Life Science in a Jar: Caterpillars

Whilst J was busy rearing mealworms, Little E asked me if she could also keep a pet. It just so happened that one of my old schoolmates is a primary school science teacher (henceforth referred to in this post as Mrs Great), and she had access to some caterpillars. She offered to give Little E a few of them and I was so excited to have another opportunity to study some more little creatures up close!

The very next day, Mrs Great rocked up with a clear tupperware that had four spiky black caterpillars, each about a centimetre long, happily nibbling away on spray of lime leaves. I don’t have a lime plant at home, so I was a little bit worried about having enough leaves for all the caterpillars – but Mrs Great assured me that there were probably enough leaves to last the caterpillars about two weeks.


Some Very Hungry Caterpillars in different stages of maturity

The next day, about half the leaves were gone, and the little black caterpillars had doubled in size, developing streaks of bright green. There were also little dry balls of caterpillar poo rolling about the bottom of the tupperware, which I emptied out into a flower pot on my balcony. This wasn’t a particularly nasty job as everything smelled pleasantly of lime juice.

On the third day, one of the caterpillars had turned a bright green and was the size of my little finger. It was eating up the lime leaves at an alarming rate. I sent a text message to my friend Mrs Great, who was kind enough to drop by with a bunch of lime leaves, but I knew that at the rate the caterpillars were going, I would definitely need to find more lime leaves before the end of the week.

Sure enough, by the start of the fifth day, it was clear that I would need to find more lime leaves for the caterpillars or they would certainly starve.


Running out of leaves!

Unfortunately, I went to three different supermarkets and three different wet markets and nobody had any lime leaves for sale! By this time, Little E was nearly in tears, upset that her caterpillars might starve to death.

However, as I was driving home, I passed by my local community garden. I stopped by, hoping against hope that I would find the leaves that I needed.

I didn’t think I’d be able to identify a lime plant without it’s signature green fruit, so I ran around taking pictures of various little plants and sending them to Mrs Great for identification. Fortunately, one of the pot plants had a tiny little green lime hanging on the one of the stems! Hooray! Community gardens save the day!

I plucked off a spray of leaves and triumphantly brought it to Little E who was waiting in the car for me.

The Aged P also went to talk to the security guard of her flat who keeps a variety of plants in his little guard outpost – and he so happened to have a lime kaffir plant that he was carefully cultivating. She managed to convince him to part with a few leaves which I kept in a cup of water to keep them fresh.

I was almost down to the last spray of lime kaffir leaves when we noticed that the caterpillars had stopped eating and were curling up on themselves, wiggling very slowly. One by one, they each moulted one last time, forming chrysalids that were securely fastened to the sides of the tupperware by silken threads.


The Chrysalid and the Lime Butterfly

About a week later, the first butterfly emerged from it’s chrysalis! Little E was so excited, watching it pump it’s wings to fully inflate them and dry them out. We released it on our balcony and it rested there for a few hours before fluttering off.

As for the other three chrysalids, we noticed that all three had turned translucent one morning – we could see the black and white butterfly wings folded up beneath the surface of each chrysalis – so I told Little E to bring the tupperware to her kindergarten and share the magic of the butterfly with her classmates.

Sure enough the butterflies emerged from their chrysalids midway through her class time, much to the delight of everyone present. The teachers gently picked them up and released them into the school’s eco-garden, with Little E and all her classmates waving and yelling “Goodbye! Goodbye!”


Life Science in a Jar: Mealworms

J came home one day and asked for a disposable tupperware for school. His Science teacher wanted each child to bring home a mealworm to rear over the March school holidays.

I didn’t know anything about mealworms so whilst he was in school, I did a little bit of research and found out that they are quite easy to rear – all they need for food and bedding is dry oatmeal. They get enough water from their food, so it isn’t necessary to provide a water bowl, which acts more like a death trap for unsuspecting mealworms.

Of course, when J brought the mealworms home, both the mealworms were lying in a small puddle of water. It had been a hot day and J thought they might need a drink – all living things need water to survive, right?


Neither of the mealworms appeared to be moving, so I told J that he might have accidentally drowned both of them. Poor J was crestfallen.

“Poor innocent mealworms,” he moaned, peering at the motionless creatures, “They were so active before and now they’re just lying on their backs! They look so stiff.”

Just then, A Becky C happened to phone up for a chat. Well, I remembered all of a sudden that she used to rear mealworms in an old pencil case! Ah ha! Help has arrived!

“DEBS!!!! I have something important to tell you!” she chirped in my ear.


A Becky C laughed at me, then said “Okay calm down. If they aren’t swimming around in water, they might still be okay. Just dry them off with a tissue. Mealworms are very stupid. Sometimes they get so stressed that they think that they’re dead, but they aren’t. The only way to tell that they are actually dead is if they start to curl up and decompose. Then you’ll know that they’re dead.”

So J dried the mealworms off with a tissue and sure enough, after a few minutes, one of the mealworms started to twitch it’s legs ever so slightly. Then it seemed to wake up and start crawling around again. The other mealworm just lay quietly but every so often it would twitch and shudder, as if remembering it’s watery ordeal.

I transferred the mealworms into a dry container with a nice layer of dried oatmeal, and both the mealworms immediately buried themselves in the meal.


Three stages of the mealworm’s lifecycle

By the next day, one of the mealworms was fully revived and was running laps around the perimeter of the container. The other worm was very lethargic. It moved so little that we were convinced that it was dead.

Turns out, the blessed creature was busy pupating – it eventually shed its skin and turned into greyish-white pupa. A week or so later, the pupa split open and a white beetle crawled out, which turned brown, then black.

J and Little E took turns feeding the mealworm and darkling beetle. Occasionally, if they were eating a piece of fruit, they’d drop a small piece in as a treat to the beetles.


Keeping an eye on things

Of course, Thumper was most fascinated by the little creatures and would check on them many times an hour. I had to teach him to stop picking up the container and shaking it around, which would send both the mealworm and darkling beetle into spasms. Eventually, he learned to grip the edge of the table instead and just bring his head down to the table surface to peek at the insects. I’m so glad that he’s learned how to respect small creatures!

Both of J’s mealworms have completed their life cycles and are now darkling beetles, and J is hoping that they will start breeding soon. (Also, Little E is complaining that she doesn’t have a pet. So let’s see what we can do about that.)

Howe to Kille Insects

I have a fruit fly problem.  Ever since I planted the strawberries, my balcony has been inundated with a never-ending stream of the little monsters.  To make matters worse, I’ve got a mosquito in my bedroom as well, which has been keeping me and my poor little rats up at night every night for the past three months at least.  I’m currently averaging at one mosquito slapped to death every three days.

Since I have pet rats, I’m not a particular fan of insect sprays a most of them are pretty bad for the environment and humans too.  Ultrasonic mosquito botherers are also right out of the question since they tend to drive animals crazy with their high-pitched whining and apparently don’t have a very good track record.  Citronella oil has a pretty good success rate at driving mosquitoes away, but has to be reapplied quite often.

No, I’m in the market for a more permanent solution to my flying insect blues.  Thus, the plan.

Step 1: Penny

Penny Dreadful.  I would have named her Audrey, but she's no Venus Flytrap

Penny Dreadful. I would have named her Audrey, but she’s no Venus Flytrap

This is Penny.  Penny is a very hungry and very thirsty little pitcher plant that I purchased from Newtown Garden Market.  Right now, practically all her pitchers are filled with a combination of drowning fruit flies and some sort of insect slurry, which is good because it means that Penny is eating well.

When choosing a carnivorous plant, I really wanted to go for quantity over quality, and pitcher plants really have one of the highest fruit fly killing rates.  Being a swamp plant, they’re very thirsty and also need plenty of shade, but are otherwise ridiculously easy to care for – just mix up some peat and sphagnum moss, stick them in a self-watering pot and Bob’s your uncle.  As a plus, there are also pitcher plants native to Australia, though Penny isn’t one of them, which is unfortunate.

Step 2: The Dip

In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the Dip is a nasty greenish mix of turpentine, benzene and acetone guaranteed to kill any toon that it touches[1].  On my balcony, the dip is a mixture of apple cider vinegar, soap and water placed in a wide-brimmed container.  This mixture is guaranteed to drown fruit flies in the tens of thousands.

Death... DEATH DEAAAAATTTHHH Mwhahahahaha


Fruit flies are attracted to the dip because of the apple cider vinegar, which basically smells of fermented fruit.  However, landing on the dip results in instant fruit fly death as the decreased surface tension of the water causes them to sink right into the mixture, drowning horribly while I cackle in glee.

For best results, use a lemony soap, but don’t overdo it on the vinegar or the mixture won’t work.

Step 3: Electrical Mosquito Sucky Trap Thing

Mosquito Sucky Death Trap of Doom and Doominess.

Mosquito Sucky Death Trap of Doom and Doominess.

This electronic marvel comes to me courtesy of Droo, who discovered it on the Jaycar website and brought it to my attention.

This fantastic device comprises of a fan, several UV lights and a titanium dioxide ring.  Titanium dioxide reacts to UV by breaking down organic matter like bacteria into water and carbon dioxide.  The lights create a small amount of heat.  The heat, water and carbon dioxide attracts passing mosquitoes, who being weak and slow flyers, are sucked into the device by the spinning fan.

Once inside the device, they can NEVER escape again, and will spend the rest of their (brief) lives in the bottom of the device being swirled about by the cruel crosswinds of fate until they die from dehydration.  Mwahahaha.

Seeing as there’s about 10 mosquito corpses in the thing, I do believe it actually works.

[1] RIP little shoe guy. You didn’t deserve your fate.