Inch-By-Inch

Caterpillars Are Fascinating And Essential To Nature

Red Spotted Purple caterpillars look like nothing else. Photos by Jeff Tome

The neighborhood gang of kids sat in a circle on the grass looking at a huge caterpillar. It was green, with odd bumps coming out of it. The big debate was over whether the caterpillar was good or bad. This debate ended quickly when one boy said, “bad!” and stomped on it.

That happened when I was a kid with the group of kids that roamed my neighborhood years ago. Sometimes I wonder if that moment had the impact on them that it did on me. The question and the debate remain the same. Is the caterpillar good or bad?

In some ways, the answer depends on how close you live to the earth.

If you are a nature lover, all life matters and is important. Whether the caterpillar is good or bad is irrelevant. It deserves to live.

If you are a gardener or someone who derives food or income from nature, the answer may be just as clearly that the caterpillar is bad, because it deprives you of food or income. Outbreaks of Tomato Hornworm can decimate a tomato crop just as surely as Cherry Scallopshell moths destroy the Black Cherry trees in a forest and lower their value significantly.

This Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar looks amazingly like a snake.

If you are the type of person who loves to see how all the bits and pieces of nature fit together, the caterpillar may represent an important source of food for baby birds and good for its wildlife value.

The debates get long and tedious, with all sides thinking they are right. The conversations are, however, important. One person’s evil caterpillar nemesis is another’s bird feeding beauty. Understanding the other person’s point of view can change your perspective and understanding of the debate. This was made obvious to me at a program on how plants from other countries don’t provide food for caterpillars. The birds who feed their young those caterpillars may be starving as a result.

My own perspective is that caterpillars are simply awesome and that I still don’t know much about them. Mind you, there was a time when I thought I knew about caterpillars. Like most things in nature, the amount of things we simply don’t know vastly exceeds what is known.

Let’s put down some things I have heard about caterpillars. All caterpillars eat leaves. Caterpillars make cocoons before they transform in to a butterfly. Most caterpillars turn into butterflies. Woolly bear caterpillars predict the upcoming winter. The answers to those statements, in order, are wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.

There are some amazing things happening out there. Audubon has an insect-eating caterpillar called a Harvester that only eats aphids. Butterflies make a chrysalis, which somehow magically appears under their skin. It’s amazing to watch. The caterpillar attaches itself with silk to something, then the skin simply comes off and a wet, wriggly chrysalis is underneath. Traditionally, a cocoon is woven around the caterpillar with silk and is made by a moth, but having recently watched a moth caterpillar shed its skin, I am currently somewhat unsure of the difference. Most caterpillars turn into moths, of which there are over 1,200 in the Northeast alone. And Woolly Bears cannot predict the weather, though their strips do a remarkable job at telling us what last winter was like. Unfortunately, the ability to predict the past winter is simply unimpressive. I could go on with random caterpillar facts that I misunderstood, but that would be tedious.

Black Swallowtail caterpillars are famous for eating parsley, carrots and fennel. Many caterpillars only eat one or two types of food. Learn how to raise caterpillars at Audubon on Sept. 6.

Caterpillars are endlessly fascinating to me because we so seldom think to look at them through anything but third grade eyes. We learned the life cycle: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly and that was it. I started raising Monarch caterpillars thirteen years ago and was amazed, but it is only in the last five years that I reached out to other species.

It started with the spectacular. People gave me eggs or caterpillars to raise from the giant silk moths. This spectacular family of moths can have wingspans of six inches or more. They are named out of Greek mythology, with names like Luna, Cecropia, Polyphemous and Io. The caterpillars get huge, and the adults spend the winter in their cocoons. The adults have no mouths or stomachs when they emerge the following summer. They mate, lay eggs and die within a few days. They were fascinating to watch and I could not believe how much they ate.

Since then I have raised many more caterpillars. There are the strange Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars, that start out looking like a piece of bird poo, transform into a green snaky caterpillar and end up as a black butterfly.

There are many things that all these caterpillars have in common and, having planted a yard around what caterpillars want, there are lots for me to look at. There will be a class on Caterpillar Wrangling at the Audubon Community Nature Center on Sept. 6 at 5 p.m. The class covers how to identify, care for, and enjoy caterpillars of all shapes and sizes.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling 569-2345.

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