Chopsticks and parsley: How this Prospect Heights couple ended up raising butterflies in quarantine

August 31, 2020 Editorial Staff
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When Abigail Pope-Brooks and Jeremy Neiman put their parsley plant on their windowsill earlier this summer, they were hoping for a better crop of the herb.

However, a very different crop awaited the couple, who had been largely self-confined to their fifth-floor Prospect Heights apartment since the quarantine began in March.

One morning, Pope-Brooks discovered dozens of tiny caterpillars on the plant. The caterpillars had hatched, the couple determined through research, from eggs laid by a black swallowtail butterfly, whose species only eats parsley, carrot tops and the like.DAILY TOP BROOKLYN NEWSNews for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

Caterpillars on the parsley plant.

It didn’t take long for the caterpillars to strip the plant bare of leaves.

“We were faced with the choice of letting them die or buying them more food so they could live,” Pope-Brooks recalled, adding, “Once we started buying them food, we got invested and committed. We were buying parsley every other day, because they were eating ravenously.”

And, lo and behold, the tiny black and white caterpillars that had emerged from the miniscule eggs “grew into big green things.”

For Pope-Brooks, who had been furloughed from her job because of the pandemic, the caterpillars were a source of ongoing fascination. “I enjoyed watching them eat and shed their skin so they could grow bigger,” she said. “Then, I grew curious about their life cycle and behaviors, so I looked up more about them.”

A growing caterpillar.

Not all of the caterpillars were destined to become butterflies, sadly. The couple lost some to a batch of parsley that had apparently been treated with a pesticide, and others to wasps. By the time the creatures reached the chrysalis stage, which took about two weeks, there were six left.–>

In preparation for that phase, the duo put together “makeshift indoor and outdoor settings.”

But, after noticing the caterpillars exploring the wall of the building, to which, Pope-Brooks said, “they couldn’t attach properly,” the couple brought them inside. By this point, the caterpillars were close to going into chrysalis, she said; they had “purged everything they had eaten” and become “very frenetic, wandering endlessly.”

A butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.

Inside, the caterpillars were able to attach themselves to chopsticks that the couple had set up vertically in a jar that also contained parsley. One also attached itself to the couple’s bonsai tree, and then went into chrysalis.

Because they were made of wood, the chopsticks “were a good choice, given the resources we had,” Pope-Brooks added.

At this point, Pope-Brooks said, they decided they also needed to prepare for when the butterflies emerged from chrysalis. “After some research, we realized we had to purchase a butterfly habitat,” she said, a net structure that looks rather like a laundry hamper.

One of the butterflies.

“We moved the chopsticks in there so when they emerged, they would be able to crawl up the sides and hang from the ceiling,” she explained. This is a crucial step as the butterflies’ wings have to dry properly in order for them to develop properly; without enough space, the wings would become “crinkled,” preventing the butterflies from flying.

After about a week, the butterflies emerged, sometime around sunrise, in the order in which they had entered chrysalis. Physical changes in the chrysalises had signaled that the butterflies were ready to emerge. “Their shells get transparent and look darker,” as the black butterflies within finished forming, Pope-Brooks explained.

At this point, the butterflies hung from the top of the enclosures, as their wings dried, for one to three hours. Once they attempted to fly, Pope-Brooks said, she and Neiman “unzipped the enclosures facing an open window, nudged them to fly and off they went.”

The couple’s cat, iOS, watching a butterfly.

A couple of days later, Pope-Brooks said, Neiman “commented that it was quiet without the butterflies. It was a joke, but its essence was not a joke. It’s very engaging to take care of those living creatures, and raise them so they could go off into the world.”

Their beauty is fleeting, however, with the fully-formed butterflies living just six to 14 days, Neiman said. “They are most likely all dead by now,” he said. But, the females of the species lay 30 to 50 eggs a day, he added, so chances are good that descendants of the butterflies the couple nurtured are currently continuing their legacy.

As for the parsley, it has started to grow back, said Neiman, with Pope-Brooks adding, “It’s a nice, full-circle kind of thing.”

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