Puss moth (Cerura vinula) on Populus

Metamorphosis (2022 – work in progress)

Fine art prints on Hahnemühle Bamboo
Size 59,4 x 42 cm | edition 8 + 1 AP
Size 140 x 100 cm | edition 8 + 1 AP

 

Raising caterpillars
From caterpillar through pupa to butterfly: to study the process of metamorphosis I started breeding caterpillars. In doing so, I entered a world which continued to surprise me. Caterpillars of the Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) were the first to arrive. It was fascinating to witness the pupation of these caterpillars – which is an intense struggle for these small gentle creatures – and how they all emerged as butterflies some two weeks later.

At the start of the pupation process, the caterpillar hangs itself upside down and curls its head and front legs together in what I would describe as a sort of ‘praying position’. After hanging like this for a full day, the caterpillar’s skin suddenly tears open and is pushed off via a series of contractions. I waited patiently for this moment to begin. And when it started, it still came unexpectedly and with enormous intensity. Watching a pupation made me hold my breath, my heartbeat increased significantly.

Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) on Urtica

Where the Aglais urticae caterpillar’s ‘praying position’ announced the pupation, the wing pattern shining through the pupa’s skin announced hatching. Following this step in the proces also required patience. But the patience paid off: hatching was indescribably beautiful to witness – and again, it happened abruptly. The birth of a butterfly is a small miracle.

Some moths’ caterpillars spin a cocoon to pupate inside, other moths dig themselves into the ground. When the caterpillars disappear into the earth, it gave the impression that the caterpillar was digging its own ‘grave’.

Shared morning routine
The Euthrix potatoria is a caterpillar which drinks dew drops in nature. This extra moisture is vital for the caterpillar. Subsequently the caterpillars became part of my morning ritual: While coffee simmered in a percolator on the stove, I took the reeds, on which these caterpillars live, out of the breeding tent onto the balcony to spray them with water. In the meantime the coffee was ready and we drank together on the balcony; they drank their water and me my coffee. We did this every morning for weeks.

Observing how a Euthrix potatoria caterpillar spun a cocoon around herself was just as impressive as observing it hatch several weeks later. The day after the moths emerged from their cocoons, I returned them to nature, which was always the intended goal while breeding. They left me with several eggs, which hatched, and the cycle began once more.

Euthrix potatoria on Reed

 

Linear vs cycles
We tend to look at human lives as individuals and other animals as part of a species. In our perception, a human life proceeds in a linear line, from birth to death. Other animals in cycles, in particular butterflies. With the metamorphosis from egg through caterpillar and pupa to butterfly, with one or more generations per calendar year, is a process we experience in cycles.

Differences in caterpillar’s behaviour can be observed within the various subspecies of butterflies., e.g. the almost insatiable hunger of the Peacock butterfly (Aglais io), the habit of the Puss moth (Cerura vinula) to eat leaves entirely and even a piece of the stem. Also I had the impression to witness individual behaviour of single caterpillars. One of the Euthrix potatoria invariably always climbed to the top of a reed stem to only eat there from often still-coiled leaves, whereas the other caterpillars ate scattered throughout the entire plant. Two out of three tiger moths (Arctia caja) were satisfied with a diet of only thistle (the plant on which I had found them), while the third became restless every few days and desired more variety in her diet. After eating from some other plants, it would return to thistle. I never witnessed the other two (which were somewhat larger and therefore easy to recognise) eating from other leaves than thistle.

Although I surrounded myself with various sort of caterpillars they predominately remained in a parallel world. They sometimes showed an instinctive responds to when I appeared in front of the breeding tent, their typical responds to being confronted with a predator: some held still for long periods of time, others started moving wildly in an attempt to chase me away.

Eyed hawk-moth (Smerinthus ocellatus) on Populus

Ecology
The fact that different caterpillars only eat from one or a limited number of plants (their host plant) was new to me. The fragility of their existence was confirmed time and again as for each new species I had to find different host plants in nature or order these from an organic plant nursery. Also while searching for caterpillars in nature it was essential to recognise various plants and trees. This led to a growing awareness of ecosystems and the important role caterpillars play within the food chain; on the one hand controlling vegetation by the large amount of leaves they eat, on the other hand being food for other animals.

Articles in the news about the declining numbers of insect appear with great regularity. A threat to biodiversity and with it – ultimately – the entire survival. Metamorphoses is to create more awareness of butterflies, their variety, and the close relation of their caterpillars to host plants. How their eco-system functions.

(Photo)graphic
Metamorphosis is a series of photographs in which caterpillars are shown on their specific host plant(s). These photos are made against a white background, a visual reference to drawings and engravings from the 17th and 18th century, when entomology developed as a science. The white background, and also the bamboo paper on which the photos are printed, emphasise the graphic part of photographic.

Water betony (Shargacucullia scrophulariae) on Scrophularia