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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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?

WRONG.

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.

“NONONONO WAIT WAIT LISTEN LISTEN THIS IS AN EMERGENCY!” I shrieked back. “I THINK THE MEALWORMS HAVE DROWNED!”

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.

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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.

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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.)

The Good Life: Protecting the Babbits

Rabbits have long since been considered a pest in Australia. I mean, the longest unbroken fence in the world was built in the country to keep the rabbits out of precious farming territory.

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The Greater Bilby, endangered in Queensland.  Photo courtesy of DHP

Besides, there’s well documented evidence that the introduction of rabbits can vastly alter the ecosystem. Heck, the adorable little rabbit is believed to be responsible for the decline of several Australian native species such as the Greater Bilby through habitat destruction.

It is no surprise that the Australian government works to control the feral rabbit population through regular releases of biological agents like the Calicivirus[1] (aka Rabbit Haemorrhagic Diseases). In fact, a planned release of the virus is happening across 1,000 sites across Australia as we speak!

For those of you not in the know, the Calicivirus is a very nasty killer. It basically makes your rabbit bleed out internally, until it finally dies from the stress. BUT! A vaccination for this horrible disease does exist and is available at most local vet clinics! Both Bonnie and Clyde are regularly vaccinated against Calicivirus, so they’re covered in the event of a planned release.

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Bonnie and Clyde after being vaccinated.  They’re very upset about the whole situation, but it’s for their own good!

That being said, it doesn’t hurt to take extra precautions to protect the rabbits from the dangers of horrible diseases. Both Calicivirus and Myxamatosis are spread by flies and mosquitoes, so you should take steps to insect-proof any rabbit play areas.

To protect our precious bunnies, The Boobook and I lined Bonnie and Clyde’s outdoor hutch with UV protected mosquito netting. It’s a little bit expensive, but at least it’ll keep them safe.  Plus, we’ve lined the bottom with thick gauge chicken wire so that they can’t dig their way to freedom and get themselves hurt.

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Mosquito-proofed babbit home!

So, now our babbits are free to dance and play in the sun and are safe from the virus come rain or shine!  If you’d like more information on how to protect your rabbits during this viral release, RSPCA Australia has some very useful information and advice available.


[1]Calicivirus is pronounced Khaleesi-virus, but doesn’t have anything to do with dragons, unless you count the fact that it kills kinda messily.

Crazy Tales from my Old Apartment: Sky Cat from the Sky

So, the other day, I was relating a past experience to a coworker when she turned to me and said, “Y’know, you have some really strange things happen to you.”

I thought about this and I realised that yes, I have had a very interesting life.  For some inexplicable reason, some very strange things have happened to me over the past 15 years of my life.

I attribute this to the fact that I moved to Australia, land of crazy animals and crazier people, about 15 years ago.  Still, I can’t deny the fact that most of the craziest things that happened to me happened while I was still living in my old apartment.

One evening, as I was cooking dinner[1], I heard a loud thump outside.  Being the kaypoh person that I was, I decided to look out onto the balcony, mostly because the thump sounded uncomfortably close.

As soon as I opened the balcony door, there was a loud yowling noise and a huge black cat flew past my face and into the house.  This was particularly strange because:

a) There was a ‘no pets’ clause in my apartment building;

b) My apartment balcony isn’t connected to any other balconies in the building, and;

c) I live on the 13th floor in a 16 floor building.

The cat made a beeline for my sofa and dived underneath it.  It stared at me with glittering eyes from the darkness under the sofa.  So, I did the only sensible thing I could do.  I ensured the safety of my pet mice by placing them in one of the cabinets and shutting the door.  Then I called Debs G for advice.

A Becky Lee: Debs, there’s a cat in my house.

Debs G:  WHAT?! I know you wanted a cat, but the Aged Ps are going to be SOOOOOO CROSS with you. You don’t even have a steady job and you’re studying! How could you buy a cat?  DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH THEY COST?!  HOW MUCH DID IT COST?!

A Becky Lee:  It came from the sky.

Debs G: Don’t talk rubbish!  Cats don’t come from the sky!  If you’re going to make up stories, at least make up plausible ones!

A Becky Lee:  I’m going to see if I can pull it out from under the couch.

This proved to be an immeasurably stupid idea because the cat, being both upset and possibly quite angry about having fallen from the sky, clawed my arm into ribbons.  So, owtch.  I returned to my phone call.

A Becky Lee: It just clawed my arm.  What am I going to do with it?

Debs G:   Maybe you can return it to the pet shop.

A Becky Lee:  My arm, you doofus!  What am I going to do about my ARM?!

At this point, I noticed something white fluttering in the breeze somewhere just over my balcony.  It was a photograph of the cat, tied to some fishing line, which was being slowly lowered down from above.

A Becky Lee:  Hang on, there’s a message coming down from the sky.

Debs G:  What?!

The message read, and I quote, “Have you seen this cat?” followed by a picture of a rather familiar black shadow from under my couch.  I grabbed the message and fed the string onto my balcony, then I went inside for a pen.

Debs G, by the way, was yelling incoherently for this whole exchange, which was fantastic medical advice, so I hung up on her.

I found a black marker and wrote: IT’S IN MY HOUSE.  <HOUSE NUMBER>

Then, I tugged on the line.  It started rolling back up.

About 15 minutes later, my doorbell went off.  The cat’s owners arrived, a young couple. The woman had been crying – her mascara was running down her face.  The guy was sweaty and panting, but otherwise calm. They lived on the top floor.  Apparently, they brought their cat out onto the balcony and it took a leaping dive off the edge.  Thankfully, the wind managed to blow it back onto my balcony.

They were really relieved that it had survived the trip.

They took it home with them and advised me to wash my arm and put some Savlon cream on it.

And that, my friends, is how I almost owned a cat, but didn’t.  The moral of this story is, don’t bring your cat out onto the balcony.

Seriously, don’t do it.  Cats get disoriented by heights and often test them by jumping.

Also, never call Debs G for medical advice when a skycat is involved because she is a meanie pants.

THE END.


[1] Chicken stir fry with green beans and almonds.

Going Over the Rainbow Bridge

When I was on holiday, I received a message from the pet care facility where I’d boarded my rats.  Clio, my black berkshire rat with the sweet personality, was losing condition and wasn’t responding to antibiotics.  The owner of the facility was very apologetic and warned me that Clio did not look anything like she did when she first went to boarding.

Clio greeted me happily upon my return, but she was a lot worse for wear.  The facility owner and I discussed her symptoms and agreed that it was highly likely that she didn’t have a viral condition, but a neurological one – possibly a stroke.  She’d developed a head tilt and could no longer walk straight.  Still, as Clio nuzzled my fingers, I thought that since she was still eating and making happy rat sounds (bruxing), that perhaps we could get her back to her old condition through good feeding and careful care.

Over the next few days, Clio would greet me happily whenever I went to the cage.  She still ate and drank, though her fur remained raggedy and her eyes were often crusted with porphyrin[1].  Every morning, I would clean her eyes and feed her by hand.  When I did so, she always rewarded me by bruxing and nuzzling my fingers.

…But her condition didn’t change.  In fact, she worsened.  She spent more and more time asleep.  When she was awake, she would toddle in circles and fall over.  Sometimes, she would attempt to climb the cage walls to greet me, but would always fall over after the third or fourth rung.  After a while, she would stretch out her legs involuntarily whenever she was picked up because of her balance issues and possibly because she was having difficulty breathing.  But… she always nuzzled my fingers and bruxed, as if to show willing.

On Thursday, two weeks after I took her home, I realised that Clio wasn’t going to improve.  She was getting worse every day, slowing down and sleeping more.  Some mornings, the porphyrin crusting was so bad that she couldn’t open her eyes.  It was clear that she was dying… and that she was in a lot of pain.

So, we decided to have her put down.  We took her to the vet who told us that yes, Clio wasn’t going to improve, but that putting her to sleep was a difficult decision.  She gave us two options:

  1. Bring Clio home and manage her pain until she died naturally.
  2. Have her put down immediately.

Making the decision to put an animal to sleep is very difficult.  Generally, there’s a gut feeling when it’s time to say goodbye to an animal.  Most of the time, your pet’s behaviour will clue you into how they’re feeling, especially if you’re close to them.  Clio stopped playing with her cagemate and spent most of her days asleep.  Towards the end, she was really slowing down and though she would rouse herself and eat, it took her a long time to wake up.  Though Clio never lost interest in her food or water (something I always take as a sign that an animal is dying, as once they stop eating, the end is almost certainly near), it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to get the food she wanted.

If you’re already asking yourself whether or not you should be putting your pet to sleep, in a way, you sort of know if you should.

However, you should always speak to your vet about your pet’s condition before making any serious decisions.  Sometimes, a pet in a great deal of pain can be treated with hard work.  If your vet is only offering pain management options and has let you know that the disease is terminal, then it’s up to you.  Euthanasia isn’t for everyone, which is why our vet gave us the option of managing her pain until she died naturally.

Either way, losing a pet is hard, so always give it lots of thought before you decide for or against putting your pet to sleep.

Since I couldn’t bear to see Clio suffer anymore, I made the decision to have her put to sleep.  The vet took her away, then brought her back in a little box.

I cried a little.

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Clio’s gravesite.  RIP Clio.

We buried the box in our backyard and planted a blueberry bush over it as a memorial.  Clio had expensive taste and she always loved blueberries.


[1] A reddish oil produced by rats naturally to soften their fur.  A sick rat often overproduces this oil and can’t groom it through the fur properly, leading to it crusting around the eyes and nose.

June Holiday Excursions 2015: A Visit to the SPCA

Today, J was very busy with Other Things, so I had the opportunity to spend some time with Little E!

Now that Thumper has arrived, she has been such a great big sister to him, but I still want to show her that having a small baby around does not mean that she will not be receiving any attention from me. This is why I planned a little excursion just for her!

We started out by having a Very Leisurely Breakfast at the Ya Kun Kaya Toast branch down at Holland Village. I ordered a set of steamed bread with kaya which came with a nice cup of tea (for me) as well as soft boiled eggs in a dish. Little E had a cup of Milo to herself and happily ate the runny eggs with a spoon, occasionally taking a mouthful of fluffy steamed bread.

Tasty soft boiled eggs with soya sauce

Tasty soft boiled eggs with soya sauce, steamed bread and hot drinks!

Afterwards, we drove down to the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). The Barn Owl and I want to teach the children to respect nature and be kind to animals, and we have always said that if we ever decide to welcome a dog or a cat into our family, we would probably adopt one from a rescue shelter.

This was Little E’s first visit to the SPCA animal shelter so along the way, I talked to her about why animal shelters exist and the responsibility that pet owners have towards their pets.

She was very impressed by the idea that people would buy pets on impulse only to abandon them later on, and she was shocked that there were people who would actively abuse animals.

At the SPCA

At the SPCA

It was pretty busy down at the SPCA, much busier than I expected. There were volunteers taking the dogs for walks or bathing them, and others in the cattery grooming the cats.

Exploring the SPCA

Exploring the SPCA

The dogs got a little overexcited when we approached and started up a real hullabaloo which put Little E off visiting with them, so she decided to stay within the cattery, which was much more quiet.

There were some helpful volunteers who encouraged Little E to handle the animals gently and took the time to talk to her about the challenges of rehoming and rehabilitating animals who have been abused or neglected.

In the cattery

In the cattery

We found out that the SPCA is moving from their current premises at Mt Vernon, to a much larger facility located in Sungei Tengah. The new animal shelter will have much more room to house more animals, and will include a rehabilitation centre as well as an exercise and agility course.

When Little E heard about this, she said that she wanted to help build more homes for stray animals – so I took her to the SPCA shop and she bought a little bracelet for herself and a yellow button for J. She also dropped some of her angpow money into the donations box! Yay, Little E!

Support the SPCA!

Support the SPCA!

SPCA Singapore

31 Mt Vernon Road, Singapore 368054

Opening hours are from 11am – 4pm daily (closed on Thursdays)

If you would like to make a donation towards the new animal shelter, you can do so here.

Waste Not, Want Not

It occurs to me that I’ve thrown away a lot of things.  With three rats and all, I now throw away a large garbage bag of trash every week.  This is slightly unacceptable for a single person.  I understand a family needing to throw away that much trash, but little ol’ me by herself shouldn’t be producing that much waste.  Just this morning, I lugged out a bag filled with:

  • Rat bedding and litter
  • Pile of carrot tops that didn’t get fed to rats because they had too many treats and looked a little fat
  • A pile of apple cores.
  • One empty paper tub of ice cream.
  • A sheaf of study notes that I no longer need.
  • A pile of eggshells
  • Bones left over from a chicken carcass
  • Some food that got thawed out in the fridge for a while, but turned out bad so it had to go
  • Vegetables that went manky because I bought them on a bargain sale and they rotted in my fridge overnight
  • Dried lettuce leaves

I admit that some of this waste is due to my having ADD and forgetting that I had food in my fridge, but most of it is stuff I can’t eat to begin with anyway.  Plus, with three rats, the litter tray fills out a lot faster with waste which has to be carted out of my house before it gets stinky.

Happy Strawberries in the sun!

Happy Strawberries in the sun! The yellow stuff is the litter.

But then, it occurred to me: If you’ve got rat poop and said rat poop sits on litter that comes in big baggies that are labelled 100% garden safe!  Why not use said rat poop to fertilise your plants?

So I did.  And the plants (a few strawberries) were happy for a while, at least.

It turns out that garden friendly rat litter is also made of rice husks, which have a habit of drawing nitrates from the soil before finally breaking down, stealing precious nitrates from the plants for a long time before it actually gives the plants any benefits.  It also turns out that rat poop takes like, three to six months to break down, which meant that for three months, every time I went out to water my plants, I got a good look at the unslightly rat pellets just sitting there atop the soil my plants.  Plus, rats produce more poop every week, which meant that while this poop was breaking down, I was still busily throwing away a whole bunch of it and more stuff too, since rat poop isn’t the only organic waste that’s being tossed out of my place.

Bucket o' worms 'n bucket o' pickles

Bucket o’ worms ‘n bucket o’ pickles

So, I’ve decided to become all green and ecofriendly – reducing the amount of organic waste in my home by fermenting all my organic rubbish in a bokashi bucket and then feeding it to a nice, friendly worm farm.  The great thing about worm farms is that worms are much faster with their breakdown of organic waste into useful compost.  They also produce a whole bunch of liquid fertiliser that doesn’t burn your soil (provided you dilute it properly), meaning that your plants get a whole bunch of nutrients and stay happy for a long time.  The compost the worms produce also makes an excellent potting mix, which means I don’t have to buy any potting mix anymore and I have good organic potting mix to sell to people with gardens.

Red wriggler worms eating paper trash and a carrot

Red wriggler worms eating paper trash and a carrot. There was litter in there yesterday, but it looks like they ate it all.

I’ve filled my farm with little red wriggler worms, which are apparently the best worms for composting because they don’t get too upset if it’s too hot outside, they reproduce very quickly and aren’t too fussy about what they eat.  As an added bonus, I get to feed the worms to my rats when they reproduce!

I’ll keep you posted on how things go with the worm farm when my first lot of potting mix is created and I can start my garden anew!