THIS ( FLUTTERING) LIFE
THE orange tree was the culprit. There I was watering the tree when a large and beautiful butterfly fluttered past my head and laid an egg right in front of my nose. I picked the leaf and rushed inside to show my wife.
She was also captivated. The egg was placed in a plastic box and soon there were 20 or more boxes with eggs and developing caterpillars. We learned that the eggs we collected were of the orchard swallowtail, Papilio aegeus. We began to notice that there were lots of butterflies in our garden, all sizes and colours, and soon there were more boxes with different caterpillars.
We watched the process of shedding the cuticle — known as an instar — as the caterpillar grows, six instars in all. Before pupating, the caterpillar constructs a sling to support the pupa. How this was done was not generally known until my wife and I watched the process for a period of two hours. We wrote a paper that was accepted for publication in the journal of the Entomological Society of Queensland.
Watching a butterfly emerge from its pupal case is one of the wonders of the world. The case splits and the butterfly crawls out. The crumpled wings expand rapidly and harden. The butterfly will crawl on to a finger to be admired and photographed. Transferred to a plant, it will exercise its wings and then fly off without a backward glance.
Our library of books on butterflies has grown steadily but no book can convey the excitement of studying the real thing. The highlight for us has been the study of the prince of butterflies, the birdwing. The Richmond birdwing, found in our area in Queensland, is smaller than the Cairns birdwing, but is nevertheless an impressive size. Due to loss of habitat it has become an endangered species and is protected. But no caterpillar food, no butterfly. The birdwing vine ( Pararistolochia praevenosa), the only food for this butterfly, was available at a few nurseries but at a price that ruled out buying one. However, seeds were easily obtained so I raised my own vines. We now have more than 100 vines growing on our property and in the adjacent rainforest. I continue to raise vines, which are given to anyone willing to grow them, for the more vines I distribute, the better for the butterfly. The vine is a protected plant and I have to keep a record of where my vines have gone.
We now have masses of vine growing along the side of our house and this summer, for the first time after six years of waiting, the butterfly has become firmly established. Males and females have been seen and the female observed laying eggs. The excitement has been almost too much for us.
I have watched and photographed the riveting sight of the birdwing caterpillar eating its way out of its egg, then eating the remainder of the egg shell: its first meal. I have noted that the newly hatched caterpillar is full of spikes, which change after its first instar to short, soft spines.
But the birdwing has not diminished our fascination with other butterflies, which we watch every day. We know why most butterflies fly such a fast and erratic course, while the monarch beautifies our surroundings with its slow and graceful flight. The former are good tucker for birds, while the latter advertises its poison with its bright colour and slow flight.
We will continue to watch and study butterflies for as long as our sight and cerebral facilities remain intact.