On Building A Cocoonery

Spicebush Swallowtail Chrysalis Photo by Jeff Tome

There is a somewhat misshapen box with a wide mesh front that is sitting on my dining room floor. It is put together with screws and nails and staples that reflect my son’s interest in pounding or drilling more than any real purpose or planning. Inside the box are three brown packages. Two look like curled up dead leaves on sticks. One is a mostly curled up dead leaf. This is the cocoonery, the place we have created to store the cocoons and chrysalises from the summer.

The insects in the cocoonery spend the winter tucked away inside their cocoons. Well, moths make cocoons, and butterflies make chrsalises. The difference is in the making. The Polyphemous caterpillar rolled up a leaf and wove a cocoon into it using sticky silk to create a shelter. The Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars lashed themselves to the stick with two sticky threads, then shed their skin. What emerged once the skin was gone looks remarkably like a dead, curled up Spicebush leaf, but it is really a perfect chrysalis.

These cocoons and chrysalises were spun and shed into last year in August and September. The insects inside will not emerge until May or June. Most of their relatively short lives is spent waiting out winter, curled up in some of the best camouflage around.

Seeing the great lengths these insects undergo to hide through the long, cold winter, I wonder how many of them I walk past every day. How many dead leaves on shrubs are really cleverly hidden insects disguising themselves to avoid getting eaten before spring?

It makes me pause on my winter wanderings and stare intently into the bushes. Are those dead leaves or Spicebush Swallowtail chrysalises? Are they cocoons, eggs or some other part of the life cycle? So far, most of what I have seen are really dead leaves, but I dream of finding in the wild some of the insects that we worked so hard to raise in the mud room last summer.

There are over a thousand different caterpillars in the Northeast. Little is known about how many of them spend the winter. Some remain caterpillars, tucked under the dead leaves in the forest or under logs. Some remain active, holding on tight to twigs and branches. Still others go through a full metamorphosis and become adult moths and butterflies that fly through the air on warmer winter days. Others spend the winter in masses of eggs, snug under a bristly blanket left by the mom to keep predators away.

Meanwhile, over in my dining room, is the cocoonery, made of a hodgepodge of scrap lumber from the basement that may be older than me. These particular insects are special, raised by my family from eggs as we watched the caterpillars eat and grow, then grow some more. Soon, perhaps not soon enough, we will end an eight month wait for these insects to emerge into the warm air. It will be nice to see them again.

Jeff Tome is a Senior Naturalist and Exhibits Coordinator at the Audubon Community Nature Center, a former CWC board director and a longtime CWC volunteer. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or www.facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.