Spending almost all the time at home in the past month and a half, I’ve learned to appreciate my surroundings better. I’m finding little joys in watching birds landing on my terrace to quench their thirst, a troop of macaques negotiating the urban infrastructure, and occasional butterflies that stop by my urban garden. The lockdown has allowed me to be more present, aware, and responsive to the everyday. I spend some time every morning in my urban garden. There, I usually find myself interacting with plants and seeking little critters.
One of these mornings, I saw a couple of tiny caterpillars crawling on the leaves of the curry plant. I had only begun observing them when my mom joined me. She was quick to point out that the caterpillars were a pest and had to be dealt with. She showed me how these little creatures had heavily munched on a few curry leaves. I was instructed to escort the crawlies out. Before doing that, I needed to find out more about these creatures. Thanks to the wonders of technology, it didn’t take me long to learn that the caterpillars belonged to a beautiful black-yellow butterfly called Lime swallowtail or more popularly, the Citrus butterfly (Papilio demoleus). Upon seeing its photo on the internet, I recalled how it was the same butterfly who had been hovering around in the garden and whom I wanted to identify.
The female butterfly lays eggs only on host tree species which are citrus in nature, such as lemon, orange, and curry leaf tree. The butterfly undergoes five stages of growth or instars as a caterpillar. The early instars are dark in colour with white markings that resemble the bird droppings, helping them camouflage to avoid predators. From fifth instar onwards, the caterpillar changes its appearance completely and turns cylindrical in shape and pale green in colour. After feeding for about 2-3 weeks, the mature caterpillar pupates and a new butterfly emerges in a week. The duration of the lifespan of each stage varies, depending on factors such as climate, temperature, host plant, etc. The total life period of the Lime butterfly from the egg to an adult is reported to range between 26-59 days (Delano, 2009).
In the developmental stages, the caterpillars of the Lime butterfly are known to feed in abundance, causing severe defoliation of the entire plant. Now that I knew a little about those caterpillars, I found myself in an awkward predicament. I wanted the caterpillars to undergo metamorphosis, I wanted a butterfly to flutter its wings in my garden, but knowing that it might come at a cost, I also wanted the good health of the curry plant or at least an assurance that it would recover quickly.
One striking feature of every article I read about the Lime butterfly was the categorization of the butterfly as a pest or vermin. The word vermin often signifies animals that are dirty, disease-bearing, out of order, and invaders of human territories. It encompasses a category of animals which it is acceptable to kill. However, vermin is not a timeless category. It has a history. The birds and animals like kingfishers, herons, otters which we now consider beautiful were labeled vermin in the 17th century, and methods were devised to kill them. In India’s Wildlife History, Mahesh Rangarajan describes how the categorization of wild animals as vermin was based on a mix of economic and cultural factors in the latter half of the 19th century. During this time, many carnivores such as lions, tigers, and wolves were labeled vermin. It’s interesting to see the ways in which these animals were imagined and represented. The tiger was cunning, silent, savage, and lawless. As Mary Fissell suggests, these animals become problematic because they “call into question some of the social relations that humans have built around themselves and animals.”
The category of vermin is clearly a shifting social construction as it includes different kinds of animals at different times. The shifting category of vermin results from the changing circumstances in which different animals come to be seen as evading human dominion, control, and order and thereby acquire the status of pests that must be eradicated. In other words, when animal agents infiltrate spaces controlled by humans and their agency constitutes a threat or nuisance to human ordering, a boundary is drawn between humans and those ‘unordered’ nonhumans. The work done by Fissell suggests three interrelated characteristics crucial to the category of vermin in the 17th century. The vermin devoured human food; it was clever and smart, and it possessed abilities to manipulate symbols and language.
In the case of the Lemon butterfly, its ability in the larval stages, to completely defoliate young citrus trees and devastate nurseries in which humans have invested considerable time and effort, makes it an economic pest. Looked at differently, the Lemon butterfly is a vermin because it is out of place as it invades human territories, and out of order as it creates a nuisance by devouring human plantations. My mother’s suggestion to escort the caterpillars out of the home came from the same line of thought. While the domesticated curry tree has found a refuge in the concrete pots in the urban, the larva has to be clever and still contest the human for refuge. For when confronted, the human and the caterpillar would stake claims on the domesticated leaves. The only difference being, for one, it is a matter of life and death, and for the other, it is about enhancing the flavor of the food.
To ease the pressure on the curry plant in my garden, I’m planning to relocate a few caterpillars to a larger citrus tree in a public park where they can chomp happily and complete their life cycles.
Delano, L.S. (2009). Lime Swallowtail, Chequered Swallowtail, Citrus Swallowtail Papilio demoleus Linnaeus (Insecta: Lepidoptera: Papilionidae). University of Florida (IFAS Extension).
Fissell, M. (1999). Imagining Vermin in Early Modern England. History Workshop Journal, (47), 1-29. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/4289600.
Sarada, G., Gopal, K., Ramana, V. K., Lakshmi, L., & Nagalakshmi, T. (2014). Citrus Butterfly (Papilio demoleus Linnaeus) Biology and Management. Journal of Agriculture and Allied Sciences, 3(1), 17–25.