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Saving the Gulf Fritillary Caterpillars One by One

These gulf fritillary caterpillars are being moved from a passionflower vine they defoliated to a new one

When I went to my community garden last month my friend Pat rushed by me with a handful of gulf fritillary caterpillars (cats) crawling on a leaf in her hand. She was moving them from a passionflower vine (passiflora incarnata) they defoliated in one part of the natural area to another one nearby. This seemed perfectly normal to me because I also do this in my own yard.

Native passionflower vines are the only plant gulf fritillary caterpillars eat and I think I might have the only vines growing on my end of the street if not in the neighborhood. This makes my yard a popular breeding ground for gulf fritillary butterflies, and the reason I end up moving hundreds of hungry cats from one defoliated vine to other more abundant vines throughout the summer and fall.

This gulf fritillary caterpillar is big enough to be moved to a more lush passionflower vine

The gulf fritillaries seem to prefer laying their eggs on the tendrils of small, younger vines so I wait until the cats are at a tipping point with the vine they’re on before moving them.

My "mother" passionflower vine where I move gulf fritillary caterpillars to

Fortunately, I have a large “mother vine” growing on my back deck where I can always move the cats to.

I never talked to my friend Pat about moving caterpillars before I bumped into her. We intuitively understand the preciousness of each caterpillar in the context of our fragile ecosystem where butterflies, birds, and just about every kind of insect is disappearing off the face of the earth at a frightening pace. It’s unrealistic to imagine our country reclaiming and restoring enough natural habitat for butterflies to again breed freely. A more likely and hopeful scenario is that it will become fashion forward to plant native host plants, like the passionflower vine, the same way it’s become cool to use reusable bags for groceries and glass water bottles instead of plastic ones.

The native hostess with the mostess

Until then, my fellow nature lovers and I will continue to do what we can, including moving caterpillars from one native host plant to the next, to ensure we are nurturing native nature in the places where we are able make an immediate difference; our yards and local natural habitats.

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