A Love Letter to the Oft-Overlooked Caterpillar

Everyone beams at butterflies. I lavish attention on their unassuming precursors.

Illustration of caterpillars growing in a bedroom with a window view of a car being packed for college

Illustration by Claire Owen

People ask me how I’ll manage when my daughter heads to college this fall. I just might fill my empty nest with caterpillars. As a Rutgers Master Gardener, I volunteer at the butterfly house at the EARTH Center in South Brunswick. Master Gardeners undergo a year of classes and field work before becoming certified volunteers for county Cooperative Extensions. We help teach the public about issues such as soil health, landscaping and the needs of pollinators. 

Butterflies, ethereal and fragile, are beloved as pollinators. Caterpillars, alas, don’t get as much acclaim. After all, they ravage a lot of greenery en route to becoming butterflies. But I was delighted to encounter an Eastern black swallowtail caterpillar munching through my parsley patch last September. Here was a late-season caterpillar to admire, with its chartreuse body accented in black and yellow, and those adorable, stubby legs.

Then I spied movement in the patch: a line of determined ants, capable of devouring my caterpillar with frightening speed. Note that I said “my” caterpillar. A caterpillar is essentially a baby, and I had already bonded with it. No way was I leaving it to a gruesome fate. “OK, Chunk,” I said, “let’s get you inside.” Further inspection of the parsley revealed four additional swallowtail caterpillars, even younger—not much bigger than exclamation points. 

Chunk and his friends spent the first night on a bouquet of parsley in a vase on my dresser. Like a new mom, I checked on them several times, relieved that Chunk hadn’t toddled off the vase. I ordered a mesh enclosure so they could grow up safe from predators over the next few weeks.

Every day, I’d hear the tiny plink of caterpillar poop hitting the bottom of the enclosure. Every day, I’d remove each pellet and refresh the parsley. I swelled with pride to learn black swallowtails are the state butterfly of New Jersey. I yearned for a guide—something like What to Expect When You’re Expecting Butterflies. I joined Raising Eastern Black Swallowtails on Facebook, because of course there is a group for this. I was all in.

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I was fully aware that my devotion to the caterpillars helped me cope with impending changes at home. Chunk formed a chrysalis on the same day that my daughter, Audrey, started her senior year of high school. Slow down, I thought. Come back. But I couldn’t wallow. There were college applications to send and four more caterpillars to raise.

At times, I worried. “Should they be eating more?” I asked my bemused husband when the caterpillars slowed their pace. “Is this normal?” One by one, they turned green, grew large and left caterpillar-hood behind. I witnessed one of them create its chrysalis, and I was brought to tears as its chubby body disappeared. How purposeful they were.

By November, Audrey had applied to college, and two of the chrysalids had become butterflies in our backyard. They wobbled, steadied their wings, and then—zoom, gone. Through winter and spring, Chunk and the other two chrysalids hibernated in our garage, while Audrey looked forward to prom and graduation.

Any day now, Chunk and his remaining pals will emerge as butterflies. And before I know it, another summer will be gone, and Audrey will begin her first year at Rutgers. One minute, it’s all about feeding them and cleaning up their poop. You blink, and suddenly they’re wrapped up in their chrysalis, chilling in their rooms until it’s time to fly.  

Kelly-Jane Cotter lives in South River. In her yard stand a large cherry tree and a small garden, where caterpillars will always be welcome.

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