Monday, May 14, 2012

Pipevine cuties

Pipevine swallowtail larva
These kids get big and chubby!

Three years ago, I admired a slew of cute caterpillars chomping on vines at the Natural Gardener nursery in Austin. Instantly, I fell in love. "I want some of those!" I exclaimed. So we bought three pipevine plants and put them beneath the live oaks in our meadow. 

Like I said, that was three years ago. The plants flourished and even survived the drought. The deer didn't eat them either. But neither did any caterpillars. Until last week May 9), that is! Out of the blue, I spotted not one but five pipevine (Battus philenor) larvae!

Can you find four caterpillars in this photo?

Then last Saturday, I went outside to check on them. Oh, my, were they OK? Several just lay on the ground, not moving. Were they sick? Apparently not. I did a quick search and found an article, Life styles of the scaled and beautiful: Pipevine swallowtail, written by Jim Brock that mentions this behavior: "Scientists have determined that pipevine plants contain chemicals that when ingested by the caterpillars make them poisonous. It is supposed to provide the caterpillar protection from predators. Perhaps this is why one often finds the caterpillars resting out in the open. There is no need for concealment if one is normally left alone."

Brock mentions a possible second reason: "Many of their host pipevine plants have small leaves and are unable to provide enough food for even a single caterpillar. So the caterpillar must fend for itself and locate other plants in order to survive" 

Well, I'm here to report that our caterpillars still had plenty of pipevine leaves to eat so that's not a reason why they were out lounging around.

Maybe they needed time to digest all they'd eaten!

Alas, yesterday (Sunday), I discovered one fatality among our caterpillars yesterday. It was all shriveled up like old rubber or latex. I don't think any of us stepped on it; we're always very careful. But like James suggested, I guess we'd better keep off to the side and not step around the pipevine plants any more. 

UPDATE MONDAY, MAY 14, 2012 – I checked the nursery late this afternoon, and everybody's GONE. So guess the larvae took off to make their chrysalises.


sandy lawrence said...

I just went out to check on my pipevine caterpillar cuties. I have a fairly large area of pipevine plants, but had lots of caterpillars and now there's nothing but stems. They even ate the seed pods! I'm worried because I see one guy left and he's eating stems. I have parsley nearby, but he's not interested. Hope he has enough nourishment to make a cocoon.
Would you please post a photo of a cocoon if you find any; after all that munching, I can't see one cocoon!

Cynthia Walker Pickens said...


Steph@RamblingWren said...

Great Post! This is definitely a plant I would like to add to my butterfly garden. I'm having some difficulty locating the variegated dutchman's pipe vine. The only place that I've heard that carries it is The Natural Gardner (unfortunately they are out). I've read that not all pipevines are good for butterflies. So I'm trying to be careful about what I plant.

Is your pipevine in the sun? I'm wondering if this vine needs some shade.

Sheryl Smith-Rodgers said...

Hmmm, Steph, where did you read that? That's where we bought our three pipevine the Natural Gardener. Our pipevines are under live oaks, so they love shade. But I think I remember the pipevines at Natural Gardener in full sun.

And Sandy, I'll be on the look out for chrysalises.

Steph@RamblingWren said...

Hi Sheryl,

Here is a link to the article:

It says...
"the one species of pipevine that is most commonly sold in nurseries is deadly to the caterpillars of the pipevine swallowtail."

Good to know the pipevines like shade because we have a ton of it:)

Sheryl Smith-Rodgers said...

I doublechecked last night, and our pipevine species is safe. Whew! Thanks for the info, Steph! I hadn't heard about that.

Steph@RamblingWren said...

No problem. I'm only buying the variety the "Natural Gardener" sells. I'm on a waiting list for it.

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