Lepidoptera Facts Rearing Butterfly And Moth Larva

The main point in connection with the rearing of larva is certainly the selection and construction of the cages or their substitutes. For newly hatched and all very small caterpillars a small bottle with a wide mouth makes a very fair abode. Put a layer of sand or sifted soil in the bottom, fix in this a small twig of the food plant or lay a few leaves on the top, and then, after the larva have been introduced, cover the top with a piece of muslin, held in place by an elastic band.

The great drawback with this arrangement is the lack of any provision for keeping the food moist and fresh, thus rendering a change necessary at very frequent intervals; but this may be obviated by using damp sand as a foundation for the little twig of food plant. With this improvement, if you cover the top of the bottle with apiece of glass, a saucer, or any impermeable substance, you may keep the twig fresh for several days, generally until the disappearance of the last leaf calls for a fresh supply; but it is very doubtful whether the damp atmosphere resulting from this inclosure is not injurious to the larva. It certainly does not seem to have much influence on some, but the unhealthy conditions that result must be detrimental to the inmates. It must also be remembered that many species require a dry soil in which to burrow when about to change.

Larva Glass Fig. 57.-A Larva Glass.

When the time comes for the change of food, great care must be taken not to injure young and small larva. In many cases they need never be touched, for if a fresh twig be placed beside the stale one, they will readily find their way to it; and to facilitate this, and also to afford a convenient foothold to those larva that accidentally fall from the twig, the layer of sand at the bottom of the bottle should be covered with moss or cocoa-nut fibre.

If you find it necessary to move the larva yourself from the stale food, never touch them with your fingers, but lift them gently by means of a small camel-hair brush. Larger larva need never be moved at all. They will always search out fresh food for themselves, and the stale may be removed after they have quitted it.

For rearing larger species ordinary bottles are hardly satisfactory, and we must either use large jars or construct cages of some kind.

An ordinary bell jar such as is used for covering ferns or for aquaria makes a very useful ‘larva glass.’ Place a small bottle of water at the bottom, and then introduce sufficient dry clean sand or sifted soil to reach up to its neck. On the top of this place a layer of moss or cocoa-nut fibre. Next introduce the food plant, fixing it firmly in the bottle of water, and plugging up the space between the stem and the rim with cotton wool. This precaution is to prevent the larva from falling into the water as they attempt to pass up or down the stem, and the wool also helps to keep the twig in a vertical position. The glass is now ready for the caterpillars, but it is advisable to keep a covering of muslin or gauze over the top in all cases even though the larva contained are unable to creep up the surface of glass, for the great enemies of caterpillars-the ichneumon flies-are always on the alert, and will often take advantage of an open window to ‘sting’ the larva rearer’s pets.

Larva Glass Fig. 58.-A Larva Glass.

Another form of larva glass can easily be made out of a large glass jar if you know how to cut off the bottom, or of a chemist’s bell jar which is open both at top and bottom. In this case the bottle of water and the soil are arranged as before in a pan of unglazed earthenware, and then covered over with the glass. This is shown in fig. 58, and is an exceedingly convenient larva house, since the lifting of the glass enables you to get at the insects without any trouble.

Larva Cage Fig. 59.-A Larva Cage.

Wood larva cages are very commonly used for the larger species after they have attained a fair size and require more food than can be stocked in bottles and glasses. These cages have glass fronts, either sliding or in the form of a hinged door, and sides of perforated zinc. They are kept in stock by all dealers in entomologists’ requisites, but equally useful ones are easily constructed. If you select a box of suitable size at the grocer’s, cut out large pieces from the lid and sides with a fret saw, and fix in the glass and zinc, you will have a cage that will answer all purposes.

The internal arrangements consist of a shallow tray filled with soil, in which stands the bottle of water for the food, and a layer of moss sufficiently high to cover the bottle completely.

A series of such boxes standing on end on a shelf, or hanging on a wall, will form a very satisfactory nursery for your pets, and will occupy but little space.

We have already observed that some larva burrow into soil when about to change, while others creep to a sheltered corner, or suspend themselves from the food plant itself. It will be seen that the larva cage just described supplies all these demands, and care must be taken not to disturb the occupants while they are undergoing their metamorphoses. Those that suspend themselves on the food plant should be allowed to remain where they have fixed themselves, and when it is necessary to remove the stale food in order to give a fresh supply to the later larva, let it be fixed in an airy place where it can be watched till the perfect insects emerge. Those which suspend themselves on the sides or top of the cage, or spin cocoons in the corners, should never be disturbed unless you are greatly in want of the same cage for the accommodation of another brood; and even then it is possible that their presence will not in any way interfere with the new species. But if their removal becomes a necessity, let it be carried out as carefully as possible, and not until the change to the pupal stage is known to be complete.

The species that burrow into the soil or bury themselves in the moss need never be disturbed till the rearing season is quite over, and then they may be transferred to a box specially kept for the accommodation of pupa.

There is yet another method of rearing larva to which we must refer-a method known as ‘sleeving’-particularly useful when you happen to have the required food plants in your own garden. The ova or larva are placed on the plant, the whole or part of which is then covered with a bag or ‘sleeve’ of gauze. The larva thus imprisoned have the full benefit of fresh air and light, and are also free from the attacks of ichneumon flies. They have a fair amount of liberty, and yet cannot get beyond your reach; also abundance of fresh food without further trouble on the part of the rearer.

But even this arrangement is not perfection. It will not suit the night feeders that like to hide beneath the soil during the day, and it interferes somewhat with the burrowing tendencies of those which pupate underground. These little difficulties, however, can be overcome by placing the food plants in large pots or tubs of soil, and tying the mouth of the ‘sleeve’ round the outside of this utensil. If this cannot be done, those insects that pupate underground must be removed from the plant when their restless disposition shows that the changing time has arrived, and then be transferred to a box of soil where they can find the seclusion they seek.

The larva that hybernate throughout the winter are rather more troublesome, especially those which are inclined to take a ramble on certain mild days in search of food when none is at hand. Still there is no reason why even a beginner should not attempt the rearing of these. They will require food in the autumn until the cold weather sets in, and again early in spring as soon as the new leaves appear; but this is not of much consequence to those who reside in districts where the required food plants abound.

Wood feeders also require some special treatment and precautions, and the successful rearing of some is a matter of no little difficulty. A wooden cage is, of course, quite out of the question with these, unless you wish to test the power of their jaws. They must be kept in large pots or jars, covered over with wire gauze or perforated zinc, and supplied with fresh stems or logs of wood, or with moist sawdust fresh from their favourite tree. A few of them-the ‘Goat’, for example-will eat dead and rotting wood, and may be fed on old palings and other waste providing the right kind is selected.

The troubles and disappointments of larva rearers are numerous and varied, and commence with the earliest moments of the young insects. Even the hatching period sometimes proves a trial, for it occasionally happens that the young larva has not sufficient strength to bite its way through the shell that surrounds it, and dies with nothing but the surface of its head exposed to view. This may be the result of keeping the ova in too dry a spot, the shell having become too hard and horny for the little creature’s jaws.

Then the moulting seasons are always periods of trial to the larva, and often of loss to the rearer. Some of the hardier species may pass through all their moults without appearing to suffer anything more than a slight inconvenience at each, but in other cases the greater part of a brood may fall victims to these ailments of the growing stage.

Apart from these sources of loss, however, larva are subject to numerous diseases, infectious and otherwise, about which we know but little. A fever may rage in one of our cages; a fungoid growth may establish itself on the bodies of our pets, or we may see them cut down, one by one, through a fatal attack of diarrhœa.

In many such cases we are at a loss as to what to do. Blue pills and black draughts are not to be prescribed, and the modern practices of surgery and inoculation have not yet been applied to insect patients with very great success; but we must do our best to adopt hygienic principles, paying the greatest attention to proper means of ventilation and to a regular and wholesome dieting. In the case of diarrhœa-a very common insect malady-the best we can do is to avoid the young and juicy leaves of the food plant, and substitute the older, and drier foliage.

Ichneumon flies have already been mentioned as great enemies of larva. These flies either deposit their eggs on the skins of caterpillars, or thrust their sharp ovipositors into the creature’s flesh and lay their eggs beneath the skin. When the young ichneumons are hatched, they immediately begin to feed on the fatty matter that is usually stored in comparative abundance under the skin of the caterpillar, and thus they grow at the expense of their host, within whose body they lie completely hidden from view.

The poor caterpillar, though being eaten alive, often shows no external signs of the mischief wrought within, and, even though its substance is really decreased by the hungry internal parasites, yet the rapid growth of these robbers maintains the general plumpness of a healthy larva. But the ichneumons, having at last devoured the store of fat, and avoided the vital organs of the caterpillar, as if with a view to preserve their living home to the latest moment, now commence to attack the latter, speedily reducing the vitality of their host to the lowest ebb, and finally causing its death.

This untimely end may come before the caterpillar is full grown, or the insect may change to the pupa before the ichneumons have done their worst, but it rarely occurs that the unfortunate creature has sufficient strength to carry it on to the final stage.

A large number of the collected larva will have been ‘stung,’ much to the disgust and disappointment of the rearer; and hence the advantage of rearing your specimens from ova wherever possible, providing you keep them so well under cover that the ichneumons cannot visit your broods.