To grow your own butterflies sounds like a charming childhood activity. Like rustling up a batch of homemade marshmallows or establishing a pixie colony at the bottom of your garden. We thought that butterfly-cultivation was a chance to gaze in wonder at one of nature’s most remarkable transformations.
The reality is a bit grubbier.
The process begins when five caterpillars arrive in the post. The thought of insects travelling through the Royal Mail system struck me as odd for some reason, although I’m not sure how I thought they’d be delivered. Perhaps on a lettuce leave by a local squirrel.
They actually pitched up in a container that looked like a Waitrose hummus pot, which was within a jiffy bag. It seemed cruel for the caterpillars to be transported in this way, but my guilt was tempered by the fact that we were protecting them in their early weeks from hungry predators like a starling or a shrew or my two-year-old son.
The caterpillars are miniscule when they turn up, no bigger than an eyelash. But they immediately start to grow, increasing in girth at an alarming rate. It happened before our very eyes, like they were enchanted caterpillars. I began to feel uneasy that they would not stop growing and they would begin to pose some actual threat to the family.
The other thing that began to grow was a hefty pyramid of caterpillar shit at the bottom of their pot. I have no idea what the caterpillars were eating to create such a massive output, perhaps residual hummus. But it’s revolting. Eventually the confines of the pot meant that one tragic caterpillar became mired in his and his pal’s own sewage heap and didn’t make it.
It is no surprise that quickly after this accident the four remaining caterpillars, each now about the size of an overly-plucked eyebrow, sought asylum within their chrysalises. The transition from caterpillar to butterfly is a staple of children’s books, it’s a genuinely magical happening. But what actually occurs is grotesque, more like the plot of a schlocky body-horror.
The caterpillar basically blends itself into a chunky broth featuring its own organs. It then congeals itself somehow into butterfly. It probably for the best that this happens behind the dusty curtains of the chrysalis. Unfortunately one caterpillar was perhaps too eager to slip inside his sleeping bag and appeared to have liquefied himself too quickly. The result was a lonely caterpillar head dangling from the top of the pot like a badly-misjudged Christmas bauble. And then there were three.
Once the chrysalises are fully formed it is up to us, the farmers, to transport the circular pad to which they are attached safely into a net in which the butterflies will eventually appear, probably a bit confused. Once installed the chrysalises gradually begin to rise eerily away from the pad, in a position that can only be described as ‘erect’. Then the chrysalises begin to split apart and the shiny metallic bodies of the butterflies show themselves.
Of the butterflies that had made it through to the final three, one got caught up in its own chrysalis and passed out from the energy required to escape. I thought about intervening but David Attenborough has always said don’t get involved in nature. And I’d have probably obliterated its delicate structure with my clumsy fingers anyway.
So two butterflies eventually made their way into the great beyond. Probably delighted to flee their own private hell of the hummus pot. And probably straight into the waiting beak of a hungry starling.