Currently, I type these words to the sounds of tiny little caterpillar poops dropping to the floor of the butterfly enclosure sitting on my desk. Plink, plink, plink. These swollen, wriggling Anise swallowtail caterpillars, striped with yellow, green, and black, are housing dill leaves and pooping nearly just as fast. Every few seconds, there comes another round ball of poop out of these bugs. Some poops are the size of a poppy seed, some like a small berry. Every time I glance over at the netted caterpillar coop, there is more feces and less floor. The wall of the enclosure is now stained with caterpillar vomit (or is it diarrhea?) from what’s known as the pre-chrysalis “purge.” Just now, I witnessed a caterpillar butthole expand remarkably until out rolled a bug-sized bowling ball of poop. Plink.
We recently brought home these five caterpillars after my toddler and I came across them in a local park munching away on a dill plant that was about to be mowed down by a tractor. Obviously, I wanted to save those bugs from being cruelly squished—plus, I wanted to recreate my own childhood memories of raising caterpillars. What a sweet activity to do with one’s child, I reasoned, an exercise in conveying the miracle of life. The glorious miracle of life. But, FYI, the miracle of life involves cleaning up a bunch of shit and vom.
Obviously, all parents understand this to some degree from raising shitting, vomiting baby human beings. But perhaps some need a reminder right about now, as orders for “live caterpillar kits” have surged in lockdown, according to a recent New York Times report. It’s not surprising: In the midst of a global pandemic that has shuttered schools and daycares, raising butterflies is not just educational but has the practical benefit of keeping children marginally occupied during the workday. Last week, my colleague Kelly Faircloth mentioned in Slack that she was considering jumping on the caterpillar bandwagon. I felt it my duty to both encourage said activity and warn her about the plink-plink-plink and the “purge.” Suddenly, Kelly was reconsidering. “I will say eric carle left this very important detail out of the very hungry caterpillar,” she wrote. Indeed, he did. All that cake, sausage, and ice cream went somewhere.
Thankfully, caterpillar feces are odorless, but they do accumulate at a remarkable pace and go seemingly everywhere, as evidence by the fact that I just found an escaped poop on my desk, next to my keyboard, while typing these very words. The poops are also round, which means they... roll. So imagine you’re cleaning up several dozen caterpillar poops—while straining through the roof-top opening of a standard butterfly enclosure, desperately trying not to disturb the caterpillars and the chrysalises—and then when you pull your wad of paper toweling out, a couple dozen poops go flying in every direction. It was only through trial and error that I learned a pro-caterpillar tip: get an enclosure with a drawbridge door, so that you can easily clean up all those poops, and paper the bottom with newspaper. Voila. Still a lot of poops, but easier to clean.
Finally, in closing, let me state for the record: I am vehemently pro-caterpillar. Kid or no kid, you should definitely consider raising some “cats,” as the caterpillar blogs call them. In fact, I did so a couple times as an adult before my child was born, because nature is coollll, man. Watching a caterpillar’s skin split open down the back to reveal a glossy, surging chrysalis underneath is a freaking trip. So is the fact that, through a wild self-digestive process that I have spent far too much time reading about, “caterpillar soup” turns into winged creature. Raising a butterfly is a fun existential roller coaster ride, even for adults who have already officially learned about “the miracle of life,” just know that it involves a lot of excretions.
Also know that literal shit can be a comforting contrast to the metaphorical kind in which we currently swim. Caterpillar poop: Frankly, I recommend it.