Papilio Machaon, a swallowtail butterfly or Macaón, is an easy-to-identify Lepidoptera because of its considerable size and colorful color. In the Iberian Peninsula and in the Balearic Islands the subspecies hispanicus flies, of black and yellow colors with red and blue shades on the rear wings. That round, red spot is called ocelot . and its function is related to mimicry. These pretty butterflies pass through my garden often, but I have rarely been able to photograph them. I love that these pollinating insects come and flutter between my plants.
This spring I have not had much time to devote to the garden and little, or almost nothing, I have touched the bushes to clean them of dried leaves and withered flowers. I imagine that thanks to that little interference, flying insects have felt much freer and more confident to flutter through the bushes. Macaón loves fennel, a few years ago I discovered a pair of caterpillars between the leaves, but I had never found a group as large as this years. I have reached 12 caterpillars at a time and there are still more eggs to hatch.
I have watched my little collection of friends daily and patiently, as when I was a child with silkworms. These are free between the branches of the fennel, plant from which they feed. In my case, it is Crithmum maritime ( sea fennel ), but they also love Foeniculum vulgare (common fennel). The kills are somewhat fuchsia, the caterpillars leave their mark where they pass, but the truth is that I worry very little. I love watching my worms knowing that they will become beautiful butterflies. And fennel is so resistant that it will recover.
During the observation, I discovered some things about them, such as when they feel threatened they take out an orange organ that they have in their head. It looks, in a way, the snail’s horns, but somewhat shorter. I’ve read about it and it’s about the osmeterium, a gland that emits a pungent smell to scare a possible predator. I did not notice the smell, but when I wanted to remove a twig that hindered me to take a picture, as I brought my fingers to the caterpillar, it extended the osmeterium. I was so surprised that I didn’t have time to take a picture. Then, when I tried to reproduce it, I did not succeed. The worms stood still, motionless, but nothing more.
Another thing I have discovered with so much looking at Papilio Machaon’s caterpillars is that the wasps attack them to eat them. If the caterpillar is large, the difference in size allows them to face and scare off the predator, but when they are small they have it complicated. A couple of days ago, when visiting my friends, I saw a wasp fly by holding the head of a little girl with her mouth. Today I was able to take this picture with a wasp approaching a possible prey.
The Macaon lays eggs one by one on the leaves of the nutritious plant, they are small bright balls of cream or yellowish color. At first glance, it is difficult to appreciate them, but enlarging the photos look pretty good. The caterpillars are dark at birth, black and hairy, with a white spot in the middle of their body. In a short time, they become chubby and flashy, light green with black rings and reddish dots. I have read that the Papilio Machaon caterpillar multiplies its weight by a thousand in just two weeks. Awesome!
I am not a big fan of entomology, but I love watching these tiny living beings. I confess to you a secret: the first time I crossed a pair of these caterpillars, they gave me such a blow that I threw them in the trash thinking they were harmful. Regrets led me to investigate, and when I discovered what they were, I ran to the bucket to take them out and return them to the plant. Since then I look at all insects with other eyes, and I like them much more.
I would like to see the transformation into a chrysalis and then a butterfly, but it is difficult outdoors. It is not likely to find them among the leaves of the fennel since when the metamorphosis begins it ceases to be interested in food and what it seeks is a protected place where to anchor safely. In my garden, it is possible that I do it between the rocks, under the bush, and there it is complicated to see it. Perhaps, if I had time, I would make a terrarium to follow that phase closely. It would be nice.
I leave a few more photos. In the first, you can see the fennel bush in which they live. I have made hundreds of them, but I think that these will be enough for today. I hope you like them as much as I do!