Monarch and Pipevine caterpillars

I’m happy to say my latest caterpillars are growing rapidly and are well on their way to becoming chrysalises. They are eleven and twelve days old and about an inch long. I think they are a neat study in contrast.

The Monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) is quite colorful with its yellow, black, and white stripes.

The Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar (Battus philenor) is velvety black with distinctive orange spots. It looks prickly with black spikes that might scare a predator, but these spikes are quite soft to the touch.


I’m surprised at how much I enjoy tending the caterpillars and watching them grow.  As long as I keep them supplied with fresh food and shake the droppings from their cage, they appear to be healthy and happy.

Caterpillars are often referred to as ‘voracious eating machines’ and as they get larger that’s especially true. I’m glad I have plenty of milkweed and pipevine. These are the only plants these caterpillars can eat and without them they would starve. Without milkweeds there would be no Monarchs, and without pipevines there would be no Pipevine Swallowtails.

I expect that within a week these caterpillars will make chrysalises – their next stage in becoming butterflies. I find it an amazing and fun journey to watch.

First Monarch butterfly of the year

What a nice surprise! I was working in the garden last Tuesday, May 10, and was delighted to see a Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) near some Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). I suspected she was laying eggs. Sure enough, I later found two tiny white eggs and two more on nearby Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).

I’ll never forget the first time I saw and photographed a monarch laying eggs. This image was taken Easter Sunday, April 15, 2006 in our backyard.

monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)  laying eggs in Kentucky backyard Watching  her place the tiny white eggs from the tip of her abdomen on the small milkweed plant was a memorable experience, and the beginning of my gratifying butterfly journey.

I planted milkweeds because I knew they are the only plants Monarchs will lay eggs on. Even though I’ve seen eggs every year since 2006, the first ones of the season always seem extra special.

I brought three of the new eggs inside, and only four days later I was surprised to discover that tiny caterpillars had emerged. I’m happy to report they are eating, pooping, getting larger and are now the size of very, very tiny ants. It will be fun to watch them grow.

I haven’t managed to photograph the caterpillars yet, but I look forward to sharing them with you in the near future.


Pipevine Swallowtail eggs

While wandering in the backyard last week with my camera, I was excited to see this Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor) laying eggs on the Pipevine (Aristolochia macrophylla).

Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor) - a native Kentucky butterfly

I went back later to find she had laid eggs in at least two places. As I was photographing these eggs, I saw a tiny insect crawling toward them.

In the past, butterfly eggs I’ve seen have mysteriously disappeared overnight. Eggs and caterpillars are tasty food for birds and other insects. I’ve read that no more than one out of a hundred eggs survives to become an adult.

I’d like to increase the chances for this batch of eggs, so I brought them inside. When the caterpillars emerge I’ll put some of them back on the Pipevine and raise the rest to adults.

I’m delighted my 2011 backyard butterfly adventures have begun and I’ll keep you posted on developments.


I’m once again enjoying our native Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). The blossoms are an example of the amazing variety of colors, textures and shapes in the natural world. I like the way they dangle and dance with the slightest breeze.

Aquilegia canadensis

The flowers will be gone in about a month, but I’ll continue to enjoy the foliage for most of the summer.

aquilegia canadensis leaves

Columbine is a hardy plant and adaptable to a variety of growing conditions. I have some plants in our dry shade garden and some in full sun and they seem happy in both locations.

The blossoms are also an excellent source of nectar for hummingbirds. I’ve seen a male ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) in the backyard recently, and I hope he enjoys our columbine as much as I do.