Insects as pets

Not many people keep insects as pets nowadays, although the ancient Chinese kept crickets in little cages, to hear them sing.

Over the years, I've kept about 20 different species as pets, but George the monarch caterpillar was my first insect.

When I was a college student, I had a pet tarantula.  (Spiders are much different from insects.)  While I was driving on a back road at Stanford, I saw him crossing the pavement and took him home to my dorm.

Having no other handy cage, I put him in my empty waste basket.  There he sat for several months.  When I entered the room, he'd feel my vibrations and scuttle around the bottom of the basket.  I imagined it was a dance of joy at my homecoming, like Fido's greeting.   Perhaps not.

I'd toss in a few flies or a big bug every day or so, which he happily ate.  But after several months, he died--probably from starvation or dehydration.  His communication skills were poor, so he couldn't communicate what he needed (as if I was listening).

Pros and cons of insect pets

Caterpillars are very different from kitties and doggies.

  • No neurotic behaviors or misbehavior.  Never chew on your shoes.
  • Don't run off (at least not fast)
  • Food is inexpensive.
  • No need for vaccinations or license.
  • Expands your mind.  Teaches about metamorphosis.
  • Insect metamorphosis puts human puberty in perspective.
  • You get three pets for the price of one.  Caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly.

Monarch caterpillar behavior

Previous posts on my pet monarchs
Raising monarchs from the egg
Monarchs are growing steadily

Most people have heard of the miracle of metamorphosis, when a caterpillar transforms itself into a moth or butterfly.  But not many have watched the day-to-day behavior of a caterpillar.

Perhaps that's because it's about as exciting as watching molasses flow.

But wait!  Caterpillars really do have behavior!  They just have a clock that runs more slowly.  Finding out what they do is a challenge.

Portrait of George,with head to right.


Bacteria--from above the clouds to miles below your feet

In the last 20 years, our knowledge of bacteria has undergone a revolution.  We now know that bacteria can live inside solid rock.  Bacteria live and reproduce high in the clouds--where they help form rain as water condenses upon their bodies.

The first hints came in the 1960s, when scientists in the Antarctic found algae living and growing inside the pores of rocks.  The climate near the south pole was harsh--but the microscopic plants found conditions INSIDE rocks to be warmer and wetter than outside.

Since then, bacteria have been found growing in the pores of solid rock several kilometers below the surface.  How they got there is a mystery.  Perhaps these are the descendants of bacteria present in the sediments from which the rocks formed millions of years ago.

Detoxifying bacteria Shewanella oneidensis (green). Source: EMSL

These buried bacteria are able to grow without sunlight by harvesting the energy found in chemical compounds, such as rust or sulfur.  Some even live off the natural radioactivity in rocks.  They persist like Rip Van Winkle in a state of suspended animation--metabolizing just enough to repair damage to their DNA--individual cells perhaps living for eons.


Monarchs are growing steadily

My two monarch caterpillars are growing steadily.  I check on them many times a day.

First, the question of names.  I quickly rejected lame ideas like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, or Jeckyl and Hyde.  Liz suggested Juan and Juanita, because they could end up wintering in Mexico.  But those names didn't ring my bell.  Since the little guys are monarchs,  I decided on King George (the one we kicked out of North America), and Queen Elizabeth I.

Both have been through their first molt--the shedding of skin--to allow for growth.  I think I can see the ghostly film of their shed skin, but it's too tiny and filmy to be sure.  George is much bigger than Elizabeth--perhaps that's because he hatched a day earlier.


Raising monarch butterflies from the egg

No doubt you've heard about the precipitous decline of monarch butterflies, continent-wide.

When I was helping Wingra School with environmental education sessions, we decided to devote one session to butterflies.  Stephanie Robinson ordered painted lady butterflies from Carolina Biological Supply, demonstrating how to raise them.  On another day, the children planted butterfly weed, while parents purchased butterfly weed we supplied to plant at home.

We feel strongly that saving the Monarchs depends on exposing young children to the life cycle of butterflies.  If kids haven't seen and don't understand this miracle, in the future no one will be motivated to do what's necessary to provide food plants and wintering habitat for the monarch.