Dateline: January 24, 2014*
This week I was thrilled to find the caterpillar of a Bella Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix). While this larvae does eat some plant material in early stages, the diet as it grows, changes over to the seeds, so they bore their way into the seed pods. That’s why these caterpillars may be hard to find. Usually they are inside and not readily visible. The seeds contain chemical alkaloids, which they consume to become poisonous or at least repellant to predators. Much like Milkweed provides this ability to the Monarch and Queen Butterflies.
I first saw a ripening pod and looked closely to reveal the telltale hole. I removed the pod and split it open to find the tiniest of tiny caterpillars. If you look closely, you can see the seeds that it began munching away on.
I shared a photo via social media and a fellow entomology enthusiast posted a photo of a much larger caterpillar and in his picture the larvae was creating the hole. Armed with this vision in my mind, I headed out to the Rabbitbells a.k.a., Rattlebox (Crotalaria rotundifolia), one of the larval hosts for Bella Moth. Eventually I was rewarded. There, posed on the pod, was a near mirror image of what was posted.
This caterpillar was MUCH larger…as much as 5 times the size of my hidden friend from days before.
This brings up the point that not every caterpillar can be found on, or exclusively eating, green leaves.
Some time back, I can remember searching and searching the sumacs and wax myrtles for the larvae of Red-banded Hairstreak Butterfly (Calycopis cecrops). I never had any success as I turned over leaf after leaf hoping to add to my photo collection of Lepidoptera larvae. C. cecrops readily flies in droves at my place.
Mind you, I’d be searching until the cows come home since this Hairstreak species is the only Florida butterfly to utilize detritus as larval food. I really need to scout around the leaf debris if I’m intent on finding a photo opportunity. Another excellent reason to not be so quick to do gardening cleanup…there is life in gardening debris!
Many moth species use leaf litter and other similar larval hosts. Lichen is another popular food. As a matter of fact, there is a whole tribe of lichen moths (Lithosiini). Lichen is a fungus that grows together with a photosynthetic partner in a symbiotic relationship. That partner is often alga.
Bagworms, those odd case creators, also have members of their species who eat lichens.
So, when it comes to gardening, you may not be missing a butterfly or moth caterpillar sighting because you don’t see them conspicuously munching on the host plant leaves or flowers. Some are nocturnal diners who only come out in the dead of night. Or, they may just be at the base of the plant eating castoff portions that they need to survive. Then again, they may be seeking refuge inside the “Rattlebox” cafe.
Many of these caterpillars are thought of as “pest” species… leaf-rollers and leaf miners likely make you cringe. Heck, they are yummy bird food (no personal experience here) or turn into pollinators so consider alternate scenarios before passing judgment.
What have you found caterpillars eating?
*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 24, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.