Life on a Spicebush

The war against the Japanese beetles starts every June.  They cluster on the leaves of their preferred plants, my raspberries.  They can defoliate and kill young plants.  Mostly, they just eat my berries. On this comfortable day, the sky is blue dotted with puffy white clouds day and I am gently shaking leaves to knock the beetles into a bucket of soapy water.  I have quite a collection.

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Japanese beetles skeletonizing a grape leaf

This was the task at hand when I noticed these big “eyes” on a leaf of my spicebush.  I planted it a few years ago.  While it gets a little bit bigger every year, it hasn’t really taken off yet.  It is locally native and attractive to a whole host of wildlife, including the spicebush swallowtail butterfly.  These butterflies are strongly attracted to lay their eggs on its leaves.  Those eye spots that I’d noticed are characteristic of the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar.  I’m always excited when an animal takes advantage of the little oases that I’ve made here.  Even when it’s a caterpillar that camouflages as bird droppings!

This little brown and white caterpillar will morph into a striking green caterpillar before spinning a chrysalis for one of nature’s most amazing transformations.  I am reminded of the quote by Barbara Howett, “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.”  The caterpillar eats the leaves by night and hides in folded leaves by day.  They spin silk that holds the folded leaf closed over their bodies.  It was dumb luck that I’d happened to see this happily munching guy during the day.  Now that I’d learned about this leaf folding behavior, I saw folded leaves all over the bush!  (They fold a new leaf each night).

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There’s a caterpillar tucked into this folded leaf

I checked on him every day.  Some days I couldn’t find him.  Most times he was tucked into a folded leaf.

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The white on the leaf is the sticky silk that holds the leaf folded over
One day, I found a new brown and white caterpillar!

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A new 1st instar caterpillar
Over the course of 1-2 weeks, my caterpillar turned green, grew long and fat and developed beautiful yellow spots.

 

In this, the 5th and last instar phase, he is on a leaf near the ground.

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Fat 5th instar caterpillar
They suspend themselves from the bottom of a low branch, turn dull yellow and then form into a chrysalis.  Then, it can take a couple of weeks before the butterfly emerges.  I lost track of this caterpillar at the 5th instar.  I looked diligently all over the bush for a chrysalis and after a week without a sighting began to think maybe a bird got him.  Nature can be tough.  I’ve seen a swallowtail butterfly in the yard a couple of times recently, so maybe there will be a new caterpillar.

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Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly
I will keep checking the spicebush for new folded leaves.

 

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