Thursday, July 9, 2009

Mourning Cloak Saga

We're going to take a momentary detour from stamps and carving (although an exacto tutorial is in the works) and peek at another diversion the girls and I enjoy. Insects. Or to be specific, Butterflies. We have raised Monarch caterpillars for a number of years and that is something I will never get tired of. This year we thought we'd try something new: Mourning Cloaks. If we are successful, there should be 4 posts in this Saga.
A couple of nights ago, my In Laws next door brought me a specimen to identify (I have a bit of a bug lover reputation). Audubon helped a little and on plates 2/625 we found it to be a Mourning Cloak caterpillar. They feed on Willow, Ash and Poplar; sometimes in such large numbers that they can defoliate trees. As a borderline pest, they sometimes need to be "dealt with".
Since these were found on a Pussy Willow bush they have been trying to get rid of for years, they decided to selectively control some and leave a few. There were so many that you could hear them chewing from several feet away! I kept 5 of the larvae and the girls and I put them in our butterfly tent. I'm having trouble finding specific timing info on their life cycle, so I have no idea how long until they chrysalize (not sure that's a real word), or how long before they emerge. I'll let you know when it happens. I do know that it will take at least three weeks to emerge and the adults can live almost a year.
Here is a close up of one of them. Their barbed spikes make them look quite ferocious, don't they? If you are considering keeping caterpillars of any kind, I should probably give you a heads up. Anything that has a diet made up entirely of roughage is going to create a great deal of waste relative to size. That's a polite way of saying "You would not believe how much a caterpillar can poop!"

Some great insect identification sites:
What's That Bug?
Bug Guide

Butterfly Sites:
Butterfly Lab
More Butterflies
And More Butterflies

Uncle Milton
Insect Lore


  1. It seems like so very long ago when the children and I raised butterflies. We had quite an experience with a praying mantis, also. I wish I had taken more pictures. We'll follow the "saga" -- enjoy.

  2. Can't wait to follow this - very interesting. I had never considered butterfly poop, to be honest! lol!

    Great pics :-) I'd love to see what a 'butterfly tent' looks like and what it consists of. And, how do you procure the proper food/tree foliage?

  3. The Butterfly Tent will be in the next post, hopefully after the caterpillars molt into their chrysalis form. We bought ours from Insect Lore though.
    For food, I just cut some of the host plant. In this case, some of the pussy willow bush where we found the larva.
    With the monarchs, we either stop along the roadside for milkweed leaves (which you can freeze) or we have several cultivated varieties that we grow in the yard.


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