cocoon for a lot longer than we thought we would. But that’s only because we are waiting for exactly the right moment to emerge
Finally one day I thought I saw a slight change. The colors of the cocoon seemed to be darkening. Spots appeared to be forming along it. I wasn’t sure if this was good or bad, but I patiently waited in hopes of a positive outcome.
And then, on the night of a full moon, it happened.
I was reading outside and admiring the moon, when I thought I saw movement with the cocoon. I checked the cage, but decided perhaps it was my imagination, the cocoon looked exactly as it had for the past few weeks. It was late, and I decided to go to bed.
The next morning I opened the door, yawning as I brought my coffee out with me. I looked up, and nearly spilled it all over myself. There in the cage was the most perfect Giant Swallowtail butterfly I’d ever seen, slowly fanning his gorgeous new wings in the sunshine.
Betty’s baby was born as a butterfly.
Life. It is such a miracle. And to see it transform from something that is only a possibility into the full form of all it can be is the best part of that miracle
I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to let him out! But I also knew it was safer for him to stay in the cage for a little bit until his wings were dry and he started to flutter around. So I talked to him as I waited, noting he was indeed a “he” and telling him how perfect and beautiful he was.
Finally I could see he was ready to go. He’d begun to really flutter around the cage, and had landed on the side of it and was making his way up.
As he crawled to the top, I slowly unzipped it for him. He hesitated when I did, sitting for a moment under the opening. Then slowly, slowly, he crept out onto the lip of it. He sat there, gently and slowly opening and closing his wings, then waiting a moment with them fully open, perhaps taking a breath and gathering courage. Perhaps making sure they were completely dry and strong.
I spoke to him, and he seemed to look at me.
“Fly away little one;” I said; “Do what you were created to do, fly and be free and bring joy into this world.”
And just like that, in a flutter and a flash, he did.
He flew straight up into one of my other trees, and sat there, high up on a branch, for a long time in the sunshine. I sat sipping my coffee and watching him. I felt as if he were giving me one last, long moment to enjoy him before he left.
Finally I turned to allow my cats out, who’d been locked inside so as not to make a quick meal of this newly hatched butterfly. Both Dexter and Luci, my other cat, sauntered out with tails up and whiskers quivering, wondering what all the excitement was about, and I nervously glanced up to make sure the butterfly hadn’t come down too close to them.
But I needn’t have worried.
Betty’s baby boy had flown away, disappearing on his new wings into the bright blue sky, just as his mother had done before him.
Following in her flutter-steps, he came into his own, and was free
By JEANETTE DUBOIS
Jeanette is a film & tv editor, writer, director and producer who’s worked on Emmy & Telly Award winning shows, movies, and music videos for a variety of networks. She’s also a trained operatic who mostly sings to her cats now, though sometimes she expands her audience to her family & friends. She loves gardening, good books, good wine, and good conversations, preferably all at the same time.
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