The Horrific (I Mean Magical) Experience of Growing Butterflies with a Toddler

I’m not a huge fan of bugs. There are things I fear more (fire, heights, bubonic plague), but they’re up there. My husband and I periodically return to the question of the actual size of the cockroach that clambered up over a pile of books on my desk, pointed its wavy little feelers at me and said, “Hello, lunch.” My husband always says it was about an inch, I always ask him how big (in inches) Godzilla was. But, motherhood is a funny thing because, a few weeks ago, I actually invited some bugs over to our house. You know, to play with my son.

Clicking around on Amazon one day for something much more reasonable than bugs, I discovered that it’s possible to send away for some caterpillars and have them grow into butterflies. That sounded great! My son, the budding scientist, would love it. We’d have a project to do together. And, in the end, we’d have beautiful butterflies to release into the world. I clicked “purchase” and went about my day.

It was only when they arrived on my doorstep a few days later that I realized what I’d done. The kit contained a mesh butterfly habitat, a plastic flower with a sponge inside, a pipette for feeding, an instruction booklet, and a cup of caterpillars. Five little, tiny black caterpillars, slithering around on top of some brown muck the booklet said was their food.

My son was hysterically excited about the concept of growing caterpillars into butterflies, but not so interested in the caterpillars themselves. I, on the other hand, couldn’t stop looking at them. They were so weird. With all their wavy little legs, and their undulating, exponentially growing bodies. And their creepy black snout things that always seemed to be sniffing the air, looking for something. Fresh meat? No. Calm down. What were they doing in my home??

The directions said to just leave them alone until they went into their chrysalises. So we did. I put the cup on the bookshelf, lifting my son up every now and then so he could look at the books and show no interest at all in the caterpillars. But I could feel their beady little eyes on me.

Then, one day, just like the directions said they would, they all climbed up to the top of the cup (as if responding to instructions from the dark caterpillar overlord of all), hung upside down, and went into their chrysalises. And there they hung. Like vampire bats. Still, and silent, and utterly terrifying.

Do you know what goes on inside a chrysalis? The caterpillars liquefy! They liquefy. They turn into caterpillar goop. And somehow, through some horrifying (I mean magical) process, they reconstitute themselves into butterflies. But, before that happened, I had to move them to the butterfly habitat.

My son and I carried the cup to the kitchen and placed it gently on the table next to the mesh container. “Okay!” I said, doing my best to sound like this was the most fun activity in the world while actually trying not to throw up. “Mommy’s going to open the cup. The chrysalises should stay on the lid and we’ll just put the lid right into the butterfly home.” “Caterpillars!” my son shrieked.

I set to work. And, at first, I was so focused on not messing anything up that I didn’t realize that the chrysalises were moving.

“They’re alive!” I involuntarily screamed as the chrysalises shuddered back and forth spastically. My son squealed and grabbed onto my shoulder. At first I thought he was frightened but it turned out he was having the time of his life. “Caterpillars!” he shrieked directly into my ear. The chrysalises were still freaking out.

“It’s okay little guys!” I said in a high-pitched voice that was meant to sound reassuring but actually sounded sort of hysterical. “What happening, Mommy?” my son asked, interested in these infernal creatures for the first time since they arrived in our home. “I have absolutely no idea!” I shrieked, prying off the lid and shoving it into the mesh container and zipping the top faster than any zipper has ever been zipped in the history of zipping.

What the heck! According to the FAQ (which I promptly read cover to cover), it’s normal for the chrysalises to wiggle back and forth if they’re being moved. Dear butterfly company: You need to print that in enormous, neon letters all over your product. Good grief!

My son couldn’t have cared less when the butterflies started to emerge. They came crawling out, like crumpled aliens, accompanied by gushes of red liquid that the directions said was “waste” but which looked like blood. It smeared the sides of the habitat so that it looked like a horror movie in there.

The directions said we could keep the butterflies for a week before releasing them. Not on your life. The minute the last of the five made it out into the world we were out the door, hunkered down in the alley behind our building unzipping the lid of that habitat.

“Okay little butterflies,” I said in my best science teacher voice. “You’re free!” “Fly into the world!” my son said, flapping his arms. Nothing happened. I tilted the habitat, I blew on the butterflies, I tapped the mesh. Finally, one broke free. It flew away, much faster than I expected, up into the clear blue sky. “Goodbye! Goodbye!” I called after it, perhaps a little too enthusiastically. “Goodbye!” my son yelled, waving.

Two others followed. But the last two. Well, they were . . . busy. Apparently, butterflies have no shame. They were getting it on right there in front of my two-year-old son. Get a room! I got a stick and sort of prodded them (all stuck together) out onto the ground. Startled, they sprung apart, froze for a moment, then took off into the air.

“Well,” I said to my son. “What did you think of that?” “Mommy poked the butterflies with a stick,” he said. Okay then. We went inside. The spot they’d occupied on the window sill was conspicuously empty. I imagined them flying off into the world. To meet new butterfly friends, and have great butterfly adventures. I kind of missed them. Maybe we’d try again next year. But, then again, maybe not.